Wesley Jacobs: The career of a lifetime
by Jacob Cameron
Wesley Jacobs has had a truly phenomenal career, highlighted by his 38 years as Principal Tubist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. There is no question he is one of the most influential tuba players alive today, contributing significantly as a performer, teacher, and publisher.
Wes began playing tuba and bass when he was a high school freshman in Palmdale, California. He was self-taught until he attended Cal State College at Long Beach in 1964. During his college days, Mr. Jacobs apprenticed to be a piano tuner. This skill increased his ear training and allowed him to earn money anywhere he lived. Wesley also did work sidelining for film and television during his time in Los Angeles, appearing on the television series, Peyton Place and Saber in the Sun. His film appearances include Magnificent Men of the Sea and the 1969 hit movie Hello, Dolly!. (Wes arrived for the filming of the parade scene in Hello, Dolly! with a silver sousaphone, knowing that the other sousaphones would be brass. He thought that the film was going to be “really big” and wanted to ensure that he could be picked out on-screen.) Towards the end of his time in L.A., Wesley joined the California Air National Guard band. He continued his Air National Guard Service in Pennsylvania while attending Juilliard and in Ohio while beginning his tenure with the Detroit Symphony.
In 1964, Wes began a lifelong friendship with Richard Carpenter. The musical side of this friendship culminated in the formation of the Richard Carpenter Trio in 1965. This ensemble was made up of Richard Carpenter on keyboards, Karen Carpenter on drums, and Wes Jacobs on bass and tuba. In 1966 the Richard Carpenter Trio won the Los Angeles Battle of the Bands held at the Hollywood Bowl. Immediately after that success, the trio signed with RCA and recorded an album with Wesley performing on both bass and tuba. Though the album was not released, the Carpenters were on their way to pop history, selling more than 100 million units. Wes continued to perform with the group on and off after his appointment as tubist with the Detroit Symphony.
DSO Low Brass at Meadowbrook (L-R): Wes, Randall Hawes, Tanny Gurin, and Ken Thompkins, circa 2000
Wesley began his orchestral career performing with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra from 1968–1970, performing the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen during his time there. In 1970, Mr. Jacobs was appointed Principal Tuba with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by Sixten Ehrling. During his 38-year tenure with the DSO, Wes distinguished himself by bringing the highest level of professionalism to the position. Possessing a beautiful tone, thoughtful phrasing, and an exceptional sense of balance, he supported the Detroit Symphony with unwavering excellence. Mr. Jacobs performed under six different Music Directors and can be heard on more than 60 recordings with the DSO.
Mr. Jacobs formed Encore Music Publishing in 1985. Focusing primarily on music for tuba, the company had a catalog of over 200 titles by 1995. Encore’s most prominent publication is the Arban Complete Method for Tuba, a team effort by Wesley Jacobs and Dr. Jerry Young. This critical supplement to the tuba repertoire has been expanded to include an edition for trombone in collaboration with Joseph Alessi and Dr. Brian Bowman and an edition for trumpet in collaboration with Allen Vizzutti.
Debra Fayroian (spouse, cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for 30 years), Adrienne Jacobs (now a member of DSO violins) and Wes, photo taken on a DSO tour in Japan
In addition to his contributions as a performer and publisher, Mr. Jacobs has dedicated himself to educating aspiring musicians. He has held teaching positions at Wayne State University, The University of Windsor, and the Oberlin Conservatory. He has also taught in a substitute capacity at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
On stage at Interlochen prior to a DSO concert, circa 2000
Wes is known for his ability to make astute financial decisions. That ability served him well during his 30 year run as a Trustee of the DSO Pension. He has spent the last 12 years as Chair of the Pension Trustees, a position he continues to hold even after his retirement. During his tenure with the Detroit Symphony, Wes also used his business acumen to represent his fellow musicians during contract negotiations.
On stage at Orchestra Hall in Detroit before a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition (L-R): Ken Thompkins (principal trombone, DSO), Tanny Gruin (second trombone, DSO) and Wes, circa 1996
Wesley Jacobs met Debra Fayroian (a cellist) while playing in the DSO in 1976 and they were married in 1978. Deb’s talent, musicianship, and artistry have always been an inspiration to him. She has, for many years, performed great chamber music in Detroit and throughout the country. Now, in addition to performing, she is a presenter of chamber music in the Traverse City, Michigan area. Her Chamber Music North organization is the largest presenter of chamber music in the Northwest Lower Peninsula. Wes’ daughter, Adrienne (Jacobs) Rönmark is the violinist of the family. She is a terrific musician who is a member of the Detroit Symphony. She won the violin position three days before Mr. Jacobs retired! Adrienne and Debra perform together on a regular basis. Adrienne is married to the well known Swedish saxophonist Erik Rönmark, and they make their home in the Detroit area.
Mr. Jacobs is a recipient of the University of California’s Lifetime Achievement in Music/Distinguished Artist Award. This award recognizes his work with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and The Carpenters.
A retirement party for Wes at DSO Orchestra Hall (Randy Hawes found and framed an old photo of Wes in a Mirafone advertisment), June 2008
Jacob Cameron: When did you start playing tuba?
Wes Jacobs: I started bass and tuba at the same time, my freshmen year of high school. I began the tuba first. I got interested in the tuba in ’58 or ’59. I was at Disneyland, and I heard the Disneyland band; they had a big band in those days. It was conducted by a man named Vessey Walker. It was an old-time concert band, and they had a really good tuba player, his name was Ira Westley. Ira played quite well, and I fell in love with hearing him play the tuba. Interestingly, it was only six years later that I was subbing with that band. I started thinking about the tuba and then, when I started high school, I had a chance to get into the band. I started playing tuba and then the bass seemed like a logical extension. At that time it seemed like a logical thing to do, of course, it really wasn’t, but that is how I started playing bass. I was actually able to get work right away playing bass. Even in high school I was working a lot; in combos, jazz bands, and dance jobs.
