The Joy of Music's Lower Frequencies

Julius Mckee is a member of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in New Orleans. He's also one of the premier sousaphone players in the country. In the first of a four-part series, Mckee discusses the joy of playing a musical instrument tuned in the lower frequencies.

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TONY COX, host:

Earlier in the show we talked about the second-line parades in New Orleans. And if you've watched any of those brass bands, you'll see an instrument with an extra large bell with a horn that wraps around the musician's torso and springs out over his shoulder.

Julius Mckee wants you to know this is not a tuba.

Mr. JULIUS MCKEE (Musician): That's a sousaphone.

COX: The difference is the sousaphone can be played while marching.

Mr. MCKEE: You know, it's kind of hard to march with the tuba.

COX: Julius Mckee plays sousaphone for The Dirty Dozen. That's one of New Orleans' best-known street bands. His job is to hold down the bottom for the band, the bass.

Mr. MCKEE: I don't think of myself as a sousaphone or tuba player. I think of myself as a bass player who happens to play sousaphone.

COX: Today, Julius kicks off our series on musicians who've mastered the instruments of the lower frequency.

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Mr. MCKEE: You can't have a band without a bass. I mean when people come to New Orleans they going to see some sousaphone. They're going to hear it and it's going to be all over the city. It was a granddaddy bass for the longest because when the music started hitting the streets, you know, they wasn't walking around playing no upright bass or Atlantic basses. They were playing sousaphones, and that's way at the beginning.

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Mr. MCKEE: In New Orleans sousaphone players have taken this instrument and put it on a page of bass players, you know, worldwide. I've been in Bass Player magazine twice and it wasn't for my bass playing. It was for sousaphone.

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Mr. MCKEE: I guess it goes back when I was about maybe - my first year of middle school. And I don't know, I was always kind of like into the low-end stuff. And I just strolled into the rehearsal hall one day and I just saw them, you know, these big guys in the back playing this huge instrument. You know, which I know now was the sousaphone and not the tuba.

And if you notice you always see like the big guy or the chubby guy or the fat guys that play them. You know, and they wouldn't let me play it, man, cause I was a really small dude. And so I had to play French horn for two years.

But a friend of mine, everyday he used to walk home with his sousaphone and I would walk with him. I was always asking him to let me hold it. You know, so I'm just tooting it going down the street. It just didn't look right on me. It nearly swallowed me whole.

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Mr. MCKEE: Then, you know what I mean, I started playing like in the streets. I had to start doing a lot of second-line music. And I was getting asked to play with other bands and stuff. And finally, The Dirty Dozen, which I've been a member of for the last past 15 years. I've pretty much been a leader on it everywhere I've been even through all six years of college. Should've been four years but it took six, man.

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Mr. MCKEE: What people see is the original don't know what to expect, and then, you know, you hit the stage and you're playing and everybody - looking around. Where's the bass coming from. Oh man, hey dude, that's the tuba, dude. One of the unhip thing about it is it gets heavy sometimes, man. Sometimes I wish I played the flute.

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It's like a point of no return. I can't let up, you know, even though sometimes I feel like I need to, I want to, but I can't let up. If I took a breath, you get that head turn from everybody up front, like, you know, why you stop playing? You have to have a lot of endurance. Because if you're playing two 90-minute sets, man, you know, it could wear on you. And I can tell you sleep is real good after that.

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Mr. MCKEE: I had a name for my original sousaphone, which I lost in Hurricane Katrina. When you look at it you wouldn't think it was playable. You know, but it had the biggest, richest sound I could ever get. And I called it Susie. This is my instrument today. It's nice and shiny and pretty. It looks good on a magazine. This is Susie 2.

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Mr. MCKEE: It'll never be able to replace my first horn. My first horn must've been about maybe 60, 70 years old. Rest in peace, Susie. But Susie 2 got you covered.

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COX: That's Julius Mckee, sousaphone player for The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and a master of music's lower frequencies. Listen for others who lay claim to the same title as our occasional series on the lower frequencies continues this month.

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COX: Well, that's our show for today. We are so glad you listened. To hear the show, you can visit NPR.org.

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COX: I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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