Impressions of William J. Bell 1902-1971 by Harvey G. Phillips
An editorial note: When I became editor of the TUBA Journal several years ago, in advance planning, I realized that December 25, 2002 would mark the 100 th anniversary of the birth of William J. Bell, a man whose artistry and inspirational personality has affected every low brass player, student, amateur, and professional, practicing our art today. Thus, I scheduled the fall issue of 2002 to feature a tribute to William J. Bell. My thanks to our new ITEA Journal editor, Jason Smith, for allowing me to complete work on this project with one of Mr. Bell’s most prominent students, Harvey G. Phillips, who is currently compiling a collection of biographical “Impressions of William J. Bell” as expressed by family members, friends, colleagues, and students of this remarkable man. The article below is excerpted from Harvey’s ongoing compilation of materials and provides “primary source” historical information which will hopefully inspire further research and investigation into Bel^life and influence as a performer and teacher, af^nU as serving to inform our younger generation of his vital importance to their heritage. ~ Jerry A. Young
A Brief Family History
William John Bell was bom in Creston, Iowa on Christmas Day, 1902, the son of William M. Bell and Nancy Milligan Bell. Other Bell children included Sarah (Bell) Betzner (b.l898), Ruth (Bell) Rankin (b.l900), Alice (Bell) White Hazeltine (b.l907), and Samuel Milligan Bell (b.l896). Bell’s parents met and married while colleagues in the Creston school system. His father later served as high school principal, president of the Creston Business College and the Chariton Business College. From 1917 until his death on May 7, 1919, he also served as county superintendent of schools. Nancy M. Bell continued her career in education after her husband’s death, continuing a tradition from her own family. Her father. Judge J.M. Milligan, taught school and studied law while in Pennsylvania and continued to teach (while also practicing law) after the family moved to Afton, Iowa. He also served as county superintendent of schools, mayor, president of the school board, and justice of the peace in that community. Mrs. Bell assumed her late husband’s duties as superintendent of schools in Creston and later, in 1924, became head of the Creston High School Latin Department. She held that position until 1942, when she was forced to retire because of ill health at the age of 78. She died at daughter Sarah Betzner’s home in Helena, Montana in 1947. All of Mr. Bell’s siblings have since died. Mr. Bell died on August 7, 1971 and is buried in Perry, Iowa. He was preceded in death by his wife, Agnes, and is survived by their daughter, Nancy Bell, of Palatine Bridge, New York.
Bill Bell with Daughter, Nancy. Photo courtesy of Paul Krzywicki
Bill Bell and His Tuba
When William Bell was around ten years old (c.l912), he began playing tuba in a boys band in Fairfield, Iowa. The leader of the band was a local grocer who had some musical training. It is important to point out that, in the early part of this century, every town of consequence had its own town band made up of adults and accomplished younger musicians, often drawn from the ranks of their respective “boys bands.” The state of Iowa is especially renowned for its bands and the development of great brass, wind, and percussion players. Indeed, I believe that the state of Iowa is the only state with what is fondly referenced by Iowa bandsmen as “The Iowa Band Law.” This law reads as follows: “CITY FINANCE: 384.12 – Additional taxes. A city may certify, for this general fund levy, taxes which are not subject to the limit provided in section 384.1, and which are in addition to any other moneys the city may wish to spend for such purposes, as follows: (1) A tax not to exceed thirteen and onehalf cents per thousand dollars of assessed value for the support of instrumental or vocal musical groups, one or more organizations which have tax-exempt status under section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and are organized and operated exclusively for artistic and cultural purposes, or any of these purposes subject to…” Town bands of the day were supported by enthusiastic and loyal fans in their respective geographic areas which, in combination, provided “sold out” audiences for outstanding professional touring bands of the day. The most popular and famous of these was the internationally acclaimed band of John Philip Sousa, but there were others, including the bands of Bohemia Kryl, Arthur Pryor, Patrick Conway, and Giuseppe Creatore, to name only a few. Many touring circus bands were also admired by town band musicians. Circus bandmaster/composers such as C.L. Bamhouse, Johnny Richards, Karl King, Fred Jewel, and Merle Evans, with their troups of accomplished circus musicians were also musical heros to town bandsmen. Although not a touring band, the Edwin Franko Goldman Band of New York City also brought considerable influence to the band movement.