Taken at the Meadowbrook Music Festival (DSO) around 2006.
JC: How did you decide to become a music major?
WJ: In my senior year of high school I performed a solo at a festival and was adjudicated by H. Robert Reynolds (Reynolds was the band director at Cal State Long Beach, before he took over at the University of Michigan). He heard me play, and he came back after and said, “You know, you should audition at Cal State Long Beach,” which I did.
Wes Jacobs (c. 1980)
JC: Who did you study with during your Cal State days?
WJ: I first studied with Robert Simigrin who was the bass trombonist of the Long Beach Symphony. He was just the person I needed. He really emphasized legato playing and that is what I couldn’t do. Basically he had me practice nothing but lip slurs and Bordogni for a semester, day and night, and we fixed my legato problems.
I studied primarily with Tommy Johnson and then later with Roger Bobo. I think about three years with Tommy and about a year with Roger, with some overlap. The great thing about L.A. at that time was having those two great tubists available. They worked together beautifully and sent students to each other. It was just fabulous. I was really lucky to be able to study with both of those great artists. At that time I don’t think I could have received better instruction.
Tommy and Roger had the ability to just pick up a horn and play anything in the middle of a lesson, and they would sound great. I don’t think I ever became as good at that. When playing in the symphony, you have the whole week to prepare the music. There is time to prepare physically and mentally. On the day of the performance I can warm-up with the idea that I’m going to play Meistersinger or whatever it is. To just pick up the horn and sound terrific is awfully hard to do, and both Tommy and Roger could do it very well. Tommy could sound like anything or anyone. I don’t know how he did it.
Wes at an outdoor concert in the Detroit area, circa 1980s
JC: What was their teaching style like?
WJ: When I went to see Tommy Johnson every week for my lessons I had to have a technical etude and at least one Bordogni prepared. He didn’t even have to assign it, as it was an ongoing assignment. Roger was very solo oriented. He made me work on excerpts more intensely than Tommy did. Roger introduced me to Schlossberg [Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trumpet], and how to approach those studies on the tuba.
Wes and Randy enjoy a long bicycle ride in Northern Lower Michigan. We stopped in a town called Cross Village and noticed this sign. We were considering applying for the job! (c. 1987)
JC: What was the biggest difference between learning on your own and studying privately? Did it freak you out at all to have somebody dictating your practicing?
WJ: Yes, now that you mention it. That happened a couple of times. When I first started studying with Simigrin I had to be so focused on legato playing and flexibility, which I had never focused on. That was a totally new thing for me. When I attended Juilliard, and I studied with Joe Novotny, tuba player in the N.Y. Philharmonic, I walked in there with a big pile of solos and he said, “Put those away, you’re not going to need those because we are just going to be playing scales and excerpts. If you want to get a job these are what you are going to have to play. You can play solos, but you’re not going to make a living playing solos, you’re going to make a living playing in an orchestra, and, if you want to do that, you need to be playing excerpts day and night.” And that’s what I did. That was another shocker for me because I was very much into playing solos. That was my second big shock.
JC: Why did you decide to go to Juilliard?
WJ: I was attending Cal State Long Beach, which was actually a great music environment but not a nationally known music school. I thought I should get into New York City, go to a big school, and compete with the people that are supposedly the top in the country. Juilliard was great but I think it gave me more of an appreciation for what I had at Long Beach State.
Oscar LaGasse was Wes’ predecessor in the DSO. This group played at his memorial service in 2000. (L-R) Tanny Gurin (second trombone, DSO), Kennith Thompkins (principal trombone, DSO), Robert Jones (former principal trombone, DSO, late 1940s until around 1951), Randal Hawes (bass trombone, DSO), and Wes.
JC: At what point did you start to develop a steady routine to do each day?
WJ: By the second year of college I had a really fixed routine. I had an extremely structured warm-up, and it grew and grew; it was really almost like a cancer it got so big. There was a time when my warm-up was an hour and 15 minutes. I kept tacking more and more things in there. I didn’t understand that I should be removing things from my warm-up. If an exercise doesn’t have a really good reason to be in the warm-up, it should be replaced with something that does have an impact. My warm-up was influenced by some trumpet players. A friend of mine named Russell Kidd had a very organized warm-up routine. I used that routine for quite a while, and it became the basis for the scale arpeggio/lip slur warm-up that I used for many years.
Gerald Ford Theater in Vail, Colorado (Vail Music Festival) before a DSO concert. (c. 1992)
JC: What was your practice schedule like in school?
WJ: I was practicing heavily, probably too heavily, but that was Mel’s [Culbertson] influence. A three-hour practice day would be a short day. Mel and I were good friends while we were attending Cal State Long Beach, and he was a great influence on me. First of all, it was great to have someone there who was expert competition. People say that I practiced a lot, but nobody practiced more than Mel. No matter how much I practiced, he was always practicing more and it was always a real inspiration for me.
JC: You have taught for a long time now. In your eyes, what is the role of a teacher?
WJ: First of all, a teacher must flex with the student’s needs. Using a predefined method may not work. It may work but chances are it won’t. In a way, I work with students as I would work with my own playing. I help students analyze what physical playing problems need to be fixed. I give them advice on how to go about fixing those problems. I try, and this is maybe more important, to instill in them the idea that they can analyze things themselves. It’s not really hard to teach someone how to play the tuba, but you can’t teach talent. You can help someone expose all the talent they have, but I don’t think you can create talent. The idea is to get each student to realize more of their potential.
Randy and Wes warming up before a DSO concert in Luzerne
JC: What defines talent?
