By Ian Church: Sousaphone-ologist
I have a great interest – some may say an obsession – in sousaphones, in particular those that are considered jumbos. After playing a C. G. Conn 20K in the Kiltie Marching Band of Alma College, my desire for a true jumbo sousaphone started. So, in the summer of 2008, I purchased a used King 1270 Giant Frankenhorn pieced together using the body and bell of a 1935 King 1270 Giant and the valve set of a later 1960s-1970s King 1250 sousaphone. Even though this sousaphone was bigger than the Conn 20K, it is still by no means a true jumbo. Before I had even bought the Giant, I had posted a couple of listings on various sites desiring a jumbo sousaphone after reading about the instruments on the internet during my freshman year of college. It was only during these past two years that I began to look deeper into what the sousaphone – both standard size and jumbo – really is.
The current production of sousaphones is mainly based on former models from the era before World War II. As an example, Yamaha allegedly based their YSH-411 on a Martin Handcraft sousaphone; Conn still makes the 20K, King still makes the 1250, but with an updated model number of 2350. No present day company makes a jumbo sousaphone; in fact none have been made in over fifty years. As a tuba and sousaphone player, I tend to think that the most buttery, dark tone can be found in either 6/4 tubas or jumbo sousaphones. In the fall of 2008, I luckily found a tuba player selling a 1966 Holton 345, a tuba based on the famous 6/4 York CC of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This once again made me want a bigger sousaphone.
Things got exciting during my junior year at Alma, not only did the sousaphone section gain a few more members in the marching band, but more information about jumbo sousaphones surfaced along with listings of jumbo sousaphones for sale. During that year I became quite an expert on sousaphones, and, although I was tempted to buy an older Buescher jumbo sousaphone, I couldn’t justify buying another instrument until I had rid myself of the Giant. I had known of this helicon down in Okemos, MI that was the only one of its kind, but had never thought about actually driving down to play it.
This past year, 2009, I finally drove down to the International Travelers Club and Tuba Museum in Okemos, MI to play the EEEb “Majestic Monster” helicon. This was quite the instrument, bigger than any instrument that I had played; even a Conn 48K Grand Jumbo that I fiddled around on for ten minutes the previous spring was smaller. The helicon had 26 feet of tubing and a massive 28-inch bell. Despite all of this it weighs a mere 26 pounds due to the thin metal of the Austrian manufacturer.
Writing a thesis on the jumbo sousaphone is quite difficult. The majority of books and publications have at most a paragraph to a page on the sousaphone with almost no mention of the jumbos. Any actual information is usually taken from firsthand knowledge; old band instrument manufacturer catalogs; or first, second, and third hand stories. The majority of records from the band instrument manufacturers prior to World War II were either burned intentionally by the company taking over or by accidental fires that seemed to have been common during the early 1900s. The internet is by far the best resource for finding out information on the elusive jumbo sousaphone.
I owe the majority of my thanks to the multitude of professional musicians, brass instrument repair technicians, brass historians, and of course good old tuba and sousaphone players. Without the help from people like these, as well as the ongoing discussion on the TubeNet and TubaNews forums, I fear that much of this information would be hidden away or lost, similar to where some jumbo sousaphones now rest. I also owe a bit of thanks to the Alma College Music Department Faculty for reading sousaphone related emails and general encouragement, the Second Time Arounders Marching Band for putting up with my zealous, over the top playing, and of course my family, who have supported my expensive hobby of buying tubas and sousaphones.
I always take pleasure in meeting and talking with people who have had experience with jumbo sousaphones, and it is even more fulfilling to see photographs of these old beasts being put to use in the modern day. Jumbo sousaphones are truly a breed of their own. It is my hope that through this thesis and my ongoing research that more people, both young and old, can be educated on what sousaphone, particularly the jumbo sousaphone, once was and could be if given the opportunity.
