Christmas Tribute to Tuba Star Turns 33 Since 1974, U.S. tuba players have gathered en masse to play Christmas music in tribute to William J. Bell, a beloved figure in the annals of American tuba history, who died on Christmas Day in 1971. For the 33rd Tuba Christmas, musicians in 224 cities across the U.S. — including Fredericksburg, Va. — are scheduled to participate.
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Christmas Tribute to Tuba Star Turns 33

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Christmas Tribute to Tuba Star Turns 33

Christmas Tribute to Tuba Star Turns 33

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Chest-rattling - that's one way to describe this. It's a new world record for the largest number of low brass instruments playing together. At least 620 tubas, baritone and euphonium players gathered at Disneyland today to play Christmas carols, something known as Tuba Christmas.

And NPR's Neda Ulaby says there's one near you.

NEDA ULABY: There's a Tuba Christmas in your state around this time of the year. Musician Jay Converse(ph) is here at this Virginia mall with his sousaphone. It looks like a giant mutant tuba.

Mr. JAY CONVERSE (Musician): The best part about this one is scaring small children.

ULABY: The sousaphone is in gay apparel, tinsel garlands and twinkling Christmas tree lights.

Mr. CONVERSE: With the batteries, the wreath, the wiring, it weighs about 37 pounds. So it just kind of sits on my shoulder a little bit. And, you know, by the end of the concert, you know, I'll be a little bit sore.

ULABY: This is the first Tuba Christmas here in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It's one of over 200 around the U.S. The local organizer, 16-year-old Garrett Atkinson, rustled up 10 tuba teachers and students.

Mr. GARRETT ATKINSON (Tuba Christmas organizer): To have an ensemble with just tubas and just euphoniums, it's great. I mean, I love the sound the tuba gets. When we get a bunch of them together, it's almost like an organ. The tuba's Harvey Philips. He conceived the idea — it was to honor all artists and teachers through the late William Bell.

ULABY: William J. Bell was a legendary tuba player and teacher who died on Christmas day in 1971. For the past 33 years, tubists have played carols in his memory around Christmas at malls, street fairs and churches.

The fat, round sounds drew shopper Kevin Curtis(ph) from Macy's, past Hot Topic and the American Eagle Outfitters to the food court, where the musicians teetered on a tiny stage.

Mr. KEVIN CURTIS (Shopper): I just love brass. I was sitting at the other end of the mall and I told my wife, that sounds live. And she says, oh, I think it is.

ULABY: There is a captive audience that includes Rossi Warren(ph). He works in a kiosk just a few feet away. Warren wishes the sound was a little less assertive.

Mr. ROSSI WARREN (Mall Employee): Yeah. We're trying to sell cell phones over here, like, you know. You know, it's kind of noisy, but I like it. It was good.

ULABY: The impromptu, even ragged nature of an ensemble with little time to practice doesn't bother shopper Kevin Curtis. For him, he says, any live music is magic.

Mr. CURTIS: It grabs me and it ties me up. It holds me. Now, if it's no good, you know, I'd still try to listen. Got to start somewhere to get better, right?

ULABY: Come Christmas, Curtis says he can get a little melancholy. His kids are far from home. The mall feels cold, even impersonal. Then the brass warmed it up.

Mr. CURTIS: If kind of gives you faith in mankind, it almost moves the spirit. So as long as they're practicing like this, life will go on. I truly believe that.

ULABY: Somewhere, William Bell is smiling.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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