1923-24 Sousa Band tuba section . L-R; Gabe Russ, James G. Romeril, Earl W. Field, John “Jack” Richardson, William J. Bell. Photo from Paul E. Bierley Collection
Young Bill Bell’s persona no doubt benefited greatly from the enormous pride traditionally expressed by Iowa’s citizens for their native bandsmen. Talented, precocious and well mannered, Young Bill Bell soon attracted the attention and admiration of adult musicians who extolled his talents to all who would listen.
It is appropriate here to acknowledge that William Bell never received private study of the tuba with any known teacher. Nonetheless, throughout his exceptional professional career he was admired for his impeccable and intuitive musicianship, his clean and flawless technique, his smooth and lyrical slurring, his intonation, and most especially for his distinctive tone quality – his sound! One must assume that Young Bill Bell was mature beyond his years, observant and sensitive to the performances of admired musicians, whatever their instrument. This assumption is borne out by the reputation Bell established with admiring colleagues who were quick to acknowledge that, while Bell’s tuba was always present and audibly clear in the orchestra (or other ensemble), it was never obtrusive, overpowering or excessively loud. Performers, conductors, and discerning audiences lauded Bell for his musical taste and for his exceptional ear for intonation, balance, and blend.
By the age of fourteen (c.l917), Bell was already touring with WW. Norton’s popular area professional bands and orchestras. He continued to perform for Norton after entering the University of North Dakota at age 15 (1918) on a full music scholarship. In 1918 his fame as an outstanding performer came to the attention of Colonel Harold Bachman, conductor of the famous “Bachman’s Million Dollar Band.” Bachman recruited Bell and assigned him to his band’s principal tuba chair. Again, all who heard him perform were impressed by his musical prowess. At this point his reputation as an outstanding tubist was becoming legend.
William J. Bell (1902 – 1971) Photo compliments of Harvey Phillips Foundation, Inc.
In 1921 Bell’s reputation and growing fame as a performer came to the attention of none other than John Philip Sousa whose famous band was at that time the most celebrated of all the world’s musical organizations. The music world was astounded when Mr. Sousa summoned 18- year-old William Bell to assume the position of principal tuba in his band without audition. The 1921 tuba section in the Sousa Band consisted of William Bell and Fred Pfaff, tubas and Daniel J. Markert and Edward Burant, Sousaphones. It is further interesting to note that in 1921 the outstanding young piccolo player in the Sousa Band was none other than Meredith Wilson whose self-portrait book There I Stood with My Piccolo and Broadway show and movie The Music Man won great acclaim. Meredith Wilson and Bill Bell became close lifelong friends. Throughout his life, William Bell’s winning personality gained the warm friendship and loyal professional admiration of all his colleagues. His established reputation as a mature, courteous and personable young gentleman was equaled only by his unparalleled reputation as a great tubist. And, although his tenure with the Sousa Band was relatively short (1921 tour, 1921-22 tour, 1922 tour, and 1923-24 tour), his performance and personality combined to reach legendary proportions with loyal Sousa alumni and admiring audiences.
Above: William Bell participated in many band camps and clinics throughout his career. He is pictured here (back of the band on the right) with colleagues Fred Marzan and Arnold Jacobs at the Cumberland Forest Music Camp. Photo courtesy of Paul Krzywicki.
In the spring of 1924, while taking a much deserved rest in New York City following an intense thirty-five week tour with the Sousa Band, Bell was informed by one of his musician friends that Fritz Reiner was in town to audition musicians for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and that one of the positions he hoped to fill was that of principal tuba. Bell promptly borrowed a CC tuba and stayed up all night memorizing the tuba parts to Richard Wagner’s Eine Faust Overture and Die Meistersinger Overture, both on Reiner’s audition list. The next day he appeared at Reiner’s audition and was asked to play the opening three measures of Eine Faust. Upon hearing Bell’s performance of these few measures (which is performed in unison with contrabasses in the orchestra), Reiner engaged him for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. There was no need to hear Bell play other music on the audition list. From 1924 to 1937, Bell served as Principal Tuba with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He also taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and soon established himself as an outstanding teacher of tuba and low brass. During his tenure in Cincinnati, he also played principal tuba with the popular Sunday afternoon Armco Band, directed by Frank Simon. Radio broadcasts of the Armco Band from WLW began in 1929, and NBC picked up those concerts in 1930 to be broadcast nationally over the (then) red and blue networks. The highlight of Bell’s tenure in Cincinnati came in 1927 when he married the love of his life, Agnes Haacke (who soon became affectionately known as “Aggie” to a legion of musicians). With his marriage to Aggie, he gained a stepdaughter, Phillipa Solomon (1917-1995) and, on December 12, 1934, a daughter, Nancy, was bom.
