Oscar F. LaGassé By Carole Nowicke
October 15, 1903-May 30, 2002
“I keep thinking the Detroit Symphony today is fantastic, I think it’s the finest orchestra I ever heard, and yet you play one our recordings, one of the big ones, like the Fantastic Symphony, and a lot of times they will say, ‘This is a recording of the Detroit Symphony,’ and it will be me.”—Oscar LaGassé
Oscar LaGassé was born in Massachusetts in 1903, and moved with his family to Detroit at age seven. LaGassé began playing cello in elementary school, and along with his brother Homer C. LaGassey (later a composer and band director), entered, as a 7th grader, the just-created (and later to be renowned) music department at Cass Technical High School. At Cass, his primary instrument was the cello, but band director Clarence Byrne required students to take instruction on other instruments. LaGassé’s woodwind instrument was the clarinet, and he started brass tuition with alto horn, then baritone, and finally tuba. He played a “broken-down funny-looking old helicon” belonging to the school. After graduating from Cass, LaGassé attended what is now Wayne State University, earning a teaching certificate, then returned to Cass as an instructor.
LaGassé played in the Michigan Theater Orchestra from 1928 to 1936, and at the Cass Theater from 1936-1940. The lavishly appointed Michigan Theatre, he said, “Was the finest paying job in the United States. We used to get $28-38 dollars extra in overtime money. They were all pretty good. Every theater in Detroit had an orchestra. Michigan had an orchestra, United Artists had an orchestra, the Fox had a big orchestra.” Fellow Cass Tech graduate and Detroit Symphony Orchestra colleague oboist Harold Hall recalled that when LaGassé was working at the Michigan Theater Orchestra “He was doing so well that he owned three cars.”
In addition theater orchestra work, LaGassé was a member of the WWJ radio orchestra, played in the Detroit Concert Band (as a substitute), and performed with Jean Goldkette’s Orange Blossom Orchestra, led by Hank Biagini. The Orange Blossoms were named for the Orange Blossom Terrace, but their best-known venue was the legendary Greystone Ballroom, where another of Goldkette’s bands, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers also played. The Orange Blossoms moved to Toronto with leader Glen Gray Knoblaugh and were renamed the Casa Loma Orchestra. LaGassé was interviewed about his experiences in the band in 1996 by author Lars Bjorn and quoted in his book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960.
L-R: Oscar Lagassé, Cliff Farmer, Elmer James, and Robert C. Jones
In 1940, LaGassé auditioned for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:
“There were only two of us that auditioned for the Detroit Symphony. Stanley Sabosky was the tuba player at the Fox Theater and he didn’t want the job, so I took it. He played the Carnival of Venice for the Symphony job, and I just played the concert repertoire. In fact, I was playing string bass most of the time, took my tuba, got the valves going again, and tried out for the Symphony, since nobody else wanted it, I got it. We would work for the season, which would be 24 weeks, and rest six weeks and then we’d start the summer season at the Fair grounds, then we’d have rest again. It was nothing like it is today.”
He was a member of the Detroit Symphony until 1970 during the terms of musical directors Victor Kolar, Karl Krueger, Paul Paray, and Sixten Ehrling. Under Paray (1951-1962), the Detroit Symphony recorded many fine performances in Orchestra Hall (the DSO did not perform in Orchestra Hall during LaGassé’s tenure), many of which are available as digital re-releases of the original Mercury Living Presence recordings.
LaGassé auditioned for Detroit Symphony on a BB= bell-front tuba–silver with a gold bell. He owned both Conn and York bell-front BB= instruments in the early part of his career. By the time he retired, he owned five tubas, including his primary orchestral instrument, a Alexander CC, a York 4/4 CC, an F tuba, a BB= Böhm & Meinl “York Master,” and a Mahillon six-valve “petite French tuba” in C. The York he found a little too small for the orchestra, and used the Alexander for most of his orchestral playing. He added a device to the tuning slide of the Alexander and several of his other instruments, so that he could adjust it with his right hand. Ivan Hammond said that this particular Alexander was a very fine instrument. After LaGassé retired, he wrote a letter to Hammond offering the Alexander for sale. Hammond found the letter upon returning home from a tour and immediately called to say that he would buy it, and said that he heard someone testing in the background.
LaGassé had taken woodworking and a pattern-making classes while at Cass Tech. He had a long career in fine furniture making which began when the Detroit Symphony went dark for two years, and he continued to practice that craft until near the end of his life. He also made shipping trunks, and with his friend Harold Hall worked on transforming the first floor of a house owned by saxophonist Larry Teal into studio space.
