The folks behind Occupy Santa Barbara can only wish they had thought of this: 35 tuba players will descend upon Storke Placita in downtown Santa Barbara this Saturday to prove that there’s a lot more to their instrument than oom-pah-pah and Tubby the Tuba jokes. In the pantheon of instruments that can’t get no respect, the tuba, sadly and unfairly, ranks high on the list, perhaps right behind the accordion and the tenor banjo. Harvey Philips, perhaps the world’s most famous tuba virtuoso, decided to change this reality about 30 years ago, organizing flash mobs of tuba players before the term — and the reality — in Tuba Christmas celebrations across the country. Philips died last year, but Bill Rizzi, a bass and tuba player, has been keeping Philips’s dream alive in Santa Barbara since the early 1990s.
In the early days, Rizzi and his musical coconspirators would congregate at La Cumbre Plaza, blasting away on their horns to celebrate the Christmas season. All went well until they — and the crowd they drew — moved in front of the Ann Taylor store. Store managers, presumably concerned that the crowds might impede the flow of shoppers intending to spend money, called mall security and Rizzi and his oversized musical elves were forcefully asked to cease and desist. They then sought space at Paseo Nuevo in downtown Santa Barbara, only to find that the same company that owned La Cumbre had just bought the downtown mall.
Fortune smiled upon the tuba tribe when Marty Blum and her husband Joe knocked on Rizzi’s door while walking precincts. One of the mayor’s kids, it turns out, was a standout bass player. He was also applying to the same college Rizzi attended. One thing led to the next and before you knew it, former mayor Blum had secured Storke Placita — that weird bulbous concrete isthmus linking State Street to De la Guerra Plaza — for the Tuba Christmas crowd. The show starts at noon with about 50 horn players playing a variety of instruments playing a variety of Christmas carols and holiday music. But at 12:45 p.m., it’s all tuba players and euphonium players, demonstrating how sublimely and even delicately the bottom feeders of the brass band world can play.
Rizzi wasn’t always a tuba player; it just seems that way. Back in fifth grade, he was given a trumpet at elementary school, but it quickly became apparent he didn’t have the right mouth for it. In sixth grade, he switched to the euphonium, and by high school — wanting to play jazz — he moved on to the trombone. While attending college in Santa Monica, Rizzi sought to join a Dixieland ensemble, whose members naturally assumed that he could play tuba given all the other horns he could play. He loved it. By 1978, he was also playing in his first Tuba Christmas. That was in Los Angeles where hundreds of players come forth to create a massive, shimmering vibrational statement. “I loved it,” he said.
Besides the music, Rizzi found that tuba players tended to be a great guys — it remains a male-dominated instrument — to hang out and drink beer with while serenading one another with German drinking songs. Aside from the Tuba Christmas, Rizzi is also very much involved in putting on Santa Barbara’s annual Oct-tuba-fest bash — during Octoberfest naturally. That’s when he and a smaller crew of tuba players can be counted on to blow the house down at Goleta’s Mercury Lounge — one of the most tuba-friendly establishments, Rizzi said, in all of Santa Barbara — or the Brewhouse. (If you miss the show at Storke Placita this Saturday, Rizzi and crew will be descending upon the Mercury this coming Wednesday evening as well.)
Aside from the good company, Rizzi enjoys playing the tuba for its own sake. “It just feels good,” he explained. “You vibrate. Your whole body vibrates. You don’t get the glamor, but you feel you’re driving the band; you feel you’re driving the beat, keeping everyone in their place.”
One might think practicing the tuba could prove a delicate proposition, that its booming voice might intrude upon the peace and tranquility of one’s neighbors. Rizzi begs to differ. “Everyone thinks it’s loud just because it’s big, but it’s not. We play quietly and beautifully,” he said. “After all, we play ‘Silent Night.’”
And indeed he does. And when Rizzi and the rest of his tuba posse hit the high note on that seasonal chestnut, it’s not to be believed. In this case, hearing, not seeing, is believing.
Tuba Christmas will take place in Storke Placita this Saturday, December 10, at noon, and Wednesday, December 14, in the evening at the Mercury Lounge in Goleta.