From 1925 to 1937, during the summer off-seasons of the Cincinnati Symphony, Bell settled in New York City to play principal tuba with either the famed Goldman Band or his beloved Asbury Park Municipal Band, which was founded by his close friends, Arthur Pryor and Simone Mantia (later conducted for many years by Frank Bryan). It was during the summers in New York that he met Tante Lena Wanner, a grandiose German woman famed for her cooking (boarding house style) and (during prohibition) for her homemade gin and home brew, as weU. Lena was very popular with several of Bell’s Goldman Band colleagues, most especially Ben Gaskins (piccolo) and Del Staigers (solo comet). Bell became a regular at Lena’s. Sometime after prohibition ended. Bell established Lena in a ground floor apartment located at 419 West 121st Street, where she continued to serve boarding house style lunches and dinners, mostly to teachers and students of Columbia Teachers College. (An outstanding regular in that venue was famed music educator, Howard Hovey, who was working on his doctorate at CTC and studying tuba with Bell.) Located only three blocks from Julliard and Columbia University Teachers College, close to the subway and convenient to taxi traffic on Amsterdam Avenue, it was an ideal location.
Alec Wilder, Mr. Bell and Harvey Phillips holding Phillips’ 10 month old son, Jesse, in front of the Christmas Tree on December 22, 1964. This photo was taken exactly ten years to the day before the first TUBACHRISTMAS concert in Rockefeller Center, December 22, 1974. Mr. Bell inspired the event, and Alec arranged the music. Photo courtesy of Harvey Phillips.
Lena’s apartment living room was also used as Bell’s uptown teaching studio, and the back bedroom was utilized as sleeping quarters for some of the outstanding students he attracted to New York City. In September, 1950,1 was one of those students. I shared the back bedroom with famed hom player, Eric Hauser (another dear friend of Mr. Bell). I kept Eric supplied with Ballantine Ale. He would sit on the edge of his bed with a tankard of ale, tutoring me on Mr. Bell’s preferences for each excerpt, technical study, characteristic study, vocalise, and daily routine. Living in Lena’s back bedroom also provided me the benefit of hearing many other students perform in their lessons with Mr. Bell. Posture, breath support, tone quality, intonation, technical clarity, dynamic control, rhythmic subdivision, style, and musicianship were always primary concerns. Lessons with Mr. Bell improved every student’s performance, attitude, awareness, and approach to life. Teaching by example was an important part of Mr. Bell’s teaching pedagogy.
Bell’s euphonium and tuba studio at Indiana University in 1967. The first two tuba students from the left are unidentified, beginning third from the left are: Robert Rusk, Sam Gnagey, Andy Newman, Don Harry, Paul Krzywicki, Sam McFerrin, Winston Morris, and Bert Nordblum. The two euphonium players are unidentified. Photo courtesy of Paul Krzywicki.
One of the more memorable lessons I observed was that of a young trombonist who doubled on euphonium. During this lesson he was being coached in the playing of a standard march part on his euphonium, and he was having difficulty keeping time. Mr. Bell stopped the lesson. took a lyre out of the young man’s euphonium case, affixed it to the euphonium, inserted the part in the lyre, and told the young man to play and march with him. With Mr. Bell alternating counting a cadence and singing the melodic lines of the march, the two of them paraded around the studio, into the dining room around the ample table, and back into the living room, repeating the routine until the march (with all repeats!) was finished. It was fortunate that the apartment was on the first floor with no one living below, for the room rumbled from Mr. Bell’s aggressive marching! What a lesson! Everything improved, most especially rhythm. I am sure that the young man’s band director noticed improvement. The rest of the young man’s lesson went well, and Mr. Bell’s manner was back to normal, satisfied with his student’s progress.
