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Tuba in the House

From New Orleans brass bands to New York avant-gardists, jazz’s original low-end leader is taking an exciting new part in today’s music

Sons of Kemet
Theon Cross (center) holds down the bottom for Shabaka Hutchings (left) and Sons of Kemet. (Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

It’s the Funk Parade, Washington, D.C.’s annual street music festival, and Dupont Brass is onstage. The brass band, named for the Metro station at which they busked while students at Howard University, has become a full-time concern, and they’re now an act on the Parade’s main stage at the African American Civil War Memorial on U Street NW. Jared “MK Zulu” Bailey is performing a whopper of a cornet solo on their tune “Downtown,” full of tasty phrases, growls, and masterful note bends. But it’s the man standing behind Bailey who’s impossible to turn away from.

Brent “Bass Heavy Slim” Gossett is a very large man with a very large sousaphone wrapped around him. Of the four horn players standing onstage with Bailey, he alone is riffing under the cornet solo. Even when the trumpet and two trombones join Bailey to restate the melody, the big deep sound of the sousaphone—a larger version of the tuba designed to project over the head of its player—will not be ignored.

This is not a coincidence. The tuba is back, and in a way that it was never “in” to begin with. It was the sole bass instrument in the early days of New Orleans jazz, but the string bass began to replace it in the 1920s. By the swing era of the ’30s the tuba was virtually gone from jazz, reduced to a punchline about old-fashioned unpopular music. But the 21st century’s brass-band renaissance has had an unlikely effect: The tuba/sousaphone is trendy.

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“Nothing is hotter than the tuba right now,” says Marcus Rojas, a tubist in New York. “Everyone wants to get a sousaphone, everyone thinks it’s the coolest thing. There are two tuba players on late-night TV: Tuba Gooding Jr. [a.k.a Damon Bryson] in the Roots [the house band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon] and Ibanda Ruhumbika on [The Late Show with] Stephen Colbert. That would have been unheard of 15 years ago!”

“It’s really since Hurricane Katrina that there’s been this huge surge,” says tubist José Davila. “There was a big influx of musicians coming out of New Orleans. They brought the tuba back to being a rhythm instrument as opposed to the orchestral role it’s had, even in jazz.”

Not that it’s confined just to rhythm and orchestral color. “The tuba cannot be defined in elementary terms anymore,” says veteran tubist Joseph Daley. “It really depends on the player, and whether the leader of the ensemble is open enough to allow you to express yourself rather than dictate to you. The role is constantly being redefined by the players, especially some of the younger players: They’re doing things that are absolutely unbelievable.”

The early jazz tubists weren’t stars. Hayes Alvis, Lawson Buford, Cyrus St. Clair, and Chink Martin are names known mainly to aficionados, though they played with the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton. They had an essential function in the ensemble, but as showmen, they were limited to oompah patterns and establishing the bottom of the harmony.

It was only after most of the jazz world had discarded the tuba as a relic that innovations occurred. In 1946, bandleader Claude Thornhill—who’d already gained attention with the lush, complex charts of his arranger, Gil Evans—reconstituted the group with tubist Bill Barber in the horn section. This was a crucial distinction: The tuba was no longer considered part of the rhythm section, which had an upright bass pulling that weight.

But Thornhill and Barber weren’t the visionaries behind this new direction; Evans was. When he left Thornhill in 1948 and began working with a new nonet led by Miles Davis, Barber was one of the musicians Evans took with him. The Davis nonet became famous as the Birth of the Cool band. Barber’s tuba is a recognizable ensemble voice in their iconic 1949-50 recordings, playing not figured bass lines but the low end of the melodic/countermelodic statements and backgrounds.

Davis and Evans would go on to several other important collaborations in the 1950s and early ’60s; tuba would be a part of all of them, and Barber became a stalwart of the Gil Evans Orchestra, launched in 1957. “Obviously the tuba is an indelible part of Gil Evans’ entire body of work, from Birth of the Cool onwards,” says bandleader/composer/ arranger Darcy James Argue, who also writes for tuba at times. “Gil’s an inspiration for any number of reasons, but that is an instantly recognizable part of his sound and his orchestration.”