The Jumbo Sousaphone
The sousaphone can be described as the marching version of the tuba. Yet just as there are many different sizes of the tuba, there was once a time when the sousaphone came in more than just one size. Band instrument manufacturers of the early 1900s through the 1930s produced jumbo sized sousaphones that dwarfed the size and sound of sousaphones today. The sousaphone was designed, at first, with an upright bell to replace the helicon and its diagonally pointing bell. In 1908 bell front sousaphones and tubas began appearing in concert halls and other venues for the purpose of recording music. It is here that jumbo sousaphones provided the most organ-like sound, but were both heavier and costlier than the standard size. Unfortunately, the recording bell tuba became far more popular due to its smaller design and easier transportability. The Great Depression in the United States, in addition to World War II, prevented many companies from putting the time and effort into producing these costly jumbo sousaphones. While the current production of sousaphones may base models on those of the early 1900s, these are far from the tonal grandeur of jumbo sousaphones.
Qualities of Tubas and Sousaphones
To understand the sousaphone, one must be acquainted with certain qualities of the tuba: overall size, bore diameter, bell size, and brass composition. The size of a tuba is based around a system using a fractional quarter designation. However this quarter system does not indicate a whole number, but merely describes the dimensional size in relation to the standard size of 4/4. This system ranges from three-quarters (3/4) to six-quarters (6/4). Naturally 3/4 is smaller than 6/4, but while this system is simple enough for most tubas, it is further complicated by how each manufacturer assumes what is a 3/4 tuba and a 6/4 tuba. As an example, Rudolf Meinl makes several tubas based upon its own quarter system – the Bayreuth model 5/4 BBb tuba is just as large as a C. G. Conn 20J (which is a 6/4 tuba by Conn’s definition). Rudolf Meinl’s 6/4 tuba would be considered an 8/4 next to any other 6/4 like the Conn 20J. For sousaphones, the size system is far easier; sousaphones come in two sizes – standard or 4/4 and jumbo or 6/4, but even with this simple designation, each manufacturer still has its own definition of size.1
The bore diameter is a little confusing at first, especially when trying to describe it within the quarter system. There is a further complication when incorporating the valve system whether it consists of rotary valves – rotors twisting inside casings – or piston valves – a piston moving up and down within casings. The bore on most tubas ranges from .6xx-inches (xx symbolizing the other two numbers after the hundredth – for example, King’s standard bore size is .687-inches) to about .7xx-inches and can extend up to .9xx-inches for rotary valves. The smaller the bore, the more resistance a player will feel when blowing through the instrument, although the wrap of the tubing also plays a role in how the air travels through the bends, so a small bore tuba may not necessarily be as difficult to play with a full open tone. The same is true for larger bore tubas; while these may give a greater depth to the sound as well as a more open feel with less resistance, the air path can still be complicated by too many bends in the tubing. Sousaphones made during the early 1900s in the United States commonly had a bore size between .687-inches up to about .750-inches, with an almost uniform layout of tubing. The jumbo variety commonly had larger tubing and therefore larger bores, but this was not always the case, as King’s 1265 model sousaphone had a smaller bore of .687-inches but a larger body of tubing similar to other jumbo sousaphones.
Bell size is an interesting subject as there is not a set diameter for any give size on the quarter system. By 1916, H. N. White Co. had its own Department of Acoustical Research, researching exactly how the different dimensions of a bell affect the overall sound. Todd W. White recalled one such instance of how bell size affects the sound of the sousaphone:
I first learned about it while at the University of Arkansas as a tuba major from a now aged band director turned instrument repairman who had learned it from the very aged professional band instrument repairman he apprenticed under when he decided to stop teaching and start repairing. So, this oral tradition goes back at least 75 years.
