Whilst the use of tuba in jazz (and it’s close relative the sousaphone) was a central part of the early New Orleans style, it has since become a more niche musical instrument in the genre.
That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t a long line of iconic tubists to discover, as we dive into in this article…
In the rarefied field of jazz tuba players, there are a few musicians who have contributed to the role and evolution of the instrument in jazz.
While commonly used in New Orleans and Early Jazz to provide a strong and portable bass line, the use of the tuba after the 1920s declined.
It was not until the late forties that the instrument once again found a place in jazz ensembles, and began a journey in the music that continues to this day – as these 8 musicians show…
One of the first tuba players to find a place in modern jazz, Bill Barber laid the foundations for many that followed.
In the 1940s, quickly eschewing the idea of playing bebop lines of the large brass instrument, Barber found himself playing in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra alongside baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and arranger Gil Evans.
With the pairing of Mulligan and Evans looking for other writing opportunities, they formed a rehearsal group with the young Miles Davis.
Initially looking for a way to emulate the sound of Thornhill’s band with the minimum number of instruments, they settled on a nonet that included both French horn and tuba.
Bill Barber was immediately at home in this setting and his clear bass lines are an essential part of the nonet sound that would soon become known as the Birth Of The Cool band.
Along with Mulligan, Miles and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, Barber was the only other musician to play on all the sessions for the iconic jazz ensemble.
Miles and Gil must have liked what Bill Barber brought to his instrument as the tuba player also featured on Miles and Gil’s other classic collaborations that produced the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain.
He was also invited to play on John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album firmly establishing a modern role for the tuba in jazz.
A multi-instrumentalist, Howard Johnson is a self taught musician.
Principally known for his work as a tubist and baritone saxophone player, he also played other reed instruments and trumpet.
The early 1960’s was not a good time to be playing jazz on the tuba, but Johnson found work with Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, and arranger and bandleader Gil Evans who was well versed in the possibilities of the tuba would call on Johnson’s services.
Johnson can be heard on many of the most famous jazz albums of the last sixty years including Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral, Escalator Over The Hill and Tropical Appetites by Carla Bley, and Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships.
Johnson would also play important roles in the bands of Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, as well as appearing on the debut album by Jaco Pastorius.
If his discography under his own name is a little slimmer, then it is testament to his versatility and musicianship that he has been an important ingredient in the recordings of others leaving behind a rich legacy.
A jazz tuba specialist, Bob Stewart has spent much time as an educator with an understanding of the role of the tuba throughout the history of the music.
From providing a bass line in early jazz groups to integrating the instrument into contemporary jazz, Stewart has shown how the tuba can fit into the demands of today’s music whether in large or small ensemble format.
Like many who specialise in what is sometimes perceived as ungainly and cumbersome instrument, Stewart’s discography as leader is not extensive. It would, however, be unforgivable not to mention his debut recording First Line, (originally recorded for JMT and re-issued on Winter & Winter) which contains some fine arrangements and playing from the tubist.
As a sideman he has graced the bands of Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell.
He also had a long and fruitful association with alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, and his solo on the title track of Blythe’s Lennox Avenue Breakdown album has been described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz On CD (7th Edition) as “one of the few genuinely important tuba statements in jazz”.
Best described as a low register brass specialist, Bargeron plays trombone, bass trombone and euphonium as well as tuba.
He is well known for his time with Blood Sweat & Tears and since leaving the band has worked with Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and George Russell.
His discography as a sideman is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz and popular/rock music having performed on records by Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, and Eric Clapton.
Jazz credentials included working with Clark Terry, Bob Mintzer, Pat Metheny, Carla Bley, the the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band from Switzerland, and Jaco Pasorius’s Word of Mouth big band.
French tuba player Michel Godard is equally renowned for playing an earlier brass instrument called the Serpent, a predecessor of the modern tuba.
He is most at home playing avant garde jazz and improvised music as well as being well versed in classical music.
He has played with many of the modern European greats, including Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava, Ray Anderson, Sylvie Courvoisier, Louis Sclavis and Samo Salamon, as well as recording as leader or co-leader for the Italian label CAM Jazz.
Classically trained, Godard is at ease in just about any musical genre.
He has recorded classical music, as well as at the sharp end of contemporary jazz and improvised music, and currently lead co-leads a quartet with fellow tubist, Dave Bargeron.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Oren Marshall is now resident in London, UK and is one of the leading exponents of the acoustic and electric tuba.
Again, like many tuba specialists he is a multi-genre musician moving freely and easily between classical music, jazz and improvised and world music.
He has, for example, performed with many of the major orchestras in London.
His credentials as a jazz and improvising musician are top notch and he has been nominated for the BBC Innovation in Jazz Award.
He is also actively involved in education and currently teaches on the Leadership course at the Guildhall School of Music and at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and is also a at the Royal Academy of Music.
As a performer, Marshall has worked with Tomasz Stanko, and the big bands Loose Tubes, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, John Dankworth Big Band, Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice.
He has worked with many of the top jazz musicians in both the UK and internationally, including the late Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor as well as Martin Speake, Gilad Atzmon, Paulo Fresu´s Brass Bang, Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons of Kemet and Dave Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy.
Norwegian Daniel Herskedal is one of a new generation of jazz tuba players looking to make their mark on the international scene. He actually started out on the French horn as a child, before taking up the tuba.
Moving to Trondheim, he studied formally for his Batchelor’s degree in jazz at the renowned Trondheim Musikkonsevatorium, followed by a thesis on jazz and folk for his Master’s at Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen.
He has performed with the pianist Espen Berg, saxophonist Marius Neset as well as the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. He is also renowned as a composer and has written music for the ‘The Last Black Man In San Fransisco’, produced by Brad Pitt.
As a tuba player, has has gained a reputation for the expansiveness of his playing, and displaying an emotional depth and the desire to explore the range and sonorities of his instrument.
He has recorded several acclaimed albums for the UK based label Edition Records, most recently Out of the Fog.
London born Theon Cross is part of the exciting UK scene that has witnessed bands such as Sons Of Kemet (in which Cross has been an integral part) reach an international audience with their original brand of jazz.
Starting off on tenor horn in primary school and switching to tuba in his teens, he made the most of being able to take music lessons in school while simultaneously attending workshops around the city including the big band Tomorrow’s Warriors led by bassist Gary Crosby.
Cross would then go on the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where he studied classical music and jazz.
As well as Sons of Kemet he has worked with saxophonist Courtney Pine and also released an EP, Aspirations in 2015 along with two albums under his own name; Fyah (2019) and Intra-I (2021).
Thanks for reading!
As always, this list should be used as a springboard to more jazz tuba discoveries; it may not be up there with wind instruments such as trumpet or even trombone in terms of notoriety, but there is still a lot of great music to discover!