Part Three: SousaphownerNew Orleans music comes from, and lives in, the streets. It's meant to be blasted loud outdoors and paraded all over town. To do this you need a sousaphone - or a tuba with a little strap tied around it, but where's the fun in that? Sousaphones are designed for marching, they're ideal, and that's why every traditional brass band in New Orleans has one. Plus they're just so cool.
These are the arguments Marla made as she gently pressured me to get a sousaphone for the Dark Park Brass Band. I'd been doing alright with my little Yamaha F tuba, mind you, but I saw her point - I felt like I wasn't producing a deep enough bass sound - so I checked e-bay periodically and made a mental commitment to "think about it". I was still a broke freelancer at this point but I figured I could afford a small investment in some new equipment - but only a small one. Top of the line sousaphones were running several grand. One day, though, I saw one that caught my eye: brass, not the cheaper fiberglass, only a few hundred bucks, and located near Detroit. At this point I was teaching undergraduate tuba at the University of Windsor, making the trip down once a week, so it was no problem for me to cross into Detroit, right across the river, and pick it up. I bid on this horn, and I won: the first item I've ever purchased on e-bay.
Ok, it's April of 2008, and I'm now a sousaphone owner ("sousaphowner") on paper. I rent a car and drive to Windsor instead of taking the train for my weekly teaching trip. I’ve made arrangements to meet this fellow right across the Ambassador Bridge; he says there’s a parking lot where he’ll be waiting. I clear customs and start looking: the bridge is big, though, and there’s construction on the other side, and all exits lead to freeways or so it would seem. I don’t see a parking lot anywhere. I take the first exit ramp I see, and it spins me through a confusing ring of cloverleafs before spitting me out on the streets, near the old abandoned Tiger Stadium (now demolished). It’s a bleak and run-down part of town.
I’m making random turns on unfamiliar streets in the heart of Detroit. No sign of my sousaphone seller. He has no cell phone either. I pull over near a convenience store and wait in my car, hoping he’ll get to a payphone and tell me where I can find him. I've been driving all morning so I consider having a quick nap while I wait. A sketchy looking man approaches and attempts to sell me jewelry hanging inside his coat; I wave him away. At this point I realize that I’m a well-dressed white guy (had to do my teaching at the University) driving a shiny new car (a rental): I may be broke but I sure don’t look it. Probably best to head back to home soil.
So, back over the river, I teach my undergrad students at the University of Windsor, and then I’m able to call my contact in Detroit. Turns out the parking lot was at the U.S. Customs office on the bridge; I’d driven right past him. I cross again and there he is, with the sousaphone sitting nice and shiny on the roof of his car. I give it a quick test drive, attracting stares from the agents nearby; we are surrounded by the construction noise and heavy truck traffic of the bridge, an unfriendly place for a musician. Anyway, as long as it works, I'm happy, so I take it home.
Now, this horn is not the one pictured on my image banner above. I considered it my “starter” sousaphone. It's old, tarnished silver, and the maker is "Viking" whom I've never heard of. It's certainly playable, but it’s not very much in tune, and the low register is stuffy. But I was amazed at the positive reaction I got when I first pulled it out with the Dark Park Band: people are impressed just by the sight of a sousaphone, and it almost doesn’t even matter how the thing sounds. And it’s way more effective as a bass instrument than a standard tuba, owing to the forward-facing bell, especially when playing unamplified.
Over the next year, I would use the sousaphone whenever I played New Orleans style jazz. I was always a bit reluctant to pull it out because it took so much work - a losing battle - to make it sound good, but the feedback from the audience told the tale: sousaphones are awesome. That summer, Patrick Tevlin invited me to play a few gigs with the Magnolia Brass Band, his traditional New Orleans band that plays parades around the Toronto area. I sat in a few times with the Don Valley Stompers. Meanwhile, I kept playing my "other" tubas; in the fall of 2008, some old classical friends and I started a brass quintet, and it went nowhere.
To be continued...stay tuned for part IV (the grand finale), "The Next Level"