The tuba was not yet a solo voice, however. That would require a New York City teenager by the name of Ray Draper. Draper was a 16-year-old in the All-City High School Symphony when he signed to Prestige Records in 1957. His first album, Tuba Sounds, featured saxophonist Jackie McLean and pianist Mal Waldron; by his second, nine months later, he’d wrangled John Coltrane into the band.

“He’s a pivotal figure,” says Daley. “Ray Draper was the first example of playing both the ensemble role and a solo role within that ensemble. That’s where the shift started.”

Draper joined drummer Max Roach’s band in 1958. Shortly afterward, however, he and his nascent career succumbed to heroin addiction; after a few abortive comeback attempts, he was murdered by a 13-year-old mugger in 1982. Draper also wrestled with some technical limitations, including large buckteeth that obstructed his tone. “You can hear some of the difficulties that he was having as a soloist,” Daley says. “He couldn’t express himself as fluidly as other members of the ensemble.”

Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson, “the Muhammad Ali of the tuba,” in 1998 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

True jazz-tuba virtuosity arrived a few years later, in 1963, in the person of Howard Johnson. He’d spent the previous four years in the Navy, during which time he heard both Ray Draper and Red Callender, the celebrated bassist, who’d also recorded on the tuba several times in the 1950s. Realizing that the instrument he’d played as a teenager was viable for bebop, Johnson went to New York after his discharge. There was some naïveté driving the move: “I was completely self-taught,” he recalls today. “I didn’t have a sense of what the limitations were.”

One day in late 1964 he walked into the Five Spot with his axe to find Charles Mingus on stage, ranting in frustration at his band because Callender, who’d been part of Mingus’ triumph at the Monterey Jazz Festival that September, couldn’t come to New York for a stint at Birdland. Mingus had no tubist. “Jaki Byard looked out and saw me in the back,” Johnson says. “He pointed and said, ‘Well, there’s your tuba player right there.’” Mingus auditioned him on the spot. Johnson passed.

From there things snowballed. Johnson caught the ear of Gil Evans, who put Johnson in the front line of his orchestra with the saxophones, giving him lead and countermelodies. (Also a baritone saxophonist, Johnson took a saxophonistic approach to his main instrument.) He did recording sessions with Hank Mobley, Archie Shepp, and Oliver Nelson. Carla Bley, who had heard Johnson at a jam session in his earliest New York days, used him for projects such as Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (of which she was musical director) and her own landmark Escalator Over the Hill. Johnson even established three different tuba ensembles. In each case, he was a front-line presence. “Trumpet players have actually complained about that—in more than one band,” he chuckles. “‘He’s a tuba, he doesn’t belong in the front row.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been in the back row!”

To the jazz tubists who came after, Johnson is giant—perhaps the giant. “He’s just a monster. A genius on the instrument,” says Bob Stewart, who also refers to Johnson as “the Dizzy Gillespie of the tuba.” To Daley, he is “the Muhammad Ali of the tuba.”

Johnson demurs. “People think I was a crusader for an idea, but I was just trying to get some more jobs, you know? Spread some more music around.”

Marcus Rojas
Marcus Rojas (photo: Alan Nahigian)


After Howard Johnson came … perhaps not a deluge, but a solid contingent of jazz tuba players. Each one had to find his own way to build a reputation and body of work—not just because of jazz’s dictate to be individual, but because nobody else had Johnson’s chops.

Stewart, who had come into jazz as a trad tubist, finagled second tuba in Evans’ band, only to discover how difficult the charts were. “He would write things around middle C,” says Stewart. “Middle C for the tuba is the equivalent of [the notoriously challenging] high C for the trumpet. I’m sure that’s just what Gil was hearing, but he also wrote it knowing Howard wouldn’t have a problem. I had to work on it.”

There was also a basic lack of demand. “I was looking at how many bandleaders were hiring a tuba to be up front as a horn player in an ensemble. There weren’t any!” Stewart says. “Mingus was one, and Gil, and Carla, and they all had Howard. If everyone else wasn’t hiring Howard, and he’s a beast, what chance am I gonna have?”

