Moving On by John Cradler
Tucker Jolly Retires from the University of Akron
The spring semester of 2013 marked the end of an era for the brass faculty at the University of Akron. Tucker Jolly retired after 33 years of service to the University, having shaped the lives and careers of hundreds of tuba and euphonium players and countless other musicians and music lovers. Those fortunate enough to have studied with him came away having learned how to produce a more beautiful sound with their instrument, how to turn a better phrase, how to be a better overall musician, and how to be a better person. I spoke with him recently about his career, some of the things he will take away from it, and his plans for the future.
Growing up in Okolona, Mississippi, Tucker’s musical studies began on the piano, but it wasn’t long before the tuba became the main instrument in his life. Not having much access to private instruction in a small town in Mississippi, Tucker credits the band directors at his school, Herbert Wilson and Larry Howell, with guiding him through his studies in his early years. He was considered a fixture in the high school band room- he said the joke in Okolona was “I was either at my mother’s house eating, or in the band room!” He was a member of the Mississippi All State Band, and also the Mississippi Lions All State Band. The Lions Club sponsored the latter band in the summer and sent them to wherever the national Lions Club convention was being held. He particularly remembers being in the band after his freshman year and traveling to Europe on a 21- day all expenses paid (with the exception of lunches) tour. Other trips with the Lions Club Band took him to Los Angeles, Texas, Florida, the New York World’s Fair and Canada. Many of the members of that band went on to professional careers of their own.
After high school, Tucker enrolled at Florida State University as a music education major. At the time, he indicated he wanted to stay in the south, and Florida State enjoyed a reputation as one of the best music schools in the region. A director of one of the honor bands he played in was from Florida State. The director was very impressed with Tucker’s playing and was able to secure substantial scholarship money for him to attend Florida State.
During his sophomore year at Florida State, he was presented with the opportunity to play in a full time brass quintet in Texas for a period of three years. At this time, the United States was heavily involved in the war in Vietnam, and Tucker needed to stay enrolled at a university to maintain his school deferment, which would keep him out of the military draft. Since he was based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he enrolled at North Texas State University (now known as The University of North Texas) in Denton. Tucker noted that out-of-state tuition at NTSU at the time was the grand sum of $225.00 per semester! His senior year at North Texas, he was hired to teach the undergraduate tuba students, since the teacher at the time, David Kuehn, had to leave to complete his doctorate degree at Eastman. When Tucker was finished at NTSU, as he put it, “All options were out and I either needed to join the military or get drafted, so I joined the Coast Guard Band in 1970.”
Jolly leads TubaSummer
I asked him to explain the Vietnam era military draft, since it was the draft that led so many fine musicians to the service bands in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He replied, ” … in some areas, they didn’t need to draft everybody, so to try to be as fair as possible to everybody as to what order they put people, they did it by birth date. And they drew your birthday and assigned a number to it, 1 through 365. The lower the number, the more likely you were to be drafted. So, it was a big night; they did it on television, like a national television broadcast, ’cause all the young men in the country were eagerly watching. I was a little late getting to the broadcast, and I walked in and my future wife (we were dating at the time) said ‘You’re already done, you’re number three!’ So, there was no question, I was going to go.”
So, faced with the reality of being drafted into the Army, he began auditioning for service bands, since joining a service band would fulfill his military obligation. At the time, military bands did not audition as they do today, where multiple candidates show up on a predetermined day and a winner is chosen. Rather, applicants would travel to the bands at different times and arrange for the leadership to hear them play. If they were acceptable, they were often hired on the spot. Tucker auditioned for the U.S. Marine Band, The U.S. Army Band, The U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band, and the U.S. Coast Guard Band. He received offers of employment from several of them, but ultimately decided to join the Coast Guard Band. He said what helped him decide was that the Coast Guard Band was not in Washington, D.C. but in New London, Connecticut. It was a smaller town and the setting was much more to his liking. They also offered him the principal tuba position, further sweetening the deal.
Paragon Brass Quintet
During his time in the Coast Guard, Tucker was reunited with some other musicians from North Texas State University, one of whom was a trombone player in the band. He had gotten word that a brass quintet was forming, but was planning to use bass trombone rather than tuba. At the urging of the trombone player, the quintet was convinced to give Tucker a try out on tuba with the group and they decided that their quintet would indeed be using him on tuba. This was the beginning of the Eastern Brass Quintet. During their existence, they released three albums on vinyl. Later, with the advent of compact discs, these three albums were condensed onto two separate compact discs. Tucker adds, “I think those CDs are still out there.” Indeed those recordings can still be found. Classical Brass on Klavier records contains outstanding recordings of some staple repertoire for brass quintet.
