Contrary to (my) previous comments, many do in fact believe that tubas “rule.” In fact Sam Quinones’ article in the LA Times describes a thriving tuba culture among Mexican-Americans in Southern California.
At least two musical communities are probably thrilled to see the brass bass getting some attention in a major newspaper, but they’re probably not surprised. The Norteno ensembles mentioned in this article, as well hot jazz groups influenced by tuba-toting bands of the twenties, have always ignored images of indigestion and fat kids with pimples (even if they kept their red suspenders). For many ensembles, the tuba was, and remains, simply another unique voice.
While most jazz histories treat the tuba as a technical compromise (simply used for projecting outdoors or in large halls), or a vestigial artifact on the way to the string bass’ ascendance as the one true jazz bass, the best tuba players exhibit the “deep warmth” and big rhythm that tubist Jesse Tucker describes in the article. June Cole exudes both qualities and gives the Fletcher Henderson band plenty of swagger on “Henderson Stomp”:
John Kirby would eventually make “the switch” to string bass, but started out with his own distinctly burnished, bumping sound on tuba, and nearly the same agility he would later exhibit on the bull fiddle. On “Wang Wang Blues,” he trades off between booting the band in firm two beat style, and walking four to the bar:
While he never played in the same jazz big leagues, tuba player Joseph “Country” Washburn’s rounded tone, firm beat and (judging from “Piccolo Pete”) sense of humor made him a favorite with dance bands such as those of Ted Weems:
Of course the tuba’s jazz pedigree extends back to the streets of New Orleans. One has to ask, even if those parade bands could have hired a mobile string bass, could they pull off what Nicholas Payton’s (unnamed) sousaphone player does on “Tiger Rag?”
Do these groups swing? Perhaps more like a pendulum than a ride cymbal. Do they sound like “jazz” in a post-Basie, post-Bird world? Maybe not. More importantly, do they make you want to move? Dance?
The story’s out: any instrument can be a powerhouse, if it’s played with imagination and style. So rock out with your bell out, and repeat after me: “that tuba kicks ass.”