Stewart’s solution was to do as he had in the traditional bands: pursue bass lines. He wasn’t naïve enough to think he’d replace the string bass, but he did find work as a sort of contrabassist—or a utility player who could supplement both the bass and the horns—in ensembles led by Lester Bowie, David Murray and, most notably, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, with whom Stewart worked for seven years.

Daley, on the other hand, found himself developing with bosses like Bley (in the Liberation Music Orchestra) and saxophonist Sam Rivers as neither lead nor low-end voice. “In the Liberation Music Orchestra, Charlie Haden obviously plays the bass function,” he says. “Carla has certain notes that she wants the tuba to play … She would voice the instrument to bring out very unusual tones that she wanted to emphasize. And then of course with Sam, if you listen to the album Crystals and the later ones that he did for RCA, the tuba functions as part of the voicings of the trombone section.”

There were others, all inspired to some degree by Johnson: Earl McIntyre; Dave Bargeron; Jack Jeffers, who had been a bass trombonist but took on the tuba after working with Johnson. Each developed a unique approach and carved out a unique niche. Bargeron, for example, found a slot in pop-fusion keyboardist Bob James’ band, an unlikely realm even for so unlikely an instrument.

Composers, arrangers, and leaders likewise maintained the precedent set by Evans, Bley, Rivers, and Blythe of finding new and idiosyncratic uses for the tuba. Perhaps the most prolific of these is Henry Threadgill, who has used the horn in four different ensemble projects. “The tuba is extremely flexible,” he explains. “It can hide, it can camouflage itself. It can blend with just about anything. You can’t say that about the bass.”

Each time Threadgill has used the tuba, it’s had a different function. In the unrecorded mid-1980s WindString ensemble, he offset his alto sax and flute with violin, viola, cello, and tuba—the latter, by Stewart, replacing the bass so that strings wouldn’t overwhelm Threadgill’s reeds. In the Society Situation Dance Band, another unrecorded (but not un-bootlegged) big band that Threadgill has sporadically deployed for about 30 years, the tuba, again played by Stewart, doubles the electric bass, adding an unexpected jump to the music. Very Very Circus, his early-to-mid-1990s band, used two tubas (one of whom was usually Rojas) along with two electric guitars, French horn, drums, and Threadgill’s reeds. The paramount element was the double pairing of tuba and guitar, allowing for multiple arrangement combinations.

Zooid, Threadgill’s most recent band, again uses tuba as an offset of its multiple strings and reeds, though in the hands of José Davila (who also plays trombone in the band) it’s not simply a bass fill-in, as it was in WindString. (In fact, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi was a member of Zooid for three albums.) “There’s become this slipping of roles,” Davila says. “Driving the rhythm, driving the melody, driving the harmony. One of the things that we work on with Threadgill is changing the sound of the band, so touch, articulation, and playing with sound.” Threadgill manages to be a one-stop shop for an ever-expanding universe of tubistic possibilities.

Bob Stewart
Bob Stewart (photo: Alan Nahigian)


Stewart’s arrival as a trad-jazz tubist came in the mid-’60s, which indicates that the tuba-as-bass role didn’t simply shrivel up and die when the swing bands came in. Indeed, in the tradition’s birthplace of New Orleans, that role continued to thrive and evolve. Like the twin poles of Draper and Johnson in New York, the Crescent City also had two major tuba innovators. First came Anthony Lacen—better known to the world as “Tuba Fats,” the New Orleans tubist who finally became a star in his own right.

“Tuba Fats takes all this parade stuff from New Orleans and kinda modernizes it a bit,” says Rojas, a self-described tuba geek. “He’s the one who takes that idea from the upright bass of quarter-note, four-to-the-bar bass lines.” A member of several brass bands and leader of his own, Fats (who died in 2004) was also highly regarded as a mentor and cheerleader for younger musicians—including one, 11 years his junior, who took Fats’ innovations and kicked them up several notches.

