Music News
6:31 am
Sat August 30, 2014

Taking The Tuba Above And Beyond The Low End

Originally published on Sat August 30, 2014 11:33 am

On a hot, humid afternoon, Bob Stewart has called a rehearsal at his Harlem apartment. Six musicians are in a circle in the living room — on one side, trumpet and trombone; on the other, cello, viola and violin; and in the middle, the elephant in the room — Stewart's tuba.

The musicians are rehearsing for a concert at Lincoln Center at the end of September; it's a release party for Stewart's new album, Connections: Mind the Gap. The band is a double quartet — a classical string quartet, along with Stewart's jazz band of 25 years. Today, he's rehearsing just the strings and horns.

"We're expanding some of the arrangements to really fully involve the strings with the horns in a lot of these songs," he explains. "That's what this rehearsal is about today."

The 69-year-old musician has played with some of the great innovators in jazz — including Gil Evans and Charles Mingus. Stewart says he learned from those bandleaders to let the musicians add their own ideas to the mix.

"It's amazing: However different the sound of each of those people you mentioned is, quite often, their approach to getting there is the same," Stewart says. "They're very open. They're all very generous. And that's the way I try to treat this band – and, therefore, how to make the band sound larger than just my idea."

Stewart's idea was to take the tuba beyond its Dixieland roots, where it was the original bass instrument. By the mid-1920s, it was replaced by the upright string bass.

Stewart's 27-year-old son Curtis plays violin in the band. He says the tuba has a quality a string bass can't produce.

"The difference with the tuba is you can play the note and sustain and grow, or cut it off exactly when he wants," he says. "It has a much more vocal quality, which is funny because you think of strings as being a very vocal instrument. I think that's why the violin and the tuba work so well together: They're different sides of the musical stratosphere."

Bob Stewart's first instrument was trumpet. He grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and moved to Pennsylvania, where he studied at the Philadelphia College for the Performing Arts. But he had to drop the smaller brass instrument when he developed problems with his lips.

"There was no way I was going to finish my graduation recital, because I was having some embouchure problems. I switched the Tuba to train new muscle, and then I did my recital on the tuba." He adds, with a laugh: "Hated it."

An early tuba gig brought him to New York, where he found work playing progressive and free jazz. But Stewart says for that music, he didn't have any role models.

"I can't go to someone and ask, 'How do you do that? I have to figure out how to breathe. How do I amplify myself? Do I go through an amplifier? What do I do?'

"It took so many years just to focus on that," Stewart says. "There's a whole melodic side of the horn that I didn't really invest in, because it really took a lot of energy to figure all that stuff out. And now I'm starting to go that other direction."

Stewart's exploration of melody on the tuba ranges from a Thelonious Monk standard to a classical suite commissioned for the ensemble. His son Curtis says this broad mix brings to mind a modern phenomenon.

"The idea of a playlist, and also the shuffle mode on iTunes or Spotify — I think that's very attractive to a lot of, at least, younger people. Because you get to experience a set of music; you don't know what's going to happen next," he says. "It will be a journey, from one song to the next, the ways that you can experience music."

For his part, Bob Stewart says he wants to expand the repertoire for the tuba so that his students at the Julliard School — and the next generation of tubists — will have even more options.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The tuba has long been the anchor of marching bands and Dixieland Jazz, but Bob Stewart has taken the instrument to places it's seldom been heard. Contemporary classical music - free jazz. On a new record, Bob Stewart sums up his 50-year career with a showcase for the tuba's versatility. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: On a hot, humid afternoon, Bob Stewart has called a rehearsal at his Harlem apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

VITALE: Six musicians are in a circle in the living room. On one side - trumpet and trombone. On the other - cello, viola and violin. And in the middle, the elephant in the room - Stewart's tuba.

BOB STEWART: 1, 2, 3, 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

VITALE: The musicians are rehearsing for a CD release party at Lincoln Center at the end of September. The band is a double quartet - a classical string quartet along with Stewart's jazz band of 25 years. Today, he's just rehearsing the strings and horns.

B. STEWART: We're expanding some of the arrangements to really fully involve the strings with the horns in a lot of these songs. So that's what this rehearsal is about today.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

B. STEWART: That's what I'm talking about. You all are going to create the arrangement so that it can happen like that. But don't lock that down in stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

VITALE: The 69-year-old musician has played with some of the great innovators in jazz, including Gil Evans and Charles Mingus. Stewart says he learned from those bandleaders to let the musicians add their own ideas to the mix.

B. STEWART: It's amazing how very different the sound of each of those people you mentioned is. Quite often, their approach to getting there is the same. They're very open. They're all very generous. And that's the way I try and treat this band, and therefore, how to make the band sound larger than just my idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Stewart's idea was to take the tuba beyond its Dixieland roots, where it was the original bass instrument. By the mid-1920s, it was replaced by the upright string bass. Stewart's 27-year-old son, Curtis, plays violin in the band. He says the tuba has a quality that a string bass can't produce.

CURTIS STEWART: He can play the note and sustain and grow or cut it off exactly when he wants. So it has a much more vocal quality, which is funny because you think of strings as being a very vocal instrument. And I think that's why the violin and the tuba work so well together even though they're on different sides of the musical stratosphere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Bob Stewart's first instrument was the trumpet. He grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and moved to Pennsylvania, where he studied at the Philadelphia College for the Performing Arts. But he had to drop the smaller brass instrument when he developed problems with his lips.

B. STEWART: There was no way I was going to be able to finish my graduation recital because I was having some embouchure problems. And I switched to tuba, trained new muscle and then I did my recital on the tuba - hated it.

(LAUGHTER)

B. STEWART: So it took me some years and a gig to get past that. My first gig was at Your Father’s Mustache - beer and peanuts, "Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey" - banjo and tuba gig.

VITALE: That gig brought him to New York, where he found work playing progressive and free jazz. But Stewart says for that music, he didn't have any role models.

B. STEWART: I can't go to someone and ask, how do you do that? And I had to figure out how to breathe. How do I amplify myself? What do I do? And so it took so many years just to focus on that as a whole melodic style, the horn that I didn't really invest in because it really took a lot of energy to figure all that stuff out. And now I'm starting to go that other direction.

VITALE: Stewart's exploration of melody on the tuba ranges from a Thelonious Monk standard to a classical suite commission for the ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: His son, Curtis, says this broad mix brings to mind a modern phenomenon.

C. STEWART: The idea of a playlist and also the shuffle mode on whatever iTunes or Spotify or whatever you happen to use, I think that's very attractive to a lot of at least younger people because you get to experience a set of music you don't know what's going to happen next.

B. STEWART: It'll be a journey from one song to the next. Ways that you can experience music. So it's not about can I play a bebop tune? Can I play all of Charlie Parker's solo? It's about, you know, can I feel?

VITALE: Bob Stewart says he wants to expand the repertoire for the tuba so that his students at the Juilliard School and the next generation of tubists will have more options. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

SIMON: Does BJ Lederman play the tuba? Not sure, but he did write our theme music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.