The owner of tubas in a number of keys, LaGassé comments on the use of F and C tubas:
“I had an F tuba. I used the F tuba on the solo in the Fantastic Symphony, and then bought a single C tenor tuba. This was a true tenor tuba, it was not a baritone or anything. It was just an octave smaller than the CC and I didn’t have to transpose or anything, and I used that for my Petrushka and “Bydlo,” and for small ensembles. Yes, you didn’t hardly have to blow hard at all. It was a Mahillon I sold it to one of my pupils. I should have kept it because it was an unusual instrument. I never could figure out the 6th valve. I knew how to handle the 5th valve. Three and three. It was piston. It was really loud. I used that for ‘Bydlo.’I tried to play Petrushka on the F tuba and I didn’t like it, and Ehrling didn’t like it either. He didn’t like the tenor tuba because it was just plain-old loud. I was very happy with that, at least he knew when I was playing it.”
A story of an incident which is the stuff of which many a player’s nightmares are made:
“I did a lot of jobbing, playing for dinner dances and stuff like that before I got into the Symphony. I remember playing in Southfield, Michigan, I was there with my little C tuba. The man who was throwing this party had heard a group down in Florida which was tuba, trombone, and banjo. He heard that combination, and he was giving a party in Southfield. He called some booking office. I was the tuba, and the trombone player was John Smith (who had taken some tuba lessons from me), and then a banjo. So I went out there, and the snow was like so [indicates] deep, and they’d plowed all the streets and I had a striped coat on with black pants, and I always had a shovel in the back of my car. I’ll never forget this. They had plowed up the street, I pulled aside to let a guy go by and got stuck. Here I am with this sports coat on, and I got my shovel out and shoveled myself out of there, and I got there, I had forgotten my mouthpiece! I thought, “What do I do now?” It just happened that John Smith had a tuba mouthpiece with him. That wouldn’t happen again in three million years. I forgot the name of the people, but the house was just fantastic, it was a beautiful house. So we played, and we ate, and we drank, and we played, and we ate, and we drank. Then I gave the guy my ticket, and he went and got my car.”
A teaching career which started in the late 1920’s and over 20 years on the faculty of Wayne State University means that Oscar LaGassé had an effect on a great many students. A few of those students whom he identified, or who identified themselves are: Jay Bertolet (Florida Philharmonic Orchestra), Randy Evanden, Ronald Haney (United States Marine Band), Rhonda Kersey, Joseph Oddo, David Pack (Phoenix Symphony), and Stanley Towers (Toledo Symphony).
David Pack said that Oscar was a realist and so also taught him to play bass. As a trained cellist, he had good technique on the bass. He focused with Pack on the bowing arm and made him practice in front of a mirror to make sure the bow traveled in a straight direction. He helped Pack find a good quality flat-backed Czechoslovakian bass, made by a Joseph Novotny. Pack’s lessons were taken in the basement of a old building on the Cass Tech campus on an enormous Sousaphone, which he had to climb around and crawl up underneath. He remembered that LaGassé would always show up with different mouthpieces, and that he bought quite a few of them from him over the years, including some Helleberg-Sears.
Jay Bertolet recalls: “Oscar was my first tuba instructor, when I was all of 14 years old. I began taking lessons with him soon after he had retired from the Detroit Symphony. His mainstay instrument in the DSO was an Alexander CC with a main tuning slide stick, something unheard of in that day and age. He’s the one who taught me that trick. He used to make things all the time, including a nifty mute stand and an excellent floor mounted tuba holder (the type that sits flat on the floor and holds the bell of the tuba in place). I’ve had many teachers, some very high profile, some completely unheralded, like Oscar. Oscar has had a profound influence on me and my development as a musician and as a person. I feel proud and lucky to be one of his students.”
Stanley Towers studied with LaGassé in the early 1960’s, played in the Detroit Concert Band with him, and purchased his 4/4 York CC in 1970.
This 4/4 York purchased from Arnold Jacobs was Oscar LaGassé’s first CC tuba.
The instrument is owned and has been used for over 30 years by Stanley Towers, principal tuba of the Toledo Symphony.
Towers was also Paul Bierley’s stand partner in the Detroit Concert Band (Photograph courtesy Toledo Symphony Orchestra).
Ronald Haney studied with LaGassé in the late 1960s at Wayne State or at LaGassé’s home in Royal Oak. He said that he didn’t have to take and instrument to lessons but could use the four valve Sousaphone in a stand which LaGassé provided.
Memories of Peers and Colleagues
Former Detroit Symphony colleagues Robert C. Jones, Harold Hall, and Joseph Skrzynski, in a joint interview related some anecdotes of LaGassé’s experiences in the Detroit Symphony. He enjoyed the company of the “very cohesive” “Bass Trust,” which included John Vandegraaff, Bill Gris, Arthur Luck, Frank Reeser, other members of the bass section, Joseph Skrzynski and like-minded individuals. On DSO tours the “Bass Trust” would check into the hotel, take their bags up to their rooms, meet in the lobby, and go out on foot in search of a bar with good draft beer.
