JON SASS FEATURE
PART I: A Giant Tuba, A Giant on the Tuba
by Jean-Pierre Mathez
PART II: Playing the Tuba is Such a Joy: Confidences of a Happy Tuba Player
by Jon Sass “Jon Sass, a Giant Tuba, a Giant on the Tuba” by Jean-Pierre Mathez, originally published in the Brass Bulletin no. 121 I-2003, pp. 38-41, and “Playing the Tuba is Such a Joy” by Jon Sass, originally published in the Brass Bulletin No. 120 IV-2002, pp. 30-35, are under world copyright by Brass Bulletin (www. brass-bulletin. com). They are reprinted with exclusive permission.
PART I: A Giant Tuba, A Giant on the Tuba by Jean-Pierre Mathez
With his height (2. 05m!) he could have played basketball. . . instead he and his tuba were swept off to Vienna and around the world. . .
Jon was born in the Bronx, New York in 1961 and spent his early childhood with his grandmother in Virginia, before returning to his mother, brother, and sister in Harlem, to start his schooling. Any music in the home was on gramophone LP records, and not until he was 14 years old did Jon show any interest in playing a musical instrument:
“I really wanted to play baritone sax in the wind orchestra of my intermediate school (a multiracial secondary school) in downtown New York City. But [the] instrument and position were already spoken for. The music teacher who selected the students wanting to play an instrument handed out a collection of used mouthpieces, just like that, like handing out sweets, telling us to choose one. When he came to me, he took something out of a plastic wrapping: it was a brand new tuba mouthpiece. I was immediately fascinated by its smell, shine, and shape, and the sound that I managed to get out of it straight away was enough to decide my future!”
Start of a musical adventure
The following year Jon confided in his friend Peter Citkowitz, one of the other students in the orchestra, that he wished he could have real lessons with a real tuba teacher.
“When he told me he had a neighbor called Sam, who taught tuba, I’m sure he had no ideathat he was responsible at that moment for launching me on my career. By an unbelievable stroke of luck it was Sam Pilafian! I was 15 when I had my first lesson with him, and I think he soon realized he could achieve something with me.”
In fact, from the start, Jon developed a good sound in a very natural way. Seeing this, Sam Pilafian undertook to develop his technique using the studies by Bordogni/Rochut and others. One day Jon was walking in Central Park when his ears picked up the sounds and music of jazz tubas and the damnedest swing and beat. He pushed his way through the onlookers, his eyes and ears all attention.
“It was Howard Johnson and his tuba sextet Gravity, all Black musicians, with a good rhythm section. I stood listening to them, completely stunned and could hardly drag myself away to go home. All of a sudden, my tuba had become something very different, and a new world opened up in front of me. Not long after, I went to see Howard and begged him to give me lessons. In the end I became his caddy, carrying his instruments everywhere. I would have done anything just to be in his company, but I still went to Sam for my “classical” education. This was the time when I was more likely to be listening to groups such as Earth, Wind, & Fire” (funk, soul, spiritual, “positive” music) or James Brown. At home I put on my mother’s records and played along with the bass line on the tuba. Almost unnoticed, this was giving me a solid grounding, and my technique and musical ear benefited enormously.”
High School of Music and Art, Harlem
At age 16, Jon attended the rigorous auditions for this multicultural institution, several of whose graduates are now famous musicians. Jon was successful and was admitted into this unusually exciting environment. With a friend, he formed the Sassafrass Brass Quintet, and they played two or three times a week on the streets of New York. He was also a member of the school jazz band with guys who today are featured on posters for major events, and this would open many doors for him. Jon’s first tuba was a patched old York in BB-flat, purchased with the help of his mother. It was at that time that he came across one of the early recordings of Roger Bobo, whose playing was to have a powerful influence on him.
When he was in his last year of high school in Harlem, Jon studied with trumpeter Sydney Baker, who gave him strong encour-agement, “You are capable of becoming one of the best tuba players in the world!” From the moment he had his high school diploma, Jon had no time to wonder what he was going to do next: “Howard Johnson called me up a fortnight later, ‘Listen, there’s this guy in Europe look-ing for someone who can play jazz and clas-sical tuba. Something for you, maybe?'”
It was in fact Mathias Ruegg, Swiss pianist, arranger, composer, and co-founder of the famous Vienna Art Orchestra, who had sent three of his musicians to New York to track down a suitable tuba player.
Europe in his sights…
The guys arranged to meet him in a jazz club to discuss the proposal, and to get to know him: “After the discussion, and on the basis of no more than Howard’s recommendation, they handed me a ticket [for] New York-Vienna, and I left on my first month-long European tour.”
That was in 1979, when Jon was only 18. On his return to the United States, he decided to continue his studies with Sam Pilafian at Boston University and was awarded a scholarship. His studies were interrupted by numerous new European tours, and it wasn’t until 1985 that he received his Bachelor’s Degree, a B.A. in Tuba Performance.
“I had received offers for professional engagements in Boston, but it was Mathias Rüegg’s idea that I should join him in Vienna. I accepted his proposal, because I reckoned there would be more opportunities in Europe, and Mathias wasn’t wrong.”
