The Tubas of the J.W. York Band Instrument Company
By Joseph Agnew
The tubas of the J.W. York Band Instrument Company established a reputation of excellence during the era of their manufacturing that still exists today. This survey sets out to document what styles of instruments were made and to make available a reference for players and collectors alike.
As the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth, a small instrument repair company in Grand Rapids, Michigan began full scale manufacturing of a complete line of band instruments. J.W. York had been a cornet player in the theater scene of Grand Rapids. His small company, founded in 1884, was growing and, now with the 1897 appointing of his new production foreman Alfred J. “Bill” Johnson, he was fully in the business of instrument manufacturing.
The line included trumpets and cornets, horns in F and E-flat, trombones, helicons, baritone horns, and, of course, tubas. These instruments enjoyed a reputation for superior craftsmanship and popularity for their wonderful tone. Indeed the business not only drew upon the demand for brass instruments driven by the concert and brass band era but also on military contracts with both the United States Army’s Quarter Master Corps and The United States Navy.
Although the company began as the J.W. York Instrument Co. of Grand Rapids, it went through various changes before being called the York Band Instrument Co. and then finally being sold to
Carl Fischer Musical Instrument Co. of New York. Some of the engravings on the York instruments include “J.W. York”, “J.W. York and Son,” “J.W. York and Sons,” “J.W. York Band Instrument Co,” and “York Band Instrument Co.” While these hand engraved logos vary in size and degree of ornament, there does not seem to be a pattern from year to year of anything more than the actual company name.
Although the full line of instruments enjoyed popularity in their era, it is the tuba line that has maintained a reputation that continues to draw interest today. In spite of the fact that all of the York tubas manufactured before 1920 were manufactured with a standard of pitch unusable in today’s ensembles, these tubas still draw the attention of players and collectors a like. It is perhaps the evolution of the other members of the brass family to a much larger size and bore that has limited the interest in their preservation. A quick comparison of a York B-flat tenor trombone to any modern professional tenor trombone will demonstrate the evolution of size that trombones have undergone. While trombones have dramatically increased in bore size in the last century these York tubas remain in the range of the designers of today’s instruments. In fact the two York tubas purchased from the late Arnold Jacobs by the Chicago Symphony have been copied by at least six manufactures. This is in spite of their own evolution far beyond the original design that they possessed leaving Grand Rapids in the early 1930s. While these tubas are the most famous of the York line, they by no means represent the only York instruments being played professionally today. The copying of this pair of CC tubas is just one example of the influence that the York tuba has had on the manufacturing of tubas today. Other members of the York line have also influenced today’s designers in size, weight, shape, and bore. As an example, it is also worth noting that York cornets still have a place in the realm of today’s brass and community bands.
Although York manufactured tubas for 50 years, a survey of several catalogs reveals that there were only five different sizes manufactured. These basic models were available in various configurations that included different bells and valves as well as different finishes. For the purposes of this article, catalogs that ranged from 1907 to 1939 were surveyed. These catalogs were photocopied by former Milwaukee Symphony tubist Robert Rusk from a private collection, and, although the series is not complete, it offers a useful cross section of the line discussed here.
As the years passed some of the models varied slightly and were given new model numbers. A 1924 pricelist reveals that between 1916 and 1924, York renumbered all models from previous years. Although the catalog pages do not reveal bore size, each model is described by dimensions that include height, weight, and bell diameter. By comparing these dimensions from catalog to catalog we are able to define the five basic models that were manufactured over the years.
As these tubas have resurfaced and been rebuilt, their original bore sizes and bell variations have been noted and are included in the discussion of each basic model. For the purpose of clarity, these models are discussed from smallest to largest and include as many variations as have been documented by the catalogs. In this way we are able to question variations that may have been the result of repairs or customizations. Although there is not a complete line of catalogs to insure an absolute documentation, this sampling may help to clarify questions that exist as well provide a resource for the discovery of models that are thus far unknown. In this discussion I have used terminology directly from the catalog. In some cases this represents new terminology for features that did not change. For example, sand blast finish is the same as satin finish, and burnished points are the same as bright points. This prose, designed to help marketing remain innovative, brings a flavor to these catalogs that is indicative of the era, and I have tried to maintain that flavor here.
The smallest tuba in the line was a medium EE-flat tuba. The tuba has a 15-inch bell and a valve bore of .593. This illustration comes from a catalog with no date, but a text entry that says “more than 25 years in the business” dates the publication at around 1907. This tuba was offered in EE-flat only and upright bell only. While in the 1907 catalog it is offered in two finishes and listed as model #29 (highly polished brass) and #30 (velvet [sand blast] finish), by the late 1930s there was a third finish offered that would have included gold in selected areas of the tuba. With a leather case, a mouthpiece, music holder (lyre), and valve cleaner, this tuba’s cost in 1907 was $102. This same instrument was model #640 in the 1939 catalog.
One of the most common models to still exist is the “Monster York EE-flat.” In the 1935 catalog this instrument was offered as fixed bell front only. In the 1939 catalog it was offered as upright or bell front with either top action or front action valves. Although the top action and front action valves differ in stroke and overall length, both setups used a .658 bore.