By 1974, all five members of the Eastern Brass Quintet had become members of the New Haven Symphony. The quintet was also picked up by Columbia Artists Management, which arranged concert dates for them. Over the next several years, Tucker also received his master’s degree from the University of Connecticut. Touring with the quintet was hard work. The Canadian Brass and the Empire Brass were very popular at the time and Tucker says, “We were the third rung on that ladder.” The grind of the road began to factor into the equation. “Touring is fun, it really is, but you get ready to not see a hotel room for a while!” It had become clear that it was time to settle down and get off the road.
In 1980 there were two openings for college teaching, at the University of Akron and the University of Kentucky. He won the position in Akron and began teaching that fall. One difference he appreciated was the wide variety of music that the faculty brass quintet would program. When he was touring with the Eastern Brass Quintet, the program had much less variety and was more of a product that needed to be sold. In a university setting, the faculty group had much more freedom to choose what they played. At the time, the faculty brass quintet bore the name “The University of Akron Faculty Brass Quintet,” which as Tucker says, “Is kind of a long handle.” The group soon began looking for a new name. Tucker was a listener of Cleveland sportscaster Pete Franklin, whose catch phrase was “The Paragon of Excellence.” After hearing that on the radio, there was a subsequent “Aha!” moment and the name Paragon Brass Quintet was given to the group.
One of the major changes to the Paragon Brass Quintet, aside from the name, during Tucker’s tenure was the addition of Jack Brndiar on trumpet. The three other regular faculty members, Scott Johnston on trumpet, Ed Zadrozny on trombone, and Bill Hoyt on horn, and Tucker as a group convinced the school of music that a regular professional player, rather than a graduate assistant would be best for the group over the long term. Instead of teaching a new player the repertoire every 2 years, they could focus on really building the group’s repertoire and having consistent performance levels. They auditioned Jack Brndiar, who was a trumpet player in the Ohio Chamber Orchestra at the time. Brndiar proved to be a great fit for the ensemble, both personally and musically. As Tucker puts it, “If you’ve done any quintet playing, you know personalities are about as important as the playing.” In 1994 the group toured China, performing in Beijing and two other cities. They also traveled to Germany and Austria and made a return trip to China in 1996.
Among his other duties at the University of Akron were running the tuba/euphonium ensemble and the brass choir. He remarks, “Had you asked me when I was 19 ‘Would I conduct a brass choir?’ I’d have laughed! But that has proved to be a real source of enjoyment and pleasure over the years.”
Among Tucker’s many accomplishments during his time in Ohio is the remarkable growth of the annual Akron TubaChristmas. This event has grown from modest size at outdoor venues in the early days to two indoor shows that are a sold out extravaganza in one of Akron’s largest performing spaces. This wonderful event is presented as a gift to the city of Akron, and it has become a highlight of the holiday season in Northeast Ohio. Tucker stated that, “A lot of people in this area might not know if I play tuba or not, but they know I do TubaChristmas!” As of this writing, he plans to stay involved with the Akron TubaChristmas, but being recently retired from the University may necessitate altering those plans in some way.
An event that grew out of the popular TubaChristmas is the Akron TubaSummer, now in its 13th year. It is a similar large tuba and euphonium ensemble performance given outdoors on the university campus.
Near the end of the interview, I asked Tucker what he has taken away from his many years of teaching. He answered, “The thing that I’ve found in teaching, if you really care about it, you learn so much from the students that you teach. The thing that has kept me going for all these years is that it’s really never… some people say teaching can be boring, NO!,. no two students are the same… I’ve found it extremely rewarding to see students grow.” Speaking about the variety of talent and skill levels that he has encountered in his students over the years, Tucker found that he enjoyed the whole spectrum, from working with very skilled students to quite raw, almost beginning players.
I asked Tucker if he has any special plans for life after the University of Akron and he replied, “Nope, right now my special plan is to wait and see how it all feels. I’ve been retired for a month, and it’s gone by very quickly. I haven’t gotten bored yet.”
I consider myself very fortunate to have studied with Tucker Jolly and to have him as a friend. As his former students will surely attest, he is knowledgeable, supportive, humble, and sincere in his dealings with everyone he meets. His love of music and love of teaching are clearly evident, and he is eager to share his talents with those around him.
From all of us in the greater tuba and euphonium community that have had the pleasure of working with you and learning from you, thanks for all you have done. May this next chapter in life be as rewarding as your career as a player and a teacher.
John Cradler has been a member of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C. since 1989 and currently serves as the tuba section leader and low brass section commander. His duties with the band have ranged from ceremonies throughout the Washington metropolitan area to performing concerts in 48 states, Switzerland, and Singapore. As a member of “The President’s Own,” he has participated in six Presidential Inaugurals. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied with Ron Davis and John Stevens. In 1989 he earned a Master of Music degree from the University of Akron, where he studied with Tucker Jolly. John is also a founding member of Off Bass Brass, who released their first recording, “Knock Yourself Out,” in 2010.