WJ: I think a musician may progress as far as they can hear and perceive the music. Perception is the great limitation. Once their playing reaches their maximum level of perception, they aren’t going to progress further. I encourage students to study ear training, sing, and to do everything they can to improve their hearing.
Music is art and art is communication. Whether it’s a painting or a sculpture or a play or a piece of music, you have to communicate a feeling. If a student can communicate some kind of feeling there’s a talent. I’ve seen the whole spectrum. I have had students that were unbelievable tuba players but couldn’t communicate. Communication is a big part of the definition of talent.
On stage at Orchestra Hall in Detroit (c. 2005)
JC: What kind of student were you?
WJ: I had to work really hard; I practiced a lot. I was around people that had more talent than I, like Richard Carpenter. He had this unbelievable ear and unbelievable talent, and I was working very hard to have just as much talent. I didn’t reach Richard’s level, but I got a lot closer. I used to work on ear training incessantly. We would play games, Richard and I, of course I could seldom win them but I did get better, I became dramatically better.
JC: How did you meet Richard Carpenter?
WJ: We met in theory class, and it was obvious to me that he was a genius. Right from day one he could take all the dictation that the teacher could dish out; he would just write it out.
Wes and Carol Jantsch (now principal tuba, Philadelphia Orchestra) prior to a DSO performance of Symphonie Fantastique at Interlochen (c. 2005)
JC: What started the musical relationship?
WJ: He wanted to do something jazzy. He knew I played the bass and I said, “Yeah, I’ll play bass with you.” We played, and it just clicked right away. Since I had considerable keyboard experience, I could look at his hands and read what he was doing. I could almost play along with him as if I were reading music. We really locked in stylistically. Within a short time, it was apparent that we had to do something musically, but we didn’t know what. At one point he said, “I’ll tell my sister to learn how to play drums, and we’ll have a trio.” Within three weeks she could play drums better than anybody that I heard at the college.
JC: Was the trio successful early on?
Wes and Mathew Lyon on stage at Orchestra Hall during a DSO rehearsal (c. 2007)
WJ: We played at the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands and won everything. A producer from RCA was at the concert, and he met us right after and said, “I want you to sign a recording contract.” We signed a contract with RCA and made an album. The big people at RCA listened to it and said, “Well, we don’t know, it’s too weird.” We didn’t have a focus, it was really great playing, but we didn’t really have that focus. Karen wasn’t singing, and the tuba wasn’t going to sell records. There was a lot of talent, but we didn’t have direction. Richard looked for that focus for a year or two, for that direction. Finally it was Karen that put the focus on it. It was clear then that it was to be Richard’s arranging and direction, and Karen’s singing.
JC: When did you start to think that the Carpenters could take off?
WJ: Probably about ’67, I knew the talent was there, and I could see the focus start to develop, and there were certain attributes that Richard had that I have never seen in anybody else. We could be driving down the road in a car, and a song would come on, and it was like he was hit by lightning. He would say, “That song is going to be No. 1,” and he was right almost every time. He had an instinct for what would sell, and it was instantaneous; he didn’t have to think about it. He could hear a song once, and we would go home and play it. He would have the whole thing memorized, even the words. It was apparent to me fairly early on that they were going to be really big, I just didn’t know how big.
Wes and Morris Kainuma share a laugh (c. 2003)
JC: Talk about your decision to pursue orchestral tuba playing instead of pop stardom.
WJ: I had to decide if I wanted to perform popular music. It would have been a great career. I realized that I would play the same concert 200 times a year while touring with the Carpenters instead of 200 different concerts per year in a symphony. I chose the symphony.
JC: Did Richard try to get you to stay?
WJ: He actually did put pressure on me after I was in Detroit. He called me, and he basically offered me a lot of money. He said that I could come back if I wanted. That was in ’71 I think. I didn’t take it. He was fine with it, and I actually did continue to play with them, even while I was here in the symphony [Detroit]. But Richard wanted me to go on the road with them, and I wasn’t going to do that. I thought, “I am in the right place. I am doing what I want to do, and I am pretty good at it. I have a good life so I am going to continue in the DSO.”
Wes preparing for a DSO European tour (c. 2001)
JC: When did you first start taking auditions?
WJ: I auditioned for the San Francisco Opera for the ’67 season. I won that position, which was my first audition. But then I declined the job to go to Juilliard.
JC: You declined a job to go to Juilliard? Wow.
WJ: That is what they said too, wow. Kurt Herbert Adler, the General Director, tried to convince me to join the opera orchestra. He said, “You know, a job like this is the reason you go to Juilliard.” However, I declined the job, and I went to Julliard. After the first year at Juilliard I realized that as great as it was, I should have taken the opera job. So I called San Francisco, and I got on my knees and said I made a big mistake, and they took me back the next year.
Wes and Craig Knox (now principal tuba Pittsburgh Symphony) on stage at Orchestra Hall prior to a DSO concert
JC: Your second audition was for the Detroit Symphony. What do you remember about that audition?
WJ: In Detroit they didn’t have a repertoire list! There was no list. I even went in the day before the audition and talked to the personnel manager and said, “Do you have a list or something?” and he said, “There is no list, just be ready.” They had a big pile of music, and Oscar Lagasse [Wes’ predecessor in the DSO] was on stage choosing what pieces to play. My theory was that they were poking for weaknesses and once they found a weakness they would dwell on it. I played two rounds. My preliminary audition took a long time, almost half an hour. They finally eliminated everyone except one other player and me. There was no screen, and the two of us were sitting on stage side by side. It was just back and forth, excerpt by excerpt.
JC: So did it mess with you to hear the other person playing right next to you?
WJ: Yes, and he had a bigger horn too. You won’t believe this; I was on the [Mirafone] 184. The 184 of course had a real advantage on clarity, but the sound was really not the right sound for the orchestra. But it was super clear so when the fast parts came, like Til Euilenspiegel it was much clearer so I gained points. When the big low excerpts came, the two of us both knew that the other guy had the more appropriate sound, but, my clarity was still there, and I think Maestro Ehrling really liked the clarity. When I got into the orchestra I immediately switched to the big Rudy Meinl tuba.
