32 Years of Tubists at the New York City Brass Conference
By Bill Spilka
I have been fortunate enough to be the Official Photographer for 31 of its 32 years, and, as a result I’ve had the thrill and privilege of meeting and shooting just about every major brass player of the past century. Since the first Conference in 1973 we have honored such major figures in the tuba world as Walter Sear, Howard Johnson, Don Butterfield, Harvey Phillips, and Arnold Jacobs . Unfortunately for the members of the ITEA, this was one of the few years that a tubist was not selected as an honoree or featured performer, so I thought that I’d offer you a short survey of some of the great brassmen we have presented in past years.
Every year since 1974 the Conference has published a very attractive and useful Journal, which highlights events from the previous Conference as well as articles about those who will appear at this year’s gathering and topics of general interest to all brass players. Two of the major tubists who have been associated with the Conference since its inception have been Don Butterfield and Sam Pilafian.
Don , who is now into his 80s and still in demand as a player, composer, and conductor, has worked with everyone from Toscanini to Dizzy Gillespie . I’ll have a lot more to say about him a bit later on, but if you can find a copy of this early Journal, you will discover that he is an excellent and perceptive writer as well. His three-part article, The Biggest Horn , written in 1956 for Metronome magazine, with a most laudatory introduction by Morton Gould , covers the entire spectrum of tuba history, usage, types of instruments, and noteworthy composers, arrangers, and musicians up to the date of publication.
If the names Gil Evans, Claude Thornhill, Stan Kenton, Sauter-Finegan, Jay McAllister , Gene Englund, Shorty Rogers and Country Washburn are unfamiliar to you, this should be required reading!
Part two covers literature for alto, tenor, F, double C and double B-flat tubas, Ravel ‘s Pictures at an Exhibition , Wagner, Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith and Berlioz . The third section deals with Franck, Wagner, Teo Macero and using the tuba as an “inner voice” by contemporary writers. Don added a fourth article on “The Tuba and Jazz” as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto and coping with the intonation problems that are an inherent part of the instrument.
Sam Pilafian can be seen on page 77 playing the world’s largest tuba. It was a fifty year-old, seven foot triple B-flat Besson owned by the Harvard University Band. Sam was probably best known at the time as a New York and Boston freelance player who had performed with the Boston Symphony and the Empire Brass Quintet.
Featured at the ’74 Conference were Andrew Seligson , with the Metropolitan Brass Quintet, Herbert Wekselblatt , a Bill Bell Alumni gathering chaired by Joseph Novotney , Don Butterfield and Paul Krzywicki and Toby Hanks with the New York Brass Quintet.
In 1975 the Conference honored Bill Barber , a very highly respected Juilliard graduate and freelance studio player whose credits include recording and performing with Claude Thornhill , Gil Evans, Pete Rugolo, Sauter-Finegan , Broadway shows and Miles Davis . I can’t recall exactly who played in Howard Johnson’s tuba group Substructure or whether he used five or six other big horns, but the personnel, all busy studio sidemen, probably included Jack Jeffers, Morris Edwards, Dave Bargeron, Bob Stewart, Earl McIntyre, and/or Joe Daley . The Manhattan School of Music Brass Quintet and the Fine Arts Brass Quintet both featured Stephen Johns . Major Holley , in great demand in jazz clubs and festivals all over the world and who also taught at Berklee, was also featured.
The 1975 Journal also contains an article by Brian Nalepka’s mother recounting an event from the very first NYBCFS, Don Butterfield’s Tuba Clinic, Lecture, and Ensemble Demonstration, at which he presented an award to Joe Tarto. (“Who?” You may very well ask unless you happen to be a student of the very early days of radio and recording). Joe was born in 1902 and began making records before microphones were invented! When I interviewed him, around 1990, he described how the musicians were herded into a small room to blow into the large end of a giant horn (like you might see on an old wind-up Victrola), while in the next room, Mr. Edison himself, supervised the stylus cutting into the wax master disc!
I realize that my audience is basically made up of classically trained and oriented tubists and euphoniumists, but there are, even today, only so many positions available, but for those who can sight-read music accurately and are versatile and can improvise, there are many other opportunities available to earn a living. Joe soon found himself working night and day with the likes of Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Miff Mole, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey brothers among many other fine musicians. Their recordings were issued on dozens of labels and under at least as many pseudonyms.
