When you imagine most traditional jazz combos, you won’t see many tubas in them.
Is this an oversight? After all, a sweet brassy bass sound would be perfect, right?
It’s a question I hear a lot from other musicians, especially when I express interest in playing in more jazz groups!
Are tubas used in jazz?
Tubas were a part of the bass section in early jazz, but they fell out of favor and made way for the string bass. In the past 20 years, the tuba and sousaphone have risen in popularity with jazz, specifically the New Orleans and modern brass band styles of music. The tuba is a bass/rhythm section instrument in these groups.
Let’s look at the history of jazz and the tuba in the rest of the article below!
(We’ll also include video examples where possible!)
Tuba In Early Jazz
In the early 1900s of New Orleans jazz, the tuba was king of the bass section.
But then, in the 1920s, it started to get replaced by the string bass across the board.
On a personal note, this switch happened to someone in my family.
My great-great-grandfather was a jazz player during this time.
He played string bass in groups around middle and western Michigan, and he also played the tuba when his groups had outdoor gigs.
It was this distinction that dominated early jazz.
Tuba for outside (sometimes) and double bass inside, almost always.
By the 1930s, the tuba became a novelty, and it was regulated back to the orchestra, where it remains a regular member to this day.
Even during this early time, the tuba wasn’t a star of the jazz bands.
It was a member of the rhythm section and given no solo time (unlike the string bass that took over).
Still, some of the greats used tubas in their bands.
Hayes Alvis, Lawson Buford, Cyrus St. Clair, and Chink Martin aren’t likely to tweak the ear of even the most dedicated jazz enthusiast.
But if I were to drop the names of the musicians they played with, you’d instantly recognize them.
You know, the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton.
The tuba was around, but by 1930, it wasn’t used much in jazz.
Here’s a recording of “Showboat Shuffle” by King Oliver with Lawson Buford on tuba.
Missing Tuba In The Middle Jazz Era
From there, the tuba was noticeably absent in jazz of all kinds, except perhaps the street New Orleans groups.
Even then, with J.P. Sousa’s development of the sousaphone, this new version of the tuba showed up.
Further Reading: Tuba vs. Sousaphone comparison
From this period until the early 2000s, the tuba was rarely used.
In 1946, it came back somewhat in jazz with Claude Thornhill, who used bigger bands and arrangements in his music.
Bill Barber was the tuba player in the horn sections in these recordings.
While he still didn’t get any solo time, it was at least a step back into the jazz world.
The biggest switch in mentality during this time was the tuba as a member of the horn section.
The rhythm section already had a string bass, so while they did often double, the tuba’s role was shifting.
Truth be told, it probably wasn’t Thornhill’s doing but the arranger Gill Evans, who wanted a deeper and bigger sound from the horn section.
Miles Davis And Bill Barber
Gill Evans continued to work with great musicians, and in the early 50s, he met up with a musician named Miles Davis.
(You MAY have heard of him before!)
In his group, the tuba, played by Bill Barber, was a standard member of the group.
What was most interesting with this era is that the tuba was no longer simply stuck playing a figured bass or rhythm part with occasional horn parts.
At this time, the tuba started to play some countermelody and harmonize with the melodies too!
We still didn’t play much solo work, but the trend was positive.
It’s important to note that the tuba still wasn’t largely used in the rest of the jazz, but people were paying attention to these groups and Barber’s playing in particular.
Ray Draper Changed The Tuba World
The biggest shake-up came in the late 1950s when a high school tuba virtuoso, Ray Draper, signed with Prestige Records.
Playing in groups as an ensemble player, he also released a solo album called Tuba Sounds.
His tuba jazz and solo work changed how many people saw the tuba.
By the time of his second album, more people were paying attention, and Draper wrangled John Coltrane into playing with him, adding more legitimacy to the music.
Unfortunately, he struggled with drugs and was killed early in the 1980s by a mugger, so his potential was never realized.
From there, tuba soloists in jazz would crop up from time to time.
But even so, the tuba was used rarely in most combos and groups.
It was a unique addition to the jazz scene, but not a required member like the saxophone, bass, trumpet, piano, or drums was.
Howard Johnson And The Tuba Jazz Virtuoso
In the mid-1960s, Howard Johnson ended up playing jazz with Charles Mingus.
Johnson was inspired by Draper, and it should be noted didn’t receive formal training.
He didn’t know the tuba played “easy music” as so many music teachers, even today, think.
Because of this, he just played. Playing fast and solo jazz works was just a challenge for him to overcome.
And overcome them he did!
After him, while this brass instrument wasn’t popular in jazz, it was at least accepted as a semi-regular member.
Modern New Orleans Jazz And The Rise Of The Sousaphone
From there until 2005, the tuba’s role has remained such: it’s accepted if the player is available.
Meanwhile, New Orleans jazz encouraged street musicians of all kinds (including virtuoso tuba players) to come in.
It’s here the tuba found its biggest home, but there wasn’t much mainstream change in the jazz music world.
Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the area.
If you were alive during this time and able to remember all the destruction that happened, you’ll remember how it displaced millions of people.
Many of those people included the musicians.
With a need to perform their job and passion, many of them ended up in other parts of the country where people could make a living or even find high levels of success, such as New York.
As the tuba soloists were seen more often (and with the rise of social media sharing), tuba music and sousaphone, in particular, have risen in popularity.
The sousaphone types of tubas are now considered equal in street-performing groups because they project sound forward.
Now, it’s hard to find a modern jazz group without one. And during this time, they often get the chance to play some awesome solo parts!
This trend continues to this day.
Here are a few notable videos featuring some modern types of jazz or performing groups with tuba soloists:
Tuba Vs. Sousaphone In Jazz
When adding additional tubas to jazz groups, there are a couple of different options you’ll see.
In high school groups (wind band), they just play their normal contrabass tuba (BBb).
This is also one of the orchestral instruments. Orchestral tubas need to be a large bore with a big sound.
Jazz requires more flexibility, agility, and range, so they’re often smaller.
They may be bass tubas (F or Eb), but BBb tubas are used too.
A sousaphone is always an option, too, because it points the sound forward (better for playing outside) and usually has a smaller bore (allowing for more responsive playing).