The Richard Carpenter Trio (c. 1966)
JC: Do you remember what excerpts you played in the audition?
WJ: I remember what won the audition. That was Vincent D’indy’s Symphony on a French Mountaineer‘s Song. I had performed it three weeks earlier with the Burbank [California] Symphony. I was doing well in the audition, but, in my own estimation, it wasn’t clear who was going to win. I would play something better and then he would play something better and I thought, “You know this could go either way so I am just going to relax with it and see where it takes us.” Then, they pulled this piece up (the D’indy), and I got this really warm feeling inside. It’s a piece that’s not intensely hard, but it would be very difficult the first time you played it. My opponent didn’t know the piece, but I played it flawlessly. So luck figures in to the whole equation.
JC: You have served on countless audition committees during your tenure with the DSO. How have auditions changed over the years?
WJ: I think it was in the ’70s we actually went to this system of screened auditions, which I think is the most-fair method. After the auditions for orchestras became blind auditions, more women and minority musicians won positions in orchestras.
JC: Do you think the playing of the people on the other side of the screen has changed much over the years?
WJ: Oh yeah, they play better.
JC:Has that made the decision making process harder or easier?
WJ: I think it’s about the same because you are trying to hire the same level of player. The overall level is higher, but you’re still looking for the one player that stands out. One of the things that I would note about the DSO’s auditions is that anyone may audition. I am very much against the idea of eliminating people from auditions based upon tapes. If musicians are willing to come and audition, they should be allowed to do so. If they are terrible players everyone will know in 30 seconds. To eliminate someone from auditioning because they didn’t make a good enough tape is not fair, in my opinion.
JC: In addition to audition committees, you also took part in some contract negotiations. How did you first become involved with the more political side of things?
Wes in Brussels with the DSO (c. 1989, photo by Randy Hawes).
WJ: We used to take four buses on domestic tours, and everybody had their own seat on the bus; it was weird. It was as if the seats were assigned. I got on a bus once and somebody said, “You can’t sit there,” and nobody else was on the bus! There were four busses, and Bus 1 was a semi-non-smoking bus, Bus 2 was a semi-non-smoking bus, Bus 3 was the smoking bus, and Bus 4 was the poker and smoking bus. So there’s one thing that’s obviously missing. This was my second year in the DSO, ’71. I started doing a little math, and I counted up how many people in the orchestra smoked and how many didn’t. A majority of people in the orchestra were non-smokers. So I made this petition [laughs]. I passed the petition around, and I worded it carefully. It said, “There should be as many smoking busses as are necessary to accommodate the people that want to smoke.” So that meant that we would start with four non-smoking busses, and, if we needed one for smokers, we would add one. We would have three and one, or whatever we needed. And that seemed reasonable to everyone, and people voted for it. However, when it actually came to implementing it, there was a surprise. Up to that date, all the women had to ride Bus 2. Women were not allowed on any of the other busses; they were only allowed on Bus 2. Now we had a big issue because there were some women that smoked and some that didn’t, and there was only one bus that women could ride on. That blew the “women” issue apart. Suddenly, the women were going to be allowed on every bus, and the smoking issue was settled. That thrust me into politics, and it was downhill from there.
JC: What are contract negations like?
WJ: Detroit has a history of intense contract talks. We have had some fairly significant disputes over the years, and I have been involved in almost all the contract negotiations between 1972 and 2005. There are all kinds of issues—the economic issues and the artistic issues. The bargaining process is a problem resolving process. It may look like a big fight, but really everybody brings their problems to the table and tries to solve them. With luck and hard work they get solved at the bargaining table.
JC: Any negotiations that stick out in your mind?
WJ: We had some serious problems in the early ’80s when I was chair of the negotiating committee. That was the only time in the history of this orchestra when the corporation missed payroll. They didn’t do it on purpose—they didn’t have the money. I remember having to speak on TV with the news, and I think I said, “Music isn’t just our livelihood, it’s our life, and I want to encourage everybody to come out to the concerts this week.” The problems did get settled, they always do.
Pictured with DSO music director Leonard Slatkin at Interlochen (c. 2008, photo by Randy Hawes)
JC: Is there anything that has become more important or changed with the negotiation process?
WJ: The issue now is survival: how to survive, how to move forward, how to be relevant in the community and to encourage community support.
JC: Getting back to your tuba playing, what was the biggest adjustment when you started playing with the DSO?
WJ: I had to get a bigger tuba, and that was a big adjustment. I had to become a better player on the high tuba, which I would stress for any student now. I played the high tuba well on my audition, but I didn’t feel comfortable on it. Today tubists must be fully accomplished artists on the high tuba.
JC: Once you knew you were going to be playing with this orchestra for a long period of time, how did that change your practicing, and how did it change your routine.
WJ: That is a very good question, two questions really. My practicing undertook a gradual change, shifting away from playing solos and concertos into practicing orchestral music. Practicing the fundamentals of playing the tuba became more and more important. I found myself structuring my practice so that it would compliment what I do on the job.
My daily routine changed too. For example, if I was working in the DSO playing a Bruckner symphony, I would not go home and practice loud music all week, I wouldn’t need to. I might need to play some flexibility studies; I might need to do some slow slurs, something to loosen my face up a little bit. Sometimes I would have very little to do in the orchestra, and I would have to practice really hard and loud at home. A month or six weeks before there were really low or really high tuba parts coming, I would put more emphasis on that style of playing. The answer to your question is: both practice and daily routine tend to become driven by what needs to be produced on the job.