In 1913 this model was offered in high and low pitch. The listed dimensions in the 1913 listing included a bell diameter of 19.5 inches and a height of 31 inches. Width at the valves is noted as 17 inches, and the weight is 16 pounds. The 1913 model number was #51. The finishes offered for that year were “Finish A-highly polished brass” and “Finish B-silver plated sand blast finish. Inside of bell and all points burnished.” This model was also offered with a fourth valve, which in that year was a $15 option. There have been documented variations in the bell diameter for this model. These variations are rarely more than .5 inches and could be attributed to loose tolerances at the time of production.
The model 33 BB-flat tuba was a staple of the York line and often has a military engraving on the bell. These engravings are in addition to the York logo, are a script higher up the bell, and are U.S.N. for the Navy or U.S.Q.M.C. for the Army. In the 1916 catalog the dimensions of this model (33) include a height of 31.5″ with a width of 17.5″ and a bell diameter of 19.5″. The weight listing is 19.5 lbs. It was offered at various times with a fixed bell front, front action as well as top action valves, and high low pitch. The finishes offered were the same high polished brass or satin silver plating. In 1916 the fourth valve option that was offered later is not listed but for an extra $12 or so you could buy this instrument using their installment plan. The bore size for these tubas is .658″. This tuba shares the bell and bottom bow of the monster EE-flat as well as the same slight bell diameter variations.
The 700 series tuba is the most unique of the five main models that York produced. While the others seem to be somewhat larger and smaller versions of each other, the 700s are a different design all together. From the catalogs available, this model came about in the later years of production (at least as late as 1930). This instrument was available as an upright bell tuba with both top action and front action valves. In this set up it was offered in both BB-flat and CC. In its bell-front configuration it was offered with front action valves in the keys of EE-flat, BB-flat, and CC. Also available was the high pitch and low pitch option. The specifications for the upright bell top action BB-flat are listed as 37.5″ high, 18.5″ bell, and 19.5 lbs. The most common bore size for this instrument was .750″ but there have also been measurements of .715″ on this same design. While this is still not the CC tuba made so famous by the legendary Arnold Jacobs, aYork Company marketing publication labels these instruments as a symphony tuba that was “conceded to be the finest symphony bass ever made in this country.” This is perhaps an advertisement designed to push the CC-version that was introduced to the York line with this model and gaining popularity in the symphonies of that era. Another innovation of this line was a removable bell available in both upright and bell front configuration.
The Monster BB-flat is the largest of the York line and has been referred to by historian Bob Rusk as our “5/4 friend.” In the later catalogs (1930 and 1935) this model evolved into the bell front model #726 but in the 1916 publication it is pictured as an upright bell. The dimensions listed in this catalog include a length of 38″, a width of 19.5″, a bell diameter of 22″, and a weight of 24 lbs. The valve options on this model included three top action or front action valves with high and low pitch. In 1916 there is no fourth valve option but later it is offered for an additional charge of around $20. The valve bore of this model was .750″. The finishes available remained the standard bright polished brass or Satin silver. In the 1935 catalog there is a paragraph about this model being offered in the key of CC. This is the only mention of the model owned by the Chicago Symphony.
This text is exactly as follows: “We are also in a position to supply a CC large bore Bass with 5th valve of the Rotary type for thumb of right hand, to produce low D-flat—made on special order—prices on application.”
In the 1930s the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned such an instrument, which became that of Arnold Jacobs and is now the property of the Chicago Symphony. It could be supposed that this offer was a result of this Philadelphia Orchestra project. While there are only two of these five valve monster CC tubas known, it is possible that there were a few other tubas like this made. I have inspected and measured the two instruments that are owned by the Chicago Symphony and believe one to be a prototype for the other and thus supporting the idea that only two exist This catalog entry suggests the possibility that others were actually built.
While this is just one aspect of the mystique surrounding these horns, York tubas remain sought after by both collectors and performers. While they may not represent the ideal tuba sound to every one, their popularity remains. Whether or not the York tuba really is the “Stradivarius” that Mr. Jacobs said it was, the company remains a wonderful example of American industrial ingenuity. The company remained foremost in its field from the turn of the century until it began making military munitions during World War II. Then, even as now, the tubas were an important part of that legacy.
“York Instrument Co, Founded in 1882,” Grand Rapids Herald (1937).
Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind, by Brian Frederiksen and Edited by John Taylor (Gurnee, Il : Wind Song Press Limited, 1996).
“York Co. Sold, Will Expand,” Grand Rapids Herald (5 December 1940)
“Notes on Early 20th Century Pitch Standards” by John Swain, J.W. York Research Site.
Private Lesson with Arnold Jacobs taken and recorded by Joseph Agnew (October 1989).
Private Lesson with Arnold Jacobs taken and recorded by Joseph Agnew; Arnold Jacobs (May 1997).
In addition to rebuilding York Tubas in his home workshop, Joseph Agnew is the tuba instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Trinity International University, and the principal tubist in the Evanston Symphony.