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What's up with TubaChristmas?
January 14, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Recently I heard something about TubaChristmas, an event at the Palmer House where local tubists oompah their way through Christmas carols. It seemed like it might be a change from the usual holiday fare, but the website is cryptic. Can anybody attend or do you need to bring an instrument? Is there a fee? Have you ever attended? I can see where a couple hundred massed tubas might be impressive, but then again it could completely suck.

— Mary H., Hyde Park

Cecil replies:

You know, I really have to work on this timing thing.

TubaChristmas was held at the Grand Ballroom in the Palmer House December 19. Yes, anybody could attend. No, there wasn't a fee. I was there myself, in fact, purely as a spectator. The place was, no kidding, packed, with at least 1,000 music lovers and several hundred tubists. Had I checked the e-mail queue a little sooner, I might have alerted you to the details in time for you to make the trip. Maybe you did anyway. If not, consider this a heads-up for TubaChristmas 2010.

The main thing was, it didn't suck. I admit to having had some skepticism on this point. Appreciating the tuba has been, for me, a long road. I was introduced to it some years ago by a friend who plays the instrument, dearly loves it, and urged me to give it some exposure to the wider world.

I tried. I spoke to a fellow named Scott Rimm-Hewitt, who had carried his tuba on all 2,100-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail. (This was a few years ago.) A tuba isn't the most practical instrument to bring on a hike, and Scott had paid for his eccentricity, tumbling headfirst over a cliff in Pennsylvania with the tuba on his back. The bell of the instrument absorbed the impact and Scott credited it with saving his life, although you have to think if he hadn't been carrying the tuba he might not have fallen in the first place. Nonetheless, while Scott's devotion ran to the maniacal (he'd also run the Boston Marathon carrying a tuba), one liked his elan, which seemed to me typical of tubists. Here's a story, I thought. 

It was with the tuba itself that I had issues. Brass instruments, as nonmusicians perhaps only imperfectly grasp, are played by making razzberry noises into the end of a pipe. This sound isn't inherently beautiful, although it works well enough in trumpets and trombones. In the lower register, however, the intestinal aspects of the technology are evident. Even if you can get past that part, the tuba has a lumbering quality, unobjectionable when it's holding up the bass end in an ensemble, a distraction for many when it's heard on its own. No doubt for that reason, little music is written in which the tuba is the featured instrument.  

This rankles tubists. I spoke to a fellow named Howard Johnson, a jazz tubist, understandably a rare breed. Howard is an enormously talented musician, let me be clear about that. I bought one of his albums, Right Now! It featured his jazz tuba ensemble, Gravity. My favorite track is a rendition of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story." It begins with a bass intro by tubas; then Howard steps in with the melody, played on a pennywhistle.

I could listen to Howard Johnson play the pennywhistle all day. The tuba, I don't know. The tracks on the album in which the tubas are front and center — well, I'll burn in jazz hell for saying this. But to me they sounded like a pas de deux for cement mixers. One appreciates the talent — the genius — that goes into creating the music. That doesn't make it any easier to love the result.

I attempted to express this to Howard. This was not a success. He's a gracious, gentle man; nonetheless I was grateful that I was in Chicago when we had our conversation and he was in New York.

The story never came together, and was never published. The world didn't need to hear me make fun of the tuba. I recognized ultimately that the failure was mine; appreciating jazz tuba was beyond me. What I should have done was listen to tubas in a setting in which their natural advantages came to the fore.

TubaChristmas, I knew, was such a setting. I'd known about the event for a long time. They've been held all over the country for decades, originally organized by Harvey Phillips, a legendary tubist who was a music professor for many years at Indiana University. But things kept coming up and I'd never managed to get to one.

This was the year. Mrs. Adams wasn't enthusiastic, but I talked her into going down to the Palmer House.

We arrived a minute or two before the scheduled start. I was afraid at first we wouldn't get in — the line back up out into the lobby. But eventually we found seats near the front.

TubaChristmas is the place to hear tubas, and to see them en masse. There were perhaps fifty professionals in front, phalanxes of amateurs surrounding them, sousaphones (they're the tubas with raised bells you see in marching bands) in the back.  They began, as I recall, with "Adeste Fidelis," and ran through the classics: "Deck the Halls," "The First Noel," "Good King Wenceslas," and on down the list. They played for an hour. The music filled the hall and rolled over you — a rich, sonorous sound you felt in the chest.

You should go hear it, Mary. Jazz tuba — let's be blunt,  not all of us are worthy. But tuba Christmas carols can be appreciated by anybody, even me.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Elliot Mandel. Used with permission.

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