In 1937, RCA’s David Samoff invited the esteemed conductor, Arturo Toscanini, to become music director and conductor of a new symphony orchestra inspired by Toscanini himself and to be known as the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The personnel of the orchestra was to be comprised of the world’s greatest musicians, many of who were personally selected by the Maestro himself. As legend has it, William Bell was the third musician selected by Toscanini after concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff and principal oboist Philip Ghignatti. Early in Bell’s tenure with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Eine Faust Overture again played a role in the continuing legend of Bill Bell. At the initial rehearsal of the work, Toscanini stepped onto the podium, raised his baton, and the rehearsal began. After the opening passage, Toscanini stopped and asked (in Italian) that it be played again. After three more requests from the Maestro to repeat the passage. Bell was at a loss with regard to what could be wrong. Toscanini sensed Bell’s concern and, looking in the direction of his tuba player (he had very poor eyesight), he smiled and said, “No, no – there is nothing wrong. It is so beautiful, please play it once more, just for me.” Such praise was very unusual for Toscanini, and his obvious admiration of Bell impressed everyone in the orchestra.
During his tenure with the NBC Orchestra, Bell was also “first call” with just about every music contractor in New York City. His “extra” freelance work often caused conflicting engagements. which he assigned to his cadre of outstanding students. Careers were sometimes created by these “conflicting” engagements, and a William Bell recommendation was literally worth its weight in gold. Many out-of-town symphony conductors preferred a Bell recommendation to an audition. In the meantime. Bell continued teaching tuba and other low brass between rehearsals, concerts, recordings, and broadcasts. He loved teaching, and it showed. His teaching, personal, and professional influence created many successful careers. It is always risky to start mentioning students for fear of overlooking someone, but among his New York students were Philip Cadway, Abraham Torchinsky, Bill Barber, Sam Green, Lewis Van Haney, Joseph Novotny, Eli Newberger, William Rose, Don Butterfield, Jay McAllister, William Lewin, Lewis Waldeck, Bob Pownall and Harvey Phillips.
April 1979 – Harvy Phillips holding a bronze plaque provided and later installed on Bell’s headstone by the Harvey Phillips Foundation, Inc. initiating the first annual Perry, Iowa celebration of William J. Bell. Photo courtesy of Harvey Phillips Foundation, Inc.
In 1943, Bell left the NBC Symphony for New York^hilharmonic, having finally succumbed to the long standing and oft repeated invitation of his former Sousa colleague, Maurice Von Praag, then manager of the orchestra. After joining the NYPO, Bell’s distinguished career of freelancing also continued, as did his popularity with colleagues, conductors, and others with whom he had contact. Leopold Stokowski invited Bell to both perform and narrate George Kleinsinger’s famous Tubby the Tuba for children’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic, as well as to sing and play a special arrangement of When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba. Bell not only had a solid reputation as a tuba soloist, but also as a singer and narrator. He had a wonderful bass-baritone voice and could match professional singers in quality and style. An important highlight of Bell’s later years in New York was the 1955 American premiere of the Ralph Vaughan- Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra with the Little Orchestra Society.
While Bell’s primary employment since 1924 was as an orchestral musician, his love for playing in bands continued throughout his life. It was his work as a distinguished bandsmjfti that firmly established his career. His favorite “extracurricular” summer activity continued to be the Asbury Park Municipal Band. In the summer of 1948, he was appointed principal tubist in Paul Lavalle’s “Cities Service Band of America,” which performed broadcasts every Monday evening on the NBC radio network. The original tuba section for Lavalle’s band was Bell, Fred Pfaff, Abraham Torchinsky, and Joe Tarto. Under Lavalle’s charismatic leadership, the band became a regular feature in the lives of American families throughout the USA. After eight years. Band of America performed its last broadcast in 1956. Other tubists who became regulars during the tenure of BOA were Don Butterfield, and Harvey Phillips.
Starting in the mid-fifties, another of Bell’s favored summer activities was the annual Gunnison Music Camp (Western State College, Gunnison, Colorado). Founded by George Sampson in 1933 the GMC endured until 1963. Organized for two-weeks in August the GMC was, for several years, under the direction of Kate and Robert Hawkins. Their vision brought together a loyal and outstanding faculty of conductors and instrumentalists. In 1963, on its final concert, the GMC Directors Band featured and recorded its tuba section of William Bell, Arnold Jacobs, and Harvey Phillips performing in unison (with band accompaniment) Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo. Also in 1963, Bell assumed the Aspen Music Festival summer faculty position established by Harvey Phillips in 1962.
