16 December 2012

[sc]airquotes (iii)

"The late twenties trend toward larger groups coincided with replacing the tuba with the bass as the focal point of the rhythm section, causing many tuba players to switch instruments. As George Duvivier conjectures, however, few early tuba players 'made a successful transition to the bass, because they had nothing to guide them from a wind instrument to a string instrument.' Consequently, 'they made up for their deficiencies by slapping the bass, twirling it, and being active.'"

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 130.

Um...LOL anyone else? This is the first time I've seen this subject tackled in a scholarly publication, albeit under the rubric of "conjecture," but I think that most of us musicians have conjectured at least a few times in our lives that Guffawing Tubist Syndrome has its roots in something other than the well-known tendency of certain instruments to attract certain kinds of people. Indeed, does the tuba not in fact have two very different such stereotypes, both of which are quite observable and not so completely localized to the different musical traditions we most readily identify them with as to permit attributing them solely to the demands of those traditions?

Part of me is just dying to know if "slapping the bass, twirling it, and being active" was an authentic reaction newly encountered technical limitations, or if it was just one of many possible responses, but the one to which tuba players as a group were disproportionately predisposed. Did young, amateurish, or otherwise unaccomplished bass players of the era who had never played tuba typically succumb to these kinds of antics? Did they learn them from players who used to play tuba? Silly even to wonder these kinds of things, I suppose, but I just can't help it having found myself in too many situations over the years where the contractor ordered a GTS tubist and got stuck with me instead.

Kind of like lead and solo trumpet, or high and low horn, there are high tuba players and then there are hiiiiiigh tuba players. It's tempting to point to this kind of thing as evidence of the continuing inertia against tuba players developing complete musicianship. In truth, I think almost every band would rather have the better player, but it is also true that personality is at least equally important in many New Orleans-style bands and touring brass quintets, and I've read job postings from both types of ensembles which made this abundantly clear, and even one several years ago which generated some heated online discussion for stating baldly that the ideal candidate would be of a certain age (i.e. young and hip). I think the more important point, though, is one independent of matters of personality or overcompensation, namely that over time when such a great number of players of a particular instrument lack technical sophistication, this in fact becomes part of the style, which means the demands on new generations of players become limited, and as Mr. Jacobs famously said, "A limited challenge produces a limited musician," thus compounding the problem. It's fascinating to ponder this through the lens of the oft-cited era of transition from tuba to bass referenced in the above quote, but with documentation being elusive, I'm afraid we're mostly stuck with the kind of conjecture Duvivier offers here, which if nothing else had me laughing quite a bit harder than most scholarly publications ever will.

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