At TubaChristmas, An Underdog Instrument Shines The event now gathers musicians across the U.S. and in several countries abroad. It all started in December 1974, when a tuba enthusiast organized a concert of about 300 tubas in Rockefeller Plaza.
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At TubaChristmas, An Underdog Instrument Shines

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At TubaChristmas, An Underdog Instrument Shines

At TubaChristmas, An Underdog Instrument Shines

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Among joyous holiday traditions, this is one of the deepest. It's called TubaChristmas. In hundreds of cities across the U.S. and a few abroad, tuba euphonium players are gathering to play Christmas music. This weekend alone, there are more than 60 events from Hattiesburg, Miss. to Las Cruces, N.M. to San Ramon, Costa Rica. Here in Washington, Chris Quade organized the TubaChristmas event which took place at the Kennedy Center this week. That's the music that you're hearing right now. He is a tubist, that's right, a tubist with the United States Air Force Band. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS QUADE: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

SIEGEL: Tubas are in season around December, eh?

QUADE: It seems to be our season, but that's a little fortuitous. It started off with the founder of TubaChristmas wanting to honor his teacher and his teacher happened to be born on Christmas Day in 1902

SIEGEL: In fact, you were a student of the founder of TubaChristmas, it's the late Harvey Phillips, who is considered - I gather - a great tuba player and an ambassador for the instrument. What kind of stories did he tell you about the very first TubaChristmas?

QUADE: He went about organizing a tuba concert and he called Rockefeller Center in New York. Harvey was a teacher at Indiana at the time, but much of his freelance playing career was in New York City. So he was familiar with many of the musicians at the time. He called them on the telephone and he said, I would like to rent the Rockefeller Center stage next to the ice rink. And they said, what kind of ensemble do you have? And he said, well, I really don't have one. I'm expecting around 300 tuba players.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes.

QUADE: There was a pregnant silence on the other end of the phone. So Mr. Phillips said, I understand that you're going to have hesitation so let me give you the private unlisted telephone numbers of some of my friends - Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski.

SIEGEL: Pretty classy group of musicians right there.

QUADE: That's a good list.


QUADE: Half an hour later they called him and said, Mr. Philips, you can have anything you want.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Why did the tuba need an ambassador like Mr. Phillips?

QUADE: The tuba is, as musical instruments go, young. It was developed in about 1830 as a way to give the brass instrument their own bass. For the first hundred years, it was given a very limited role because people thought it could only perform that limited role.

SIEGEL: This would be the oompa (ph) oompa era?

QUADE: There you go.


QUADE: And something more approaching - it's just a big drum and you hit it when you want things to be loud. Harvey, boy, he just took personal offense at this. And he rightly knew that it was a beautiful instrument capable of the most melodic playing that you'd ever want. And he was the perfect ambassador because not only did he have the fervor, but he could play. He's the best player we've ever had. And one of his mandates, for those of us that carry on his legacy, do not let a single composer get through his or her career without being asked, write something for the tuba.

SIEGEL: Because as you say, the paternity for the great virtuoso tuba work is still up for grabs.

QUADE: That's absolutely true. Unfortunately, we missed a lot of years. So we do liberally borrow from our other instrument friends. The old joke is that Mozart only wrote four horn concertos because the tuba hadn't been invented at the time.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) That must be the reason.

QUADE: Of course.

SIEGEL: Chris Quade, a tubist with the U.S. Air Force Band, longtime organizer of TubaChristmas events here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for talking with us.

QUADE: It's my pleasure.

SIEGEL: And here is a song that was composed for the great late Harvey Philips. It's called "Santa Wants A Tuba For Christmas" and we have a recording of the U.S. Air Force Academy Band performing this important tuba piece.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Now Santa wants a tuba for Christmas. He never got a present before. Santa wants a tuba for Christmas. It's all that he's ever asked for. It's all that he's ever asked for.

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