In rehearsal, Interlochen (c. 2008, photo by Randy Hawes)
JC: Can you talk about the difference between preparing something like an etude, for yourself, versus preparing for a public performance, especially on the job?
WJ: The word “deadline” comes to mind. A Bordogni etude, for instance, is not going to be performed on a concert stage. We just keep practicing and hoping it will get better. A performance deadline changes things. Three weeks before a performance you should have the music perfected, under control, and working correctly. I believe that deadlines intensify your focus as you practice. I have told students, “Here’s something you have to play, it’s not particularly difficult, but you have 15 minutes to learn it and then you must walk out on stage and perform.” Then the student practices a different way. First, find out what’s wrong. Try to find out where the hard parts are and try to fix them quickly. Try to understand the music and then walk out on the stage and perform.
JC: What are some musical areas that are highlighted by playing in a professional orchestra regularly that you don’t know about until you get there?
WJ: That is a tough question to answer, and it’s probably different for everyone. I shouldn’t generalize, but I think a lot of brass players tend to want to play too loudly or be too prominent at times. We must see the entire picture of the orchestra and the music being played. See where you fit in and realize that you’re not always the star. Sometimes ego tends to get in the way of good musical performance. I tell students, “If you walk out of a concert and you’re crossing the street and you hear people say, ‘That tuba was great!’ maybe you did something wrong.” Knowing your place and knowing with whom you’re playing—whether it’s the basses, the horns, the tubas in the case of Bruckner or Wagner, the trombones, the two little solos in Prokofiev 5 where you’re playing along with the principle trumpet—if you just wake up and listen to what’s going on and try to fit in, you don’t have any problems. This doesn’t require a lot of intellectual study; it just requires listening and being reasonable.
Interlochen (c. 2008, photo by Randy Hawes)
JC: How do you develop orchestral tuba time? How do you learn to play on top of the beat? Was it a conscious thing that you developed?
WJ: Yes. You either develop it or you develop yourself out of a job. I learned quickly to never be late because Maestro Ehrling was so sensitive to accurate timing. With the tuba, we’re sitting in the back of the orchestra with 18 feet or 20 feet of tubing to blow through depending on the fingering, 50 feet to the ceiling and 50 feet more to the conductor. The tubist must push sound through 120 to 150 feet or more before it gets to where it’s going to be heard. Sound travels at about 1,100 feet per second at sea level so if you’re attacking a note on time you will be more than a tenth of a second late. That’s significant.
JC: Any particular piece that worried you when you knew it was coming up?
WJ: I did 52 performances of “Bydlo.” Fortunately, most of them were quite good. There were issues on a few occasions. Once, we played it outside, and it was cold and the horn sat (getting colder) for three movements. I picked it up and it was flat, and there was nothing I could do about it. That wasn’t so good, but not many people were at the concert so I didn’t have to wear a mask or anything afterwards. I had a few great performances of Bydlo too. I got away with it for many years, but it was dangerous. I would try to practice for four months before each Bydlo performance. I would play the solo every day and sometimes I would just walk into the practice room, pick the horn up, play it, and walk out. That’s basically what the tubist must do in the orchestra. I knew I could play it, because I had played it many times, but it was the kind of piece that I could play it nine times really well and one time it would go the wrong way. I don’t really have nerve problems where I’ll shake or anything, but I always had a high level of concern playing Bydlo, very high. My level of concern was just below the point of where it would have affected my performance. That in itself is scary.
JC: Can you talk about each music director you played under and how they were unique?
WJ: I was hired by Sixten Ehrling. Ehrling was a phenomenal conductor. His technique was unmatched. He had a great ear, and he had very little patience. He had no patience with music being late or unprepared. He also had an infallible memory. If somebody messed something up he would never forget it. He had some of the best ears that I have worked with and that was a little bit scary. Ehrling liked my playing a lot, and he always treated me well.
Wes and daughter Adrienne
The next music director was Aldo Ceccato, and he was here for only three or four years. I don’t know how much he knew about the tuba. He didn’t seem to be tuba-aware.
Following Ceccato was a really big name conductor, Antal Doráti. Doráti was very demanding; he was monstrously demanding. I don’t know how to delicately put this, but he had a bad temper. He had a really bad temper, and no one wanted it pointed in their direction. I didn’t have any issues with Doráti either. He was older when he came to Detroit, but he still knew what he wanted. And when he wanted something, you had to give it to him quickly because you didn’t want to get him excited.
After Doráti left we had an interim who wasn’t really a music director but more of a music advisor, Gary Bertini, a great conductor. He was here for one or two years while we where in-between official music directors.
The next music director was Günther Herbig. We played a lot of the heavy Germanic repertoire, a lot of Bruckner, a lot of Mahler, a lot of Wagner. We played it well too, and he knew how to conduct that repertoire. It was great for me to perform all those Bruckner symphonies with Herbig.
After Herbig left, Neme Järvi became music director, and he was here for 15 years. That is one of the longest tenures of any music director in Detroit. He is extremely talented, has a very good ear and quite good conducting technique too. He was less interested in balance than in making the music soar. Musical interpretation and freedom and expressiveness were very important to him, but we didn’t work a lot on balance. That was okay because most of the people in the brass section were mature players, and our balance was under control.
After Järvi left, Leonard Slatkin was named music director. I had played with Maestro Slatkin earlier, when he was a guest conductor here, and I played just a few concerts with him before I retired. He is a terrific conductor, and he is going to be a great addition to the orchestra.
(L-R): Leonard Slaktin, Wes’ daughter Adrienne (now member of the DSO), and Wes (c. 2008, photo by Randy Hawes).
JC: What long-term impact does the music director have on an orchestra?