In 1927 he joined the all-star Broadway pit band of Rain or Shine led by Red Nichols after ordering a custom-built 7′ tall tuba from the H.N. White Company in Cleveland. Joe left that unique instrument to Brian Nalepka in his will. On page 73 you can see a photo of Joe blowing it while being “conducted” by Paul LaValle . Joe was a long-time member of Paul’s famous Band of America . His section mates were Bill Bell, Don Butterfield, Joe Novotny, and Harvey Phillips . I guess all of the better players were out of town! I found it most interesting that in his 1975 interview with Charles Colin, Paul complained that because Broadway theaters and Avery Fisher Hall were charging as much as $20 a ticket, a cultural evening in New York for his wife and two children, including parking and dinner “would easily cost me $75-100!”
The 4 th NYBCFS featured a lecture/ demonstration of Jazz Improvisation by the renowned Rich Matteson as well as Don Butterfield’s tuba artistry, which honored the incomparable Joe Tarto . On page 61 of the Journal you can see a photo I took of a live performance of Don’s tuba trio playing his cutting-edge composition Sonority Study for Three Tubas in the fabled studios of WQXR with Sam Pilafian and Eric Berman . Believe me, those three and their instruments in that tiny studio barely left room to turn around!
The 1977 Conference featured Don Butterfield with the Princeton University Symphonic Band, David Winograd with the Canterbury Brass Quintet, Harvey Phillips and James F. Burke’s Concert Band. Page 64 shows my photo coverage of Don ‘s Octubafes t at Montclair State College with nice close-ups of Dick Robinson playing Hindemith ‘s Sonata for Tuba; Pat Landolfi , principal tuba of the New Jersey Symphony, Brian Nalepka and his banjo band; Bert Strompf and Tequila Mockingbird ; Howard Hovey, Karl Megules, Richard Chiemengo and the Garden State Tuba Ensemble playing new music such as Rayburn Wright’s Undercurrents for seven tubas, two percussion and flute and Don Butterfield’s Evocation for four tubas, which explored harmonic structures and inner voicings that had not yet become part of the tuba literature vocabulary.
Those who attended the 1977 NYBCFS were also given tickets to the Empire Brass Quintet’s performance at Avery Fisher Hall, which featured Sam Pilafian .
The 7th Conference Journal has a half page photo of a unique recording session that showcased many of the best symphonic players of the era. It combined the brass sections of three of the finest orchestras in America. Present were Ronald Bishop with a quintet from the Cleveland Orchestra, Abe Torchinsky and most of the brass of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Arnold Jacobs with the first and second chair players from the Chicago Symphony. There is also a fascinating interview by Charles Colin with Andy Kazdin who produced the album of Gabrieli ‘s antiphonal music for two and three brass choirs for Columbia records. Besides the obvious and formidable task of coordinating the busy schedules of the nineteen master musicians, Kasdin admitted that another big concern was the possibility of conflicting egos, but that never became a problem. The tubists were especially happy to see each other because both Torchinsky and Bishop had studied with Jacobs and had not seen each other for years.
This Journal also includes a long, fascinating excerpt from Season With Solti by William Furlong about Mr. Jacobs . He certainly was a many-faceted personality. He appeared as a child actor in a silent film with Mary Pickford and played both trumpet and trombone before being given a tuba by his Santa Monica junior high school bandmaster. When he was only fifteen he won a scholarship to the famed Curtis Institute and his family moved to Philadelphia so he could continue his studies, but he was reprimanded for doing club dates on both smaller brasses to earn spending money and convinced to specialize on the big horn by the faculty. He took their advice but continued to do Dixieland dates on the side that taught him how differently the same notes could be interpreted, depending on their context. When the string bass began to replace the tuba as the primary jazz band foundation, around 1932, he taught himself to play well enough to hold a staff position at CBS in Chicago.
It also almost led him into other career choices as a vocalist and radio announcer. Curtis even offered him a second scholarship in vocal studies! The article also explores Arnold’s research into human anatomy, physiology, and respiration and explains why tuba players are generally large, overweight people! They may not start out that way but the nature of the instrument predetermines the outcome. Required reading for all!
