The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival begins Friday, and music fans from all over the world will flock to the city's racetrack for seven days of music. A lot of things make New Orleans a one-of-a-kind music town, but one is the tuba, the monstrous brass instrument worn like a python squeezing its victim. When jazz began there after WWI, the tuba supplied the rhythmic bottom. As the music spread to Chicago, New York and beyond, the tuba spread with it, but was soon replaced by the more precise double bass. The hard-to-control (but easy to parade with) tuba soon disappeared from jazz almost everywhere, but not in the music's birthplace.
In New Orleans, even today, having a tuba in the band remains standard operating procedure. It's used not only in the city's countless parades (any excuse will do), not only in the trad-jazz outfits that still flourish there, not only in the new-wave brass bands that mix funk and hip-hop into the old carnival parade music, but also in rock bands such as Bonerama and the Anders Osborne Band and in contemporary jazz bands led by John Ellis and Kermit Ruffins.
Most tuba players in New Orleans play the sousaphone, a kind of tuba designed by John Philip Sousa himself to be easier to carry, with a wider bore for warmer sound and a forward-facing bell for better projection. Music sounds different when it's anchored by a sousaphone rather than an acoustic or electric bass. Because it's a wind instrument rather than a string instrument, the tuba gives New Orleans music a bottom that bubbles rather than twangs. Here are five examples of how the tuba makes its mark on the city's music.
5 New Orleans Songs Featuring The Fat HornPreservation Hall Jazz Band — by Walter Payton (father of modern jazz star Nicholas) and by Tuba Fats. Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen (1950-2004) played with many of the city's top parade ensembles (the Young Tuxedo, Treme, Olympia and Chosen Few Brass Bands) and he showed the way to the tuba's embrace of funkier, bluesier music. You can hear that in this 1985 version of Professor Longhair's carnival standard, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans."
It's hard to overestimate the impact of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on New Orleans music. When a group of young and unknown horn players and marching drummers started playing weekly gigs in the late '70s at Daryl's and the Glass House, they expanded the brass-band repertoire beyond the old warhorses to include everything from James Brown to Thelonious Monk, as well as vigorous originals. They played with a muscular funk that was largely propelled by Kirk Joseph's sousaphone. The band convinced a generation that brass-band music was cool and inspired the Rebirth Brass Band, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, the New Birth Brass Band and dozens more. But none of the younger groups had the jazz chops that the Dozen had, as you can hear in this 1985 medley of Monk's "Blue Monk" and T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday." The Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays the Jazzfest on May 1.Treme star) Kermit Ruffins, bass drummer Keith Frazier and tuba player Philip Frazier. They were too young to have sophisticated jazz chops or tastes; they were out to create a distinctive form of New Orleans dance music. They did just that, thanks in large part to the rolling bass lines that rumbled and tumbled out of Frazier's tuba. They summed up their philosophy in this 1989 recording, "Feel Like Funkin' It Up." The Rebirth Brass Band plays the Jazzfest on May 8.Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles an unexpected Mardi Gras flavor. Bonerama plays the Jazzfest on May 6.
Kirk Joseph of Dirty Dozen Brass Band on sousaphone.