WJ: The long-term effect is profound. Even today, in 2008, when this orchestra plays something like the Rite of Spring, even though most of the people in the orchestra didn’t play under Ehrling, it’s still influenced by Ehrling. Ehrling put his stamp on that piece and much of his interpretation has been handed down to the new players, and it’s still there. I can say the same thing about some Brahms and some Wagner that Doráti conducted. I can hear his influence. Some of that influence may even go back to Paul Paray, who I played with once when he was a guest conductor. He was before Ehrling. I think this orchestra is still influenced by Paul Paray even though there are only about three people in the orchestra that actually played under Paul Paray. It’s amazing. So yes, there is a strong influence from prior music directors.
An orchestra is really a combination, a sum total, of all the input of all the conductors that come before it. During Ehrling’s tenure, when guest conductors would come, they would be amazed at the responsiveness of the orchestra. More than a few times they would comment that the orchestra was almost too responsive. They would make the slightest gesture, and the orchestra would jump on it right away. That’s the way we were trained. Each conductor has a different kind of input and over time the orchestra develops to match the conductor’s wishes.
As for impact on the tuba sound in particular, I would say that most of the conductors over the years that have been here have thankfully not made comments about the tuba sound. They would tell me what they want, but they wouldn’t tell me how to get it. That is much better than having a conductor tell you what kind of tuba to play. I think that Herbig really had a specific tuba sound in mind, maybe more than any of the others. He wanted a big sound, and he wanted a dark sound. He knew what he wanted in Bruckner, and he would patiently and relentlessly work on it until it was achieved.
JC: Are there any concerts that stick out in your mind from your time with the DSO?
WJ: Yes. When we were in Europe with Doráti, several of the concerts come to mind, particularly when we played in Berlin. First of all that was a great concert, the orchestra sounded terrific. Doráti was in his element over there and even though we knew he was a big name, we didn’t realize how big a name he was in Europe until we performed there. When we went on stage in Berlin, Dorati got a long, really an unbelievably long, standing ovation before the concert started. I didn’t know how they were going to start the concert. He was good at milking applause. He would turn around and take his bows and stand in front of the orchestra, but they wouldn’t let him begin the concert, they were standing and just kept applauding. There was another standing ovation at the end of that concert. They applauded and applauded, and I don’t know how many bows we took. Finally the orchestra left the stage. We were completely off stage, and the audience was still applauding. It was amazing.
JC: Now that you have been out of the orchestra, what do you miss?
WJ: One thing comes to mind, strikingly, more than anything else: I miss working with the greatest bass trombone player in the world. Working with Randy Hawes made the last 23 years of my career the best tuba job anywhere. I owe so much to him. I already had experienced a long career before Randy became my partner. What a great surprise to be inspired by such a player during the last half of my career. We functioned so well together that it was scary. We thought alike, we played alike, we phrased alike, and it was just so easy that it was incredible. Finally, I miss the excitement of a great concert. When it’s over and the crowd’s going crazy there is an excitement that cannot be matched. Anyone would miss that.
Principal Trumpet, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Don Green was principal trumpet of the DSO and is now principal trumpet with the L.A. Philharmonic. We have been close friends for 40 years (c. 1980).
I worked with Wes for the eight years I was Principal Trumpet of the Detroit Symphony. We also had our own brass quintet during that time. Besides being one of the finest brass players and musicians I have ever known, Wes was a great friend and colleague. What I admired so much about Wes Jacobs was his positive and upbeat nature. He always had a pleasant outlook and great sense of humor, which made my life a lot easier. When I became Principal Trumpet of the Detroit Symphony I was 26 years old. It was very stressful because I was facing a lot of the most difficult first trumpet parts for the very first time. Wes was always very supportive and complimentary and that helped me a great deal. I’m not sure I ever thanked him for that but I should have.
My time in the DSO was a great experience. I made a lot of good friends, but there always seemed to be some kind of turmoil right around the corner. That’s why having Wes as a friend was so important to me. I have always been pretty “moody” as my mother used to put it. Wes was a calming influence for me and helped me to see the humor in situations which otherwise would have been difficult for me to handle.
The turmoil started as soon as I joined the orchestra when we played the first two weeks of the season and were then locked-out for eight weeks before a settlement was reached on Thanksgiving Day. Wes was, not surprisingly, one of the tireless members of the orchestra’s negotiating committee. Being without a paycheck and not knowing how long the lockout would last was quite stressful. Wes had my family over to dinner often during that period—as a way of boosting our morale, I think. That is the kind of friend he was.
Wes had the most beautiful, rich sound. This was due in part, I believe, to his love of long tones. No one enjoys playing long tones—except Wes Jacobs. Wes loved playing long tones. “Ah, I had the greatest practice session yesterday,” Wes said to me one day. I asked, “Really, why was that?” He replied, before breaking out in hysterical laughter, “I played long tones for six hours—it was great!” He knew how sick I thought that was. But as great as he was, Wes never played in the forefront unless he thought the music called for it. He was a very unselfish player.
I miss being able to see my good friend on a daily basis. But, he is one of those guys I can talk to, and it seems like no time has gone by. I salute my friend Wes Jacobs and congratulate him on his outstanding career—one that was marked by consistent and exceptional excellence.
Professor of Music (euphonium/tuba)
Chair, Wind & Percussion Instruments Department
University of Michigan
Wes and Fritz Kaenzig at Orchestra Hall (c. 2008)
Actually, I first heard Wes when I was a student at The Ohio State University, when Wes was a featured performer/clinician at a TUBA conference. We more formally met and became friends once I joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1989.
What an energetic, dedicated, talented, smart, and funny person/musician. One of my earliest memories is hearing him prepare for his recital in the “green room” at the U.M. All the incredible lip slurs he went through left me speechless.
I think that his business acumen is perhaps the most unexpected trait for an orchestral tubist. He was a vital consultant for the DSO in their retirement funds. His embrace of technology always amazes me. With these two abilities, I suppose it’s not surprising that he’s also been such a successful publisher of instrumental materials, but it’s another interesting thing about Wes.
