Harvey Phillips, known to many as Mr. Tuba, waged a lifelong campaign to improve his instrument’s image.
Harvey Phillips, 80, founder of TubaChristmas concerts
NEW YORK — The tuba players mass by the hundreds every year on the Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink to play carols and other festive fare, a holiday ritual now ingrained in the consciousness of New York.
The tradition began in 1974, the brainchild of Harvey Phillips, a musician called the Heifetz of the tuba. In his time he was the instrument’s chief evangelist, the inspirer of a vast solo repertory, a mentor to generations of players and, more simply, Mr. Tuba.
Most tuba players agree that if their unwieldy instrument has shed any of the bad associations that have clung to it — orchestral clown, herald of grim news, poorly respected back-bencher best when not noticed, good for little more than the “oom’’ in the oom-pah-pah — it is largely thanks to Mr. Phillips’s efforts. He waged a lifelong campaign to improve the tuba’s image.
Mr. Phillips died Wednesday at his home, Tubaranch, in Bloomington, Ind., said his wife, Carol. He was 80 and had Parkinson’s disease.
Like many towering exponents of a musical instrument, Mr. Phillips left a legacy of new works, students, and students of students. But even more, he bequeathed an entire culture of tuba-ism: an industry of TubaChristmases (252 cities last year) and tuba minifestivals, mainly at universities, called Octubafests.
“The man was huge in putting the instrument on the map as a solo instrument,’’ said Alan Baer, the New York Philharmonic’s tuba player, two of whose teachers were Mr. Phillips’s students. “Our repertory is so limited, and it would be horrible if he had not done the amount of work that he did.’’
Carol Phillips said her husband had either commissioned or inspired more than 200 solo and chamber music pieces, many wheedled out of composers by persistence or other methods. “I remember Persichetti was a case of Beefeater gin,’’ she said of the composer Vincent Persichetti.
Harvey Phillips once said, “I’m determined that no great composer is ever again going to live out his life without composing a major work for tuba.’’
Mr. Phillips was born on Dec. 2, 1929, the last of 10 children in an Aurora, Mo., farming family. The family moved often, and he attended high school in Marionville, Mo.
After graduating, Phillips took a summer job playing tuba with the King Bros. Circus. He left to attend the University of Missouri but was quickly lured away by another circus offer: playing tuba with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was the pinnacle of circus bands.
One of the band’s duties was to give “alarms’’: play pieces to alert circus staff in the case of, say, a high-wire accident. “Twelfth Street Rag’’ was the alarm for that, a signal to send in the clowns to distract the audience, Mr. Phillips said in a New Yorker profile in 1976. He spent three years with the Ringling band.
On a circus trip to New York, where he played duets with the clanging pipes in his hotel room, Mr. Phillips met William Bell, the tuba player of the New York Philharmonic. Bell soon arranged for him to study at the Juilliard School and become his pupil.
Mr. Phillips spent two years in the US Army Field Band in Washington but returned to New York, drawn by the many opportunities. He became a successful freelancer, playing regularly with the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet orchestras, recording and making broadcasts.
In 1954 he helped found the New York Brass Quintet. The combination (two trumpets, French horn, trombone, and tuba) was less common at the time than it later became. Brass quintets proliferated, a boon for tuba players, because brass players on university faculties needed a tubist colleague to form a group. More tuba professors meant more tuba students.
Mr. Phillips also played jazz, performing in clubs and recital halls. As his reputation grew, composers began writing for him, and Mr. Phillips introduced another rarity: the tuba recital. In 1975 he played five recitals at Carnegie Recital Hall in nine days.
Mr. Phillips’s entrepreneurial abilities emerged in his New York years, too. He served as the orchestra contractor for Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, and Gunther Schuller, among others. When Schuller took charge of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he recruited Mr. Phillips as vice president for financial affairs. Mr. Phillips held the position from 1967 to 1971, commuting to New York for evening performances.
The punishing routine took away from practice and family time. Coming home late one night and missing his family, he took out his tuba while his wife and two of his children slept in the bed nearby and practiced until dawn, playing so softly that they did not wake up, according to the New Yorker profile.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Phillips leaves their sons, Jesse, Harvey Jr., and Thomas.
In 1971 Mr. Phillips joined the faculty of Indiana University. He retired in 1994.
In his tireless efforts to raise the tuba’s profile as well as to honor Bell, his teacher, Mr. Phillips decided to gather tuba players for a special holiday concert in Rockefeller Center. (Bell was born on Christmas Day, 1902.)
He called an official there with the suggestion. “The phone went silent,’’ he later recounted. “So I gave the man some unlisted telephone numbers of friends of mine.’’ They included Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein. “He called me back in about an hour and said, ‘I’ve spoken with your friends, and you can have anything you want.’ ’’
The TubaChristmas extravaganzas took off. Volunteers hold them around the country under the auspices of the Harvey Phillips Foundation.