This Journal also includes a historically interesting article by Hope Stoddard that originally appeared in a 1950 International Musician : “The Tuba and Its Players in Our Bands and Orchestras.” It includes twenty-two photos of some of the legendary players mentioned above. You can not only see what they looked like in their prime, but also try to identify the many styles and makes of instruments that they played. Besides Bill Bell, Joe Novotny, and Abe Torchinsky you’ll see J.E. McAllister (Indianapolis Symphony), Louis Chassagne (Dallas Symphony), Bruce Holcomb (Vancouver Symphony), J.E. Booth (Minneapolis Symphony), Samuel Green (Cincinnati Symphony), Robert Ingram (Los Angeles Philharmonic), Virgil Ester (Oklahoma Symphony), Bill Montieth (Buffalo Philharmonic), Fred Exner (New Orleans Symphony), Louis Pirko (National Symphony), Kilton Vinal-Smith (Boston Symphony), Clyde Bachand (Kansas City Symphony), Vaughn Abbey (Seattle Symphony), Gaetano Berardenelli (Portland Symphony), William Rose Houston Symphony), Adolf Moser (Cleveland Orchestra). and John Manuti (Metropolitan Opera).
Of course some of these fine players are long gone now, as are some of the orchestras they played with, but your teacher may have studied with one of them and so the legacy of great musicianship is passed along to the next generation. Besides the photos, this well-researched article discusses the different kinds of tubas in current use, their ranges, and personal anecdotes about what attracted these players to the instrument in their youth.
These Conference Journals are a great resource for educational material of all kinds. Articles cover topics ranging from dental problems to warm-up routines to proper preparation for a job audition. Many back issues are still available, free of charge from Colin Publications , 315 West 53 rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. Just make a donation to the NYBC Scholarship Fund for each copy you want. While I’m at it, I might as well mention my own journal-sized opus called CHOPS , which contains 480 headshots of brass players, also published by Colin , that clearly shows their embouchures. You’re bound to find many of your favorites among them. It is also free with a donation to the NYBCFS.
Bill Spilka, a native New Yorker, has been a professional trombonist & bassist since 1945. He has been on the road with the Ralph Flanagan band and has played venues ranging from Burlesque to the Newport & JVC Jazz Festivals in Newport and New York, as well as others in France and Switzerland; Jimmy Ryan’s, West End Café, The Cajun, Red Garter and Blue Note jazz clubs in New York and Europe; Casinos in Monaco, Las Vegas and Atlantic City; for Lester Lanin, Steven Scott, and other major Society offices; and has led his own Rowdy Rooters, the Official Band of the New York Rangers, for over forty years. Other highlights of his musical career include playing with Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong; at the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier; sidelining a jam session in an Independent film and a Trump Casino commercial; a recent Grammy-nominated Big Band recording; the 100th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, serving as Musical Director for the opening of the South Street Seaport and most recently, documenting a two-week, five state bus tour with the Stan Kenton Alumni Band.
He joined the photography staff of Metronome magazine in 1955 and has shot assignments for The New York Times, LIFE, The New Yorker, Jazz Times, Stereo Review, Columbia House, Time-LIFE Books and Ken Burns’ recent “Jazz” series on PBS. Bill has also been the Official Photographer for the New York Brass Conference since 1974. They sponsored publication of a large book of his photographs entitled “CHOPS” which shows the embouchures of 480 top brass players from around the world.
Bill was the East Coast and Jazz Editor for the International Trombone Association for eighteen years, writing a regular column as well as feature articles. He still contributes performance and record reviews to them as well as to The Brass Player, Jersey Jazz, The IAJRC and other publications. As a free-lance artist and designer he has produced several album covers for Charles Mingus’ Debut and Harry Lim’s Famous Door labels and drawn covers for recent books on Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown.
After graduating from Cooper Union, Bill earned his B.S. and M.A. degrees in Education from New York University as well as sixty credits toward his Doctorate while teaching Studio Art, Photography, Art History and Calligraphy at George Washington High School in New York City. He was awarded a Guggenheim Teacher Exchange Fellowship to England and also taught Art History at the American College in Paris.
In 1987, after thirty years in the classroom, he retired when he was awarded a Jazz Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue a project that he had begun twenty years earlier, that of documenting on videotape the lives and performances of the sidemen and women who made up the big jazz-oriented dance bands of the “Golden Age” – 1935-45 – a group of very talented musicians who have been largely neglected in previous research.
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