While in college, I experimented with the big KING 1250 Sousaphones we had. They were mostly H. N. White Co. King’s, and all had the large bell. I discovered that the bells of our 16 KING 1250’s were all numbered – but their serial numbers, almost to the last instrument, weren’t the same as the horn they were being used on. So, I went about matching the bells and bodies together. Once I got all of them with their “mate”, I put them all back in their cases and waited to see how the section sounded at the next rehearsal. I didn’t tell anyone else in my section, as I recall, about what I did – I wanted this to be a sort of “double-blind” test.
What I found out was exactly what the old man said – the bells and bodies, which were now properly matched to each other again like they were at the factory, with their mechanical resonances being the same again, were easier to play and were able to project much better than they were the day before. In fact, our Band Director, Mr. Eldon Janzen, told us at one point in the rehearsal, and not on a quiet portion of a song, either, that we were playing too loud! When I told several of my fellow section members commented about what I had done, they all said they noticed that the horns were easier to play. 2 …
H. N. White’s King 1250 is considered the standard size (4/4), similar to the sousaphones in production today, with a standard bell diameter of 26-inches. During the early 1900s, the bells of sousaphones and tubas came in a variety of sizes. Many of the manufacturers offered customization for each instrument, often with wider bells, Buescher offered bells up to 33-inches on their sousaphones. 3 (See figure 1)
The metal composition is by far the trickiest quality of the tuba family.
There is a general consensus among tuba players and historians that J. W. York & Sons produced the best sounding tubas and sousaphones because of the composition of their brass.
York produced some of the best examples of tubas during the early 1900s, while also creating a mass of interest in the sound that these instruments produced. The true York sound can be heard in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which owns and uses the only two 6/4 CC tubas made by York. Only recently has Kanstul Musical Instruments tapped into this unique brass composition. 4
While York may have made a name for itself after World War II, American band instrument companies like Martin, C. G. Conn, Holton, Buescher, and H. N. White produced equally if not greater quality sounding sousaphones prior to the 1940s.
This was in part due to the heavy gauged brass and the composition of each individual company’s brass. These in turn caused sousaphones to be much heavier than models produced today, often weighing over 40 pounds for the jumbo sousaphones.
The First Sousaphones
…Sousaphone, — a colossal, curly, brass thing, the bell of which, if recollection serves, stood for all the world like the saloon-ventilator on an Atlantic liner, high above the head of the diminutive sprig of humanity whose very soul was inside its tube.5
Modern sousaphones owe their name to the original sousaphone crafted by the J. W. Pepper Co., which, on request from the influential Bandmaster John Philip Sousa in 1893, modified one of their largest helicons (the predecessor to the sousaphone; primarily used by the military cavalry, as it allowed the player to use one hand to manipulate the valves and the other to hold the horse reins; see figure 2) by replacing the bell stack with an upright bell.6 Sousa had a distaste for the helicon and its “blurting” sound due to the relatively forward facing bell. He instead wanted a “BBb helicon [to] be made with an extra-large bell facing … upward ‘so that the sound would diffuse over the entire band like the frostiness on a cake.’”7 The other band instrument manufacturers followed suit with similar designs, but it is unclear when these companies did so. The original Pepper sousaphone was not used in Sousa’s band for very long; Sousa preferred the sousaphones that C. G. Conn produced after 1898.8 It was only during the late 1900s into the early 1910s that the bell turned forward with the introduction of the recording bell tuba.
With the early models of phonographs, the ability for recording equipment to pick up the string double bass line became troublesome. An upright bell tuba can only produce sound directly above the player, unlike trumpets, trombones and saxophones whose sound shot out ahead of the players. The need for the bass line to be picked up on the recordings, forced a design change for the direction of the bell, so in 1908 the first recording bell tuba was made.9
The original purpose of the “recording bell” was … recording!
