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Where The Tuba Lives: 5 New Orleans Songs Featuring The Fat Horn

Kirk Joseph of Dirty Dozen Brass Band on sousaphone.
Lehva via Flickr
Kirk Joseph of Dirty Dozen Brass Band on sousaphone.

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.

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Geoffrey Himes