The care with which he treats his Yorkbrunner is also something I’ve never encountered with anyone else; it might as well be brand new from its appearance! While perhaps not unusual for a major orchestra performer, I was nevertheless always impressed with his level of preparation for anything he did in the DSO. I’m sure that others will talk about his early work as a bassist with The Carpenters; Wes can only laugh about how he left the group just before they hit it big after their time together as students at Cal State-Long Beach. I don’t know if people know what a great family man he is, but that is something that I appreciate about him. He’s a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather!
Jerry A. Young
Professor of Music, The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
I first knew all about him from his early association with Custom Music. The first time we met personally was when the Detroit Symphony began its annual performances at Interlochen. He presented master classes and lessons for my students there, and we were able to spend time together on an annual basis.
I already knew that Wes was one of the top orchestral tubists in the country, but I had no idea that he was such an innovative and thoughtful teacher, as well as being such a genuinely nice person. He was interested in my students at Interlochen and interested in me. I found him very easy to get to know and enjoyable to be around.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many times he and those of us who have known him for many years have answered the question: “Is he Arnold Jacobs’ son?” I guess my favorite story would center around a steak supper that we had together at Boone’s Long Lake Inn (between Traverse City and Interlochen, Michigan) one summer evening when I suggested the possibility of doing an edition of the complete Arban Method for the tuba. Wes got pretty excited about the idea immediately. I was thinking of proposing the project as a sabbatical project (I think that was around 1993), but he insisted that we needed to start on this project right away. Wes’ determination is hard to resist—we started right away, and it’s a good thing we didn’t wait. It took me two and a half years (with the assistance of some faithful students and a very patient Wes Jacobs) to get it together! The rest is history. Two editions later of the tuba book, a trombone/euphonium edition from Joe Alessi and Brian Bowman, and a trumpet edition from Allen Vizzutti. Who knows what’s next?
I learned even more about Wes and his determination to “do the work at hand” when he had shoulder surgery just a couple of years ago. We were working on a new edition of the Kopprasch studies for tuba at the time. As soon as he was out of the hospital and SUPPOSED to be resting, he was at his computer entering notes into Sibelius© with one hand—he out-entered me by a factor of 100 to 1! I’ll never be able to out-work him, even when I have a physical advantage!
There are indeed many important contributions to the music profession from Wes. Most people think immediately of his publishing business, Encore Music Publishers, as a very important entity—and it is—or they might think of his long association with Richard and Karen Carpenter. His Arban project has made a real difference for brass players the world over. I think that this, along with the wealth of well-planned and informed pedagogical projects he has published, is extremely important. But as extremely important as those contributions are, I think that his influence as a teacher is not as recognized or appreciated as much as it should be. He has touched the lives and musicianship of many, many of the top professional tubists in this country over a long span of time, both as pedagogue and professional advisor. He recognizes talent and knows how to encourage and nurture it. I consider him to be one of the most gifted and thoughtful teachers anywhere.
Wes is both interested and interesting. He is curious and an astute learner. If something is new, he really wants to know all about it. He has always been one who wants to contribute to the music profession and to making life better and easier for students and teachers. Most important is his devotion to his family. His family is (at least in my view) the center of his universe. He has a clear view of the most important things in life.
He’s a very humble individual—when he sees all of this, he’s probably going to want to know what all the fuss is about—he was just doing his work the best he could and meeting what he saw as his obligations. And that’s a big part of what makes him such a special person.
Host, “Symphony Sam,” Children’s Classical Music TV show
Wes and Kabin Thomas rehearsing the David Diamond Symphony No. 3
I met Wes in 1984, after moving back to Detroit from Ohio, after Oberlin College, to attend Wayne State University. Wayne State was kind enough to contract Wes to teach the tuba students there. I was Wes’ student at Wayne State for about two years, which was an amazing experience, as I advanced about ten years as a musician and person because of him. My son’s middle name is in honor of Wes—Andrew Wesley Thomas.
I received my first opportunity to play professionally because of Wes and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. Playing tuba as a substitute is very different than on any other instrument, as you have no other instrument looking like yours to rely on. You are all alone, which means your teacher has a ton of belief in you, as you must represent him or her, with no one to hide behind when you play. It was an honor to take my first professional steps with Wes.
When we were rehearsing the David DiamondSymphony no. 3 with the DSO together, it was actually the very FIRST time Wes and I played together. Usually, Wes had me play by myself in the orchestra, as only one tuba is needed. I had been playing as Wes’ sub for about a year and a half before we played together. Well, we were both “kinda smellin’” the place up, chipping and missing notes. I was horrified at my playing but a little comforted that Wes was hitting a couple of clinkers now and again as well. During several measures rest, I looked at Wes and whispered: “God! I’m so sorry, Wes! I’m just not used to playing next to my teacher!” Wes then leaned over and said, “Sorry, Kabin! I’m just not used to playing next to my student!” We both got a big laugh out of that moment and played perfectly from that point on!
Encore Music Publishers is a very positive contribution to the brass world. I actually helped Wes transcribe music as his first Encore employee at the very beginning. I am so proud he has taken Encore to such a positive status, especially with the Arban book and all. I’m just sorry he had to sell the Encore Corporate Jet, Yacht, and Dirigible. Always being frugal, he decided to save money by letting them go.
Wes’ playing has always been first rate. He always played with great taste, impeccable intonation, and a world-class sound. He never overpowered…he contributed. He never played “good!” Instead, he always played “well (and magnificently well, at that).” He never played loud; he played with strength and confidence. He helped me want to be a musician and not just a tuba player. My greatest strides as an intelligent musician/tubist, as opposed to “jock tuba player,” came from Wes.