Harold Hall said, “Oscar took on the job [of equipment manager]. After two years he had to quit, he couldn’t stand the headaches. Then I took it over. Oscar set a record of loading a truck–from the theater where Jackie Gleason did his shows. From the time they started throwing the stuff in the truck (and that’s a lot of stuff, trunks and instruments and all that) it took him under 25 minutes. So that was on the wall. The last 14 years I was in the orchestra, I took that over, and then went back three years after that, whenever they went on tour, they’d call me in and I’d handle the details. I broke Oscar’s record, and my timing was three or four minutes under Oscar’s but I never told him about that. My record is on the back of the set under Oscar’s.”
Hall also recalled, “Oscar was telling me about meeting someone when we were in Miami, and the fellow asked where he was from, he said, ‘Detroit,’ and the fellow said, ‘Oh, you must be Oscar LaGassé then.’ So, his reputation traveled ahead of him.” He was known well enough to be offered a position by the Chicago Symphony, according to Hall, “He got a letter from the Chicago Symphony, offering him so much money–and it was more than he was getting here. He showed the letter to Ray Hall [the personnel manager] and got a substantial increase in his pay.”
Oscar LaGassé (L) and bass trombonist Elmer Janes on a Detroit Symphony Orchestra tour, Ottawa, Canada, mid-1940s (Photograph courtesy of Robert C. Jones).
Joseph Skrzynski remembers playing some selections with only two trombones and tuba where he’d be seated next to LaGassé, “When we’d stand up to take a bow for a standing ovation, I’d be standing next to him and he’d say, ‘It’s OK if you like standing ovations.’” He went on to say, “When the Orchestra reorganized, we were at Masonic Temple from ‘51-‘56 or thereabouts. .. In the ‘50’s, the Masonic Temple was really buzzing. They had a cafeteria downstairs, a drill hall where the Masons drilled. They had their meetings there, the auditorium was very busy with all kinds of musicals and operas and whatnot. … One time Oscar had a break from one of the pieces we were rehearsing. He was either tacet in the movement or had the whole piece off. So, he disappeared until the next number is up. Finally he came back, I said to him, ‘Well, where have you been Oscar?’ He said, “I’ve went down to the barber shop and I got a hair cut on company time. That’s the best kind.” Few works of orchestral literature require more than one tuba, but Lew Waldeck remembered that he played with LaGassé when the DSO was on tour and picked up extra brass players for the optional band parts in Belshazzar’s Feast, performing the piece twice.
Abe Torchinsky called a LaGassé“delightful gentleman,” who he had some acquaintance with from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances in Michigan. LaGassé enjoyed meeting visiting tubists.
In perhaps one of the “last of the old fashioned auditions,” LaGassé was present at the auditions for selection of his successor–actually next to Sixten Ehrling and beaming at the competitors. Ellis Wean and Don Harry, who were at the audition remembered LaGassé ‘s beaming presence.
A celebration of the life of Oscar LaGasse was held on June 21, 2002 at the First United Methodist Church of Royal Oak, Michigan. A low brass choir comprised of trombonists Kenneth Thompson, Nathaniel Gurin, Joseph Skrzynski, Randall Hawes, and tubist Wesley Jacobs performed arrangements of the Chorale from Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach. Jacobs also performed Bach’s Komm, Süsser Tod, and Twilight Dreams by Herbert L. Clarke.
Meeting Oscar LaGassé
I met Oscar LaGassé for the first and only time on Memorial Day, 2000. It was not an easy matter to record an oral memoir with so modest an individual. On his basement pool table he had set out a large number of framed, autographed photos of radio and film stars he had met when he worked in theaters. More reluctantly, he produced a stack of photographs of himself with his tubas, students and teachers from the Cass Tech musical program, the WWJ orchestra, and very nattily dressed with the Orange Blossom Orchestra. We also toured the house so that he might show me artwork created by his nephew, the award-winning automobile designer Homer C. LaGassey, Jr., and his wife’s pianos.
His shop was tidy and very well equipped. I have never seen three table saws in a home wood shop. He had estimated to a reporter in the late 1980’s that the equipment was worth $20,000. He was still driving a van and picking up his own wood for his projects when we met. He had a number of pieces under construction, all with fine “fit and finish.” He said that he sold these pieces to high-end boutiques. At the conclusion of my visit he offered me the traditional Michigan beverage, Vernor’s ginger ale.
In September of 2002, I met with three of Oscar’s former DSO colleagues, second oboe Harold Hall, principal trombone Robert C. Jones, and second trombone, Joseph Skrzynski at one of their favorite gathering places, the “Sign of the Beefcarver” restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan to relate some of their experiences in the DSO and reminisce about their friend.
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Jay Bertolet, Alice Fitzpatrick, Paul Ganson, Harold Hall, Wesley Jacobs, the Northeastern University Archives, David Pack, Joseph Skrzynski, Colleen Tansey, the Toledo Symphony, and Stanley Towers with this article.
See Also: Obituary ITEA Journal, Fall 2002 for family information and other details.