Titan of the Tuba

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on October 7, 2007

Winston Morris stands center stage, anchoring a fanfare of gleaming brass instruments and 26 student musicians who comprise the oldest and most recorded tuba ensemble in the world.

A wave of the baton launches his Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble into a baroque classic by Johann Sebastian Bach as the composer never heard it—using only instruments in the tuba family to create a unique, deep-throated harmony out of the lower bass notes.

“The tuba is not only one of the largest instruments, but it’s also the baby in the orchestra,” Morris says. “It was invented in 1835 when other orchestral instruments already had been around a couple hundred years. So the tuba is still young and ripe for exploration.”

Morris, 66, and his famed ensemble in Cookeville, Tenn. (pop. 23,923), have led the way, bringing the undervalued instrument out of the back row and shattering its oafish image as an oom-pah-pah support player.

“The tuba’s role in a band or orchestra is much more important than most people give it credit for,” says Morris, a professor of music at Tennessee Technological University. “In most ensembles, it is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It is the bottom layer.”

In the world of lower brass, Morris is a pioneer, creating the world’s first tuba/euphonium ensemble in 1967 at Tennessee Tech and shepherding it across four decades. His tuba bands, whose membership evolves with each year’s new wave of incoming students, have performed in Carnegie Hall seven times, produced 22 commercial recordings, and generated more than 600 compositions for the tuba, euphonium and tuba ensemble.

“Winston is certainly among the world’s most influential tubists,” says Gene Pokorny, who plays tuba with the Chicago Symphony. “He has been the music world’s shock-and-awe factor when it comes to the tuba ensemble.”

“If you don’t know who Mr. Morris is and you play the tuba, you’re in the wrong business,” adds Cory Allen, 21, of Culp, Ill., who transferred to Tennessee Tech in 2005 to study under the popular instructor.

Born in Barnwell, S.C., Morris recognized his musical gifts beginning in the second grade with piano lessons. He played the trumpet in middle school band, but was quickly bored and began experimenting with other brass instruments, excelling in each. When one director asked who wanted to try the sousaphone—a bulky marching tuba—hanging in the back of the band room, Morris volunteered.

“It was different, and I liked that,” Morris recalls. “It was like picking up a Volkswagen, blowing into the exhaust pipe and making music out of it.”

Morris earned a music degree from East Carolina University in 1962 and later studied under renowned tubist Bill Bell at Indiana University. Recruited to teach at Tennessee Tech in 1967, he convinced the administration that creating a tuba ensemble was necessary for his students’ musical development. With it began the kingdom of “tubadom,” as Morris calls it, where he has endeared himself to several generations of student musicians.

Sporting trifocals and a thumb-size goatee, Morris is loud and bombastic and known for calling extra rehearsals, occasionally beginning them at midnight if no other time is available. For a student who can’t cut the mustard, he half-jokingly hands them a pair of drumsticks.

“Even when he yelled, he wasn’t yelling at you. He was yelling at what you were doing,” says Larry Pitts of Albuquerque, N.M., who graduated from Tennessee Tech in 1970 and returned to Cookeville last fall for an alumni reunion as part of the school’s annual “Octubafest” celebration. This year’s event, christened “Tubaween,” will culminate with a concert Oct. 31.

For Morris, there is no shortcut to excellence, and technical accuracy is a must. “A tuba ensemble is visually interesting for about 30 seconds,” he says. “After that, you better be playing some decent music, or people will just walk away.”