Things were soon going very well for Jon in Vienna. In addition to the Vienna Art Orchestra, he teamed up with the Dutch blues guitarist Hans Theessink the following year, and they formed a duo, which had its moments of glory. In 1987, trumpeter Hans Gansch and Jon Sass were invited by horn player Thomas Bieber to join the brass quintet Art of Brass Vienna, which has since become an established name through-out the world. But Jon never cut his ties with New York, and he returned regularly to play with his now famous friends. As the years went by, Jon established his reputation as a musician. His hectic musical life seemed to stretch out in front of him like a well-mapped road…
Where am I going, what do I have to say?
Seven or eight years ago, Jon began to reflect on his hitherto brief life as a musician and found himself faced with a host of questions. His future still lay open before him, but what was he going to do with it? He then discov-ered that his mind was teeming with ideas try-ing to find expression.
“Until then, I just did everything because I knew I had the ability. But then I took a long, cool look at myself in the mirror, and I heard myself say, ‘OK man, you can do amazing things on your tuba, but what do you actu-ally have to say for yourself musically?’ Once I’d asked the question, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was true, for years I had thrown myself wholeheartedly into other people’s music, but in no way had I got enough back. I didn’t even have the music I had been dreaming about since I was a boy, the music that would let me express my per-sonal musical identity. I recalled Bob Stewart’s words to me when I was starting out in 1980, ‘Jon,’ he said, ‘all these articulations and phrasings, you do it just to please yourself, why not build it into the music you play in your groups, get them to play it your way?’ It has taken me nearly twenty years to do it.”
At last Jon Sass’s personality has broken out of the cocoon of his everyday existence. He has begun to compose his own music, sea-soned with the “groove” and “soul” so close to his heart and to his African-American musical heritage, which he is recording on a CD due to appear in Spring 2004. This chal-lenge to liberate his creative spirit is no mean task, and he knows it. But finding himself brings a joy that makes his future bright!
Jon Sass Part II
Playing the Tuba is Such a Joy: Confidences of a Happy Tuba Player By Jon Sass
I am an artist who paints a picture with the tuba. I add the breath of life and light to the music so that it feels good; that is what I do best! When you give me afunk groove…”feet will move”!
Now at a new crossroads in my life as a musician I am experiencing profound change which affects all that I do. So I’m letting go of the old to make room for the new. Living in Europe has been very positive for me, and I’m able to network here in a way that has had a great impact on my roots in the U.S. I have become very versatile in the many musical roles I have played with my instrument. But above all I play tuba, and for me this is an educational journey in, around, and through my own universes.
I have recorded with world-hit producer Peter Wolf, performed with Leon Thomas and with Gidon Kremer, to name a few. My international travels through music have led me from Brazil to Japan and from Africa to Russia. While in Russia I worked as an American Cultural Representative and was able to share my rich musical heritage. The various ensembles that I have been a part of have been as diverse as classical orchestra and big band. Current combinations that I like to work with are: tuba-voice-trombone, tuba-violin-percussion, tuba-poet-sax/flute, tuba-harp-percussion, or brass quintet.
My favorite instrument has been the CC Tuba. In recent years I’ve played the B&S (PT20 and mostly the PT20P models). These horns have great intonation and virtually play themselves. I love a horn with bottom and very open overtones, in particular on the upper end. I also enjoy the freedom to change sound colors with my instrument. Two people in particular have helped me with high quality equipment: Gerhard A. Meinl (JA Musik), who for over ten years has provided me with great tubas, and recently the excellent Spanish craftsman Tony Romera (Romera Brass), who has made some fantastic mouthpieces for me. This collaboration has been a tremendous help to me in my musical development.
Articulation has always been a great inspi-ration and to me one of the tools for my creativity. You could say that this special way of playing the tuba is my own particular trademark! It speaks for itself in moments of high emotional release. It is fed by a desire for experimentation and by the excitement of discovering new con-cepts of sound, all of which enable me to continue extending my range of expression. It is still a joy for me to experience the charisma of the great musicians I am fortunate to meet. My personal approach on tuba has benefited tremendously from my years of classical and technical training. Living in Europe for many years has given me great opportunities for stylistic flexibility, for the “crossover” from one style to another. I have never considered myself to be a jazz or classical musician, but first and foremost an artist. My musical roots are in Rhythm & Blues, soul and groove, and I still identify with singers and bass players. This is the material from which my musical offering is made.
Dance to your own drum!
I have taught intensively, giving private instruction and facilitating workshops. To foster and inspire musical excellence in my students is a matter of great personal satisfaction to me. I encourage them to grow in self-confidence and help them to understand such concepts as authenticity and the artistic integrity of the musician. Aside from teaching the conventional techniques and solo, orchestral—and other—repertoire, I offer my students an insight into the tools self-management (a much neglected but essential quality) as well as the ability to listen inwardly to their own sense of inner timing—but essential quality) so that they can dance to the rhythm of their own drum!
Spring 2004 will see the release of a CD featuring Jon Sass himself (after having contributed to over 60 CDs for other musicians). Contact info: email@example.com or TBA www.jonsass.com.