Wes’ great gift is his volumetric knowledge about stocks. He taught me almost as much about stocks as he did tuba…and he taught me a lot about tuba! I’ve done well with stocks and as a tubist, thanks to Wes. Wes did more for the DSO musicians’ pension fund (and therefore all musicians’ pension funds all over the United States,) fund than any musician playing in any orchestra. He is able to read a financial statement as well as he can read music. How many musicians can really say that? He is a solid businessman/negotiator, and Goldman Sachs would have been lucky to have him. The music world was luckier!
Wes played bass with the Carpenters before their big run on fame. I was always impressed by the fact he was given a choice to either stay with the Carpenters, as they were about to make their run as a superstar group, or remain a tuba player and make music that way. He chose the tuba, which makes one think there may be brain damage going on, but I get it! He loves playing. He loves the life of a principal tubist. It’s a pretty amazing life if you do it right! He’s done it right.
Professor of Tuba and Euphonium, Michigan State University
Early in my teaching at MSU, I had the chance to hear Wes Jacobs play the Vaughan Williams concerto with the DSO…I believe it was in 1983. He sounded great, and I remember a number of the string players congratulating him afterwards (besides his wife!)
Wes was a guest artist/clinician for various events that I hosted at Michigan State University over the years and always brought an interesting perspective and solid artistic approach. I also worked with him performing as second tuba in the DSO on numerous occasions. I believe the first time was on a cycle of Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique concerts in Detroit. He was one of the first American players that I heard use the E-flat tuba for higher orchestra parts, and, of course, he sounded great. This experience, I am sure, eventually helped lead me to becoming an E-flat player.
Wes should be commended for his adherence to a daily routine on the tuba…very diligent about this…spending a sizeable amount of time with basics, flexibility, range and dynamic expansion, etc. He really was a model of consistency and work ethic. A number of times he would share his current count of “Nutcracker” performances with the DSO. From his early years he kept track of all of these, and each year for many years the DSO did quite a few of these. So, the numbers grew rapidly. At one point I believe he was up to over 350 Nutcrackers!
Wes also participated in dozens of recordings with the DSO, with multiple conductors, a legacy that will endure. His publishing company, Encore Music, has had a terrific run over almost 20 years and is going strong. In fact, his overall business sense is excellent and allowed him to succeed personally and in his service on various DSO committees over the years.
Wes Jacobs always seemed to have dent-free tubas, in near perfect condition. As far as I know, he never-ever set his Yorkbrunner down on the bell in 20 years!
Bass trombonist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Wes and Randy Hawes
I first met Wes in August 1985. I had received an invitation from former principal trombonist Ray Turner to come to Detroit for an audition for a one year bass trombone opening created by Tom Klaber, who had just (the previous week) won the Cleveland bass trombone opening. There were about 15 of us, and after the screened audition was done and I was announced the winner, I met Wes and the rest of the committee, backstage at Ford auditorium.
Wes was always smiling. When I first started I was an experienced player, but not so much in the orchestral world. His easy-going manner and wonderful sense of humor hide a complete professional that made everything on and off stage easy. The family friendly sense that I noticed at the Detroit Symphony when I started began at my left.
Wes is probably the most curious person I know, meaning that he has interests and knowledge of a vast cornucopia of information. In 1985, he was the first person I knew to have a computer, which at the time was perhaps weird but in retrospect totally understandable. He is never boastful about his (rock and roll) past and is modest about the financial expertise that he possesses. Wes is the only tuba player that I’ve known that never ever set his Hirsbrunner tuba down on the bell.
Wes has among his credits over 50 recordings with the DSO and has performed with six music directors of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He started a publishing company, Encore Music Publishers, which has been providing excellent tuba and brass music for years, including the complete Bordogni volumes and Arban series and many of his own original studies. Possibly overshadowed by his performing career, his teaching is still legendary and incredibly effective. He will always have the ears that hear everything and the uncanny ability to communicate exactly what is needed.
Wes Jacobs is a fine person that I respect without reserve. We will always have that unspoken bond that side-by-side orchestral colleagues create over years. His life and the way he leads it has influenced mine in ways that I’m sure I don’t understand. I admire the way he retired—still playing well and enjoying the job. I will do my best to make sure that all of the stories, jokes, the camaraderie, the commitment to quality and consistency will be passed on to the next guy who sits to my left. He has a fine appreciation for good wine, which I look forward to him opening when I visit him soon.
Jacob Cameron is currently Instructor of Tuba and Euphonium at Grand Valley State University, Artist/Faculty at the Bay View Music Festival in Bay View Michigan and tubist with the Motor City Brass Quintet. He has held positions at Wright State University, East Carolina University, Calvin College and Cornerstone University.
As a soloist, Cameron was the artist division winner of the 1996 Leonard Falcone International Tuba competition, a second place winner of the Lansing Matinee Musical Orchestral Brass competition and a national finalist for both the high school and collegiate brass divisions of the MTNA solo competition. He has also performed numerous solo recitals including guest recitals at Indiana State University, Michigan State University, UNC Greensboro, and the Interlochen Arts Academy.
Large ensemble experience includes performances with the Blue Ash Symphony, Cincinnati Pops, Cincinnati Symphony, Grand Rapids Symphony, Jacksonville Symphony, Lansing Symphony, Lebanon Symphony, Richmond Symphony (IN), Saginaw Bay Symphony, Springfield Symphony, West Shore Symphony and the Wilmington Symphony. An active chamber musician, he has recently performed with the Buerkle Brass, Canterbury Brass, Michigan Chamber Brass, Motor City Brass, Pamlico Sound, Today’s Brass Quintet and the Queen City Brass.
Mr. Cameron received his M.M. in Tuba Performance from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and his B.M. in Tuba Performance from Michigan State University where he is currently working towards his DMA. His primary teachers are David E. Kirk and Phil Sinder.