In the early days of phonograph recording, the sound was received at the big end of a tapered horn … and channeled back to the small end of the horn, where transduction to a mechanical device … took place. The aperture of the recording horn was often 5 – 15 ft on a side. The musicians would sit in front of the horn and play directly into it. …
For technical reasons, the low frequency sounds were harder to record than the high frequencies with this method. (Listen to a 78 RPM record and you will hear the trumpets, clarinets, and violins prominently; the trombones or other middle voices are muddled; and the bass voices are usually very difficult to hear.) So the challenge was to amplify the bass voice. One method was to turn the tuba bell forward so that it played directly into the recording horn. This had two beneficial results: it made the tuba louder, and it put more of the tuba overtones (harmonics … partials) into the recording. The forward bell came to be called a “recording” bell.10
The normal tuba sound would be swallowed up in the curtains and ceiling in most halls, so the recording bell allowed the sound to be pushed directly forward. Not only did the tuba now have a more direct sound and could be used as a substitution for the string double bass, but it allowed for the harmonics of the lower pitches to be clearly heard well in a hall with a low ceiling:
The low frequencies from a BBb tuba are generated by a column of air that’s about 36 feet long… 18 feet of which are INSIDE the horn and another 18 feet that’s OUTSIDE the horn. Playing an upright tuba under any less than a ceiling that’s less than 18 feet PLUS the height of the top of bell to the floor doesn’t even give tuba frequencies enough room to fully develop. This is another good argument for using recording bell tubas in concert halls and other venues with low ceilings.11
This bell modification was adopted by all manufacturers and used in most bands and orchestras until after World War II, although C. G. Conn, Martin, H. N. White, and Holton were still producing recording bells up to the 1970s.
After the late 1910s, the recording bell became a popular option to the upright bell of the sousaphone. H. N. White, C. G. Conn, and Holton, as well as others, still produced the original bell-up version alongside the new recording bell design. The popularity of the redesigned position of the bell on the sousaphone found a home in university and college marching bands like Purdue University:
In the mid 1920’s when Purdue University converted from Helicon’s to Sousaphones, they went to King Sousaphones. These horns were used by the marching band in some fashion until about 5 or 10 years ago when the Sousaphone section began to maintain over 20 members, and new horns were purchased. The majority of these were 3 valve (model 1250), but there were a number of 4 valve (model 1251) and one 4 valve (model 1265). The model 1265 is the one that is called “Big Bertha” The model 1265 was the “Jumbo” Sousaphone produced by H N White Company for King. No one really knows how many of the King 1265 model sousaphones H N White made as after the company was sold in 1965 the buying company destroyed all the production records.12
Purdue University’s model 1265 “Jumbo” sousaphone is just one example of a larger design of the recording bell sousaphone. (See figure 3) These monster sousaphones provided much more depth to the tone, similar to an organ. H. N. White’s KING jumbo sousaphone had a larger bell, larger body and weighed far greater than the standard model 1250. The proportions of these sousaphones made a normal sousaphone look like an Eb model. Jumbo sousaphones are commonly seen with huge bells, big bores, imposing bodies and a multitude of valves. Prior to World War II, the major band instrument manufacturers each made their own jumbo sousaphone.
The word “jumbo” first appeared in the United States from Jumbo, the gigantic elephant in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. P. T. Barnum purchased Jumbo from the London Zoo in 1882 and brought him over from England to star in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Meanwhile [during the two-week transatlantic trip], “Jumbomania” became the watchword of the day. In both England and America, savvy merchants began manufacturing and hawking “Jumbo” products to the ravenous public, including trading cards, prints, hats, bracelets, earrings, canes, cigars, fans and other wildly unnecessary paraphernalia…13
Jumbo toured with the Barnum and Bailey Circus until his death in 1885. It is very likely that the band instrument manufacturers were paying homage to this great beast, when they named their largest sousaphones “jumbos”. Without a doubt, C. G. Conn claimed the proportionally largest jumbo sousaphone, especially given their exclusive use by Sousa’s Band.14
The band instrument manufacturer C. G. Conn was likely the first company to offer jumbo model sousaphones in the original upright bell, commonly referred to as raincatcher, model. (See figure 4) The Grand Jumbo line featured two models with almost identical specifications of