In 1961, Bell retired from the New York Philharmonic, completing a distinguished career of thirty-seven years of orchestral playing. That same year. Dr. Wilfred C. Bain, Dean of the Indiana University School of Music, decided that he would recruit William Bell for his faculty. He began calling Bell and eventually convinced him to accept the position. While at Indiana University, Bell attracted some of the world’s most outstanding and promising students. His teaching success at Indiana University is well documented and added to his already enormous contributions to the tuba and to music in general. His Indiana University students included Robert Ryker, Jim Kajima, David Pack, David Hood, Winston Morris, Don Harry, Ivan Hammond, Paul Krzyzwicki, Floyd Cooley, and many others. Virtually every tubist of the twentieth century benefited from the teaching, professional stature, and persona of William J. Bell, and present and future generations continue to benefit from his achievements. In May, 1971, William J. Bell retired from Indiana University. I followed in his footsteps at lU (as no one could ever replace William Bell). Upon my appointment to the faculty at Indiana University, I established the William Bell Scholarship Fund. Unfortunately, during the summer after his retirement Mr. Bell’s physical condition deteriorated rapidly. He was transported to Perry, Iowa to the home of his beloved sister, Ruth Rankin. He died in the Perry Hospital on August 7, 1971, and he is buried in Perry.
May 19, 1979 – Harvey Phillips with Ruth Bell Rankin, Bell’s sister, at Perry, Iowa grave site. Photo courtesy of G.R. Davis.
On August 9, 1971,1 made a series of telephone calls to several composer friends who were acquainted with both Mr. Bell and me. I sought commitments for new compositions to be dedicated to Mr. Bell and to be premiered at his Memorial Concert, scheduled for October 3, 1971 in the lU School of Music Recital Hall. The concert was followed by a wake picnic at Bloomington’s popular Pic-AChic picnic grounds. Composers who accepted my invitation to write had only five weeks to complete their work, including time for rehearsals. Composers and works on the program included Robert Russell Bennett (Fanfare for a Great Guy for brass choir). Warren Benson (Piece for Tuba and Hand Drum), Morton Gould (Tuba Suite for Tuba and Three Horns in six movements), Paul Lavalle (The Bill Bell March), and Alec Wilder (Elegy for Bill Bell for solo tuba and brass ensemble). Gunther Schuller also composed Five Moods of Bill Bell for tuba quartet, but that work didn’t receive its premiere performance until May of 1973.
In May, 1973, I hosted the First International Tuba Symposium/Workshop (FITSW) in lU’s newly constructed Musical Arts Center. This event was dedicated to William J. Bell and was attended by over 300 tubists, as well as some 60 composers. T.U.B.A. was formalized at the FITSW with a constitution and bylaws. Bell’s former student, Robert Ryker was inspired in 1967 to create the concept of Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association by Bell’s famous gatherings of low brass players and friends at McSorley’s Old Ale House on Seventh Street in New York City. Also in 1973,1 established OCTUBAFEST events dedicated to Mr. Bell. In 1974 TUBACHRISTMAS concerts (now presented in over 200 cities) were inspired by the fact that Mr. Bell was bom on Christmas Day, 1902. Both OCTUBAFEST and TUBACHRISTMAS events now celebrate his memory worldwide every year. On May 19, 1979, in a ceremony attended by over 100 tuba and euphonium players, the Harvey Phillips Foundation, Inc. installed on William J. Bell’s headstone in the Perry, Iowa cemetery a bronze plaque chronicling the highlights of his illustrious career. Since 1979, an annual “William Bell Memorial Tuba Day” has been held in Perry, Iowa.
T.U.B.A./ I.T.E.A. was inspired by William J. Bell’s artistic stature, cordial and ingratiating personality, love of life, and camaraderie with his colleagues and student disciples. It is tragic that his untimely death at age 68 did not allow him to enjoy and benefit from the formal establishment of the organization he inspSfed, it woul(^ave made him proud! W^onclude this very brief account of the many facets and accomplishments of William J. Bell with his endearing expression of goodbye, tu-tu-ku-tut.
I extend my deepest gratitude to Jerry Young for the opportunity to share the above information with the ITEA membership. I extend a cordial invitation to all persons willing to share their personal memories and “Impressions of William J. Bell” with future generations to contact me about submitting information and materials for the William J. Bell Biographical Collection that is being compiled. Harvey G. Phillips, TUBARANCH, 4769 South Harrell Road, Bloomington, Indiana 47401-9028.