If Harvey Phillips has his way, 76 trombones will never lead the big parade. He’s got nothing against trombones, but to him there’s no sweeter sound than the deep-throated “OOM” of a tuba (the “pah-pah” is left to the French horns). As perhaps the foremost player, teacher and impresario of the instrument in America, he is the man responsible for the annual massing of tubas—hundreds of them—for Christmas concerts in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. This year, for the first time, his tubists will also gather in Washington to serenade the White House.
Still, the highlight of his musical year is what Harvey, an outrageous punster, has dubbed the “Octubafest.” It is a week-long series of concerts held in Bloomington, Ind., plus a beer-and-bratwurst party at his 80-acre farm nearby. Togged in Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls of ample dimensions, Phillips hardly looks like a 48-year-old Juilliard-trained music professor at Indiana University—which is what he is.
His promotional gimmicks mask a serious purpose as well: a quest to establish the tuba in its “rightful place” as a great solo instrument. “If only Bartók, Stravinsky, Berg and Ravel had written tuba concertos—just one,” laments Phillips, who, to fill the void, has commissioned more than a hundred on his own. He knows that a tuba renaissance would expand the limited job market for his students. “You can’t deny a young player the chance of becoming a performing artist,” he pleads.
The most famous son of Marionville, Mo. (his hometown, pop. 1,500, gave him a Harvey Phillips Day in 1976), he has performed in arenas from circus tents to opera houses. Though his three sons were free to choose any instrument, Jesse, 14, Harvey, 12, and Tommy, 10, found their father’s love for the tuba irresistible. The only holdout at home is Carol, Harvey’s wife of 27 years. “She says four tubists in one family is enough,” Phillips explains.