Jazz musician Thomas Alva (Tom) Howell, Jr., was born in Belton, Texas, on May 6, 1906, one of five sons born to T. A. and Mamie Howell. In the year of his birth, the family moved to Cameron. Tom and all his brothers graduated from Cameron High School. Their mother was a church pianist, and their father had won a fiddlers' contest in 1900 in Comanche, Texas. Thomas senior began as a rancher in Lee County, ran a bicycle shop in Temple, and worked as a piano tuner and music-instrument repairman for Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Belton before opening his own music store in Cameron and continuing in that business until his death in 1939.
Tom's older brother Hilton learned to play the piano from listening to a shoeshine man named "Teenus," who came in the back door of the music store, sat down at a piano, and played the blues by ear. All the Howell boys were self-taught, and Tom listened to Teenus for hours. By 1921 the four oldest boys were attending the University of Texas in Austin, where the two eldest organized the popular Howell and Gardner Band, a dance orchestra. Tom moved to Austin with his mother the same year and attended Austin High School. At fifteen he joined his four siblings in the Howell Brothers Moonshiner Orchestra, which played regularly for university dances and in the Central Texas area. The two youngest Howell brothers, Lee and Tom, took up music as a career while both were still completing their degrees. Lee on trombone and Tom on cornet recorded with local bands, and their performances are strikingly impressive.
As the cornetist on a 1930 jazz recording made by Fred Gardner's Texas University Troubadours, Tom Howell was mistakenly identified in England as the legendary Bix Beiderbecke. Howell's playing was similar to the jazz style of Beiderbecke and approached closely his rich, ringing sound. Howell is pictured in the 1929 volume of the university's Cactus yearbook as a member of the Hokum Kings, led by music director Steve Gardner. The Hokum Kings are credited in the Cactus with providing the best dance music by any local band and with being superior to better-known bands from larger cities. Recording in San Antonio but under the direction of Fred Gardner, the same group of university students performed four tunes; especially on the tune entitled "No Trumps," Tom Howell shapes and executes his solos as exceptionally fine hot jazz, while the rest of the group plays with great drive and finesse.
Tom and Lee Howell are present on two sides recorded in 1929 by Sunny Clapp, whose Band O' Sunshine, like the Texas University Troubadours, was recorded in San Antonio. The compact disc that reissues the Clapp recordings, Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands, does not list Tom and Lee among the personnel, but the discographies of Brian Dust and Tom Lord both include the two Howell brothers. It is clear that Tom Howell is present as one of the band's two trumpets, since on the tune "Do Me Like You Do" the lead trumpeter sings the lyrics of the song while Tom can be heard in his very decidedly Beiderbecke style playing obbligato behind the vocalist. That a Texas jazzman could play on a level approaching that of the legendary Bix was a remarkable feat and demonstrates the early achievements of little-known Texas musicians.
In later life, after retiring in 1968 as a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, Tom Howell performed at times in San Antonio with various River City jazz groups. He died on July 5, 1989, and was survived by his wife, Pat, and two children.