“The guy who really blows it out of the water, who really makes it super-contemporary? That all comes from Kirk Joseph,” Rojas says.

Where Fats brought walking lines to the tuba, Joseph, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, made the sousaphone funky. He’s not just the bottom end, but he’s no melodic player either; Joseph plays sophisticated vamps that take precedence over the melody.

“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so that was my element,” says Joseph, now 57 and as active as ever. “Once Dirty Dozen started, I remember saying, ‘Okay, let the street beat keep playing, but I’m going to play a bass line from a marching band, or like a Michael Jackson song.’ And it worked! There it was!”

Matt Perrine, now the sousaphonist for the New Orleans funk-rock band Bonerama, was a 19-year-old in Sacramento, playing bass as his main axe and moonlighting on tuba in a Dixieland band, when his sister gave him a Dirty Dozen cassette. “I wasn’t surprised that a tuba could do what Kirk was doing,” he recalls. “I was more surprised that the tuba was being allowed to play like that. I’d never heard a tuba being given so much of an opportunity to play like an electric bass, or in a big heavy funk way that had nothing to do with Dixieland jazz.

“Immediately my writing changed, my playing changed, and about three years later I moved to New Orleans.”

This—the Tuba Fats/Kirk Joseph school of tuba and sousaphone—is the one that took hold of the New Orleans brass band tradition, and the one that conquered the larger world after Katrina created a musical diaspora in the 2000s. “That’s what’s fueling all these brass bands, making everyone want to play the tuba in that way,” Rojas says. “What makes the Roots want to have a tuba player in their band? It must have been like the first time an American Indian saw a European sailboat. ‘Whoa, what the fuck is that? I see it’s a sailboat, but why is it like that?’ It really was that revolutionary.”

“I appreciate it!” Joseph says of his own increasingly international influence (and if you have any doubt that it is international, just check out Oren Marshall and Theon Hicks, who’ve played tuba and sousaphone alongside U.K. phenom Shabaka Hutchings). “I appreciate seeing ’em doing it. But one of the things I tell a player is, you gotta be you. It’s important that you put your own stamp on something. And they’re doing it. It brings chills to my body!”


“Nothing is hotter than the tuba right now. There are two tuba players on late-night TV. That would have been unheard of 15 years ago!”—Marcus Rojas


If there’s a final frontier for the tuba, it’s perhaps the acceptance of the bass horn as an instrument in its own right. That was Joseph’s motivation for taking up the tuba in the first place: He wanted to change people’s concept of the instrument, to make them notice it. To his mind, it’s mission accomplished. “Here you go, fortysomething years later, and what I wanted to see happen has happened,” he says. “And I’m happy. If I had to leave this earth today, I feel good.”

Others aren’t so sure. They note that the instrument is still regarded as something of a novelty, grouped in polls and programming initiatives into categories like “other” or, worse yet, “miscellaneous.”

“Miscellaneous?” Daley utters the word through a haze of frustration. “It is a primary instrument in a jazz setting! It was the first bass! How could it be a miscellaneous instrument? In one poll, Howard came in second to someone who was playing, I think, hubcaps. Howard came in second to hubcaps! This whole concept has got to change.”

At 77, Johnson is in ill health and unable to perform. He nonetheless wishes to see his instrument accrue greater respect—certainly greater than hubcaps. Yet he suggests that in this regard, tubists may be their own worst enemy.

“A lot of people come to the tuba as a default for something else, and they quietly accept that position instead of saying, ‘No, it’s not gonna be like that for me!’” he says. “Guys have to see themselves with a certain pride, the way almost every trumpet player does. It’s almost like a trumpet player’s God-given position is to lead, and we all accept that.

“There really needs to be an idea that tuba players belong somewhere in the jazz community,” Johnson says. “But tuba players are reticent, mostly. They don’t like to speak out. They don’t like to say, ‘I’m gonna lead with my instrument.’ So if you want to know the future of the tuba, well, the future has to do with whether people are gonna put themselves in the community. If tuba players want to take part in the jazz scene, they’ve got to throw themselves into it.”

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