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Brass tacks: Tuba-licious event on tap

For the tuba's fan base of bass fans, this is the event of the season.

If you have ever wondered "who plays a tuba?" — and who hasn't? — you will be able to find an answer, or hundreds of them, Saturday at the venerable and exquisite Palmer House Hilton, where some 400 tuba-playing people will gather with their instruments to make beautiful noise.

Yes, beautiful noise.

If you have never heard a tuba, let alone hundreds of them, playing such Christmas tunes as "O, Come, All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells," you will be in for a revelation.

The tuba is an instrument that, like Rodney Dangerfield or the Chicago Bears, "don't get no respect." It's too big — ugly, to some eyes, clumsy to others. It lacks the sex appeal of the saxophone, the piano, guitar or even the cello.

"People think the tuba is a silly instrument that just goes 'oom-pah,'" said one Harvey Phillips, who was to the tuba what Colonel Sanders was to chicken.

This Palmer House Hilton event is called "TubaChristmas" and will take place at 1 p.m. in the understandably spacious Grand and State ballrooms on the fourth floor of the hotel at 17 E. Monroe St. (palmerhousehiltonhotel.com). The event is free to the public, and there are no tickets or reservations, though audience members are asked to bring nonperishable food items to be donated to the Chicago Food Depository. It gets very crowded very fast.

Though yet to reach the stature of such seasonal entertainments as "The Nutcracker" or "A Christmas Carol," "TubaChristmas" has nevertheless been taking place for more than a quarter of a century here and longer in cities across the state, nation and planet. There are more than 150 of these concerts, including close by in Algonquin and Barrington, in Galesburg and Moline. Planning to be in Canada? Not to worry — that country has plenty. And there is one in Singapore too (tubachristmas.com).

Phillips invented "TubaChristmas." He was a tuba believer who devoted his life to improving its image. A professor at Indiana University, he played tuba in touring circuses, in the U.S. Army Field Band, helped start the New York Brass Quintet, performed in jazz clubs and recital halls. He played Carnegie Hall.

But for all of his skill as a musician it was his entrepreneurial bent that has given him a lasting impact. He created in 1973 an "international organization dedicated to performers, teachers and friends of the tuba and euphonium" now known as the International Tuba Euphonium Association, with thousands of members in more than 50 countries. (A euphonium is a brass instrument that very much resembles a small tuba.)

But more to the point, Phillips gathered some tuba-playing pals in 1974 to put on a holiday concert at the ice rink in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and he called it "TubaChristmas."

There are now hundreds of such tuba concerts every December under the auspices of the Harvey Phillips Foundation. When he died in 2010 at age 80, his obituary in The New York Times rightly hailed him in the headline as the "Titan of the Tuba."

So that is why all of those people will be toting, by trains, planes, automobiles, taxis and on foot, their tubas to the Palmer House. Some will be dressed in colorful costumes — Santa hats being prominent — while others will have decorated their instruments with blinking lights and other seasonal trappings.

It is a sight and sound to behold. Like the people who play them, tubas come in all shapes and sizes. There are small baritone models and those enormous, double B flat types (think high school and college bands). The performers range in age from about 8 to 80 and are a lively bunch.

At last year's event I met a number of them.

One of them said, "You should see me trying to get on a crowded 'L.'"

Another said, "I sometimes feel like I am carrying a small person around with me."

Though most are not professional musicians, some are.

One young man told me that he has been showing up each year since he was 16.

He is now 25, and Amir Gray said earlier this week: "Of course I will be there Saturday. It is so cool to be around so many other players."

Gray was born, raised and now lives in Hammond. His first taste of music came through the radio his mother gave him when he was 2. He was soon singing in choirs and talent shows. Enrolled in piano lessons when he was 9, he became bored and dropped out, but a few years later he persuaded his parents to let him join the school band. He wound up with a tuba.

Almost immediately he was winning contests and awards and was the first tuba player to be accepted into the Chicago Academy of the Arts. He was playing on borrowed or rented tubas until he and his mother started a successful fundraising effort so that he could buy his own.

He later attended the Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts in Gary and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University at Bloomington. He has played in funk bands, in jazz bands, with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and other classical outfits. He's played in clubs and on street corners. He has formed bands, three of them, the latest of which is Gray Era Brass, which is to be featured in an upcoming episode of the new Fox TV series "Empire." The band also will be performing in concert at Reggie's, the music club at 2105 S. State St., on Dec. 21.

Gray says, "The tuba is my voice," and to look at his business card — Jazz, Funk, Classical, R&B, Blues, Gospel — and explore the videos on his website (artistecard.com/thatgrayguy#!) is to begin to grasp and appreciate the versatility and potential of that voice.

Gray has a theory about the tuba's second-tier stature: "The tuba and the saxophone were invented around the same time (in the mid-1800s), and what I think happened is that the saxophone was taken up by all the best clarinet players and the tuba got all the worst trumpet players."

He laughs at that thought but then turns serious when he then says: "I want to be known as one of the musical greats. I want to show all the things this instrument can do and keep exploring all it might be able to do. I know others share that ambition."

He has paid for his art. In 2007, about to embark on a European tour with the CYSO, he was attacked on a South Shore commuter train after people complained that he and his tuba were taking up too much room. A woman bit his ear and a teenage boy hit him in the head with a glass bottle, slicing his cheek.

He was put on a stretcher after the attack but kept asking for his tuba.

"Even then he was so focused on the music," his mother, Kitten, told The Associated Press after the incident.

Who plays the tuba?

Gray will be all but lost in Saturday's concert crowd, the eye-catching spectacle of it all, and the joyful sounds that will fill the room and shake the rafters. "But we are all, no matter the level at which we play, part of an amazing community," he says. "Just listen."

So, what else might you expect?

Almost two decades ago, Phillips told my Tribune colleague Phil Vettel, "I guarantee that all the children who come will want a tuba for Christmas."

Now, there's a thought, and you'll need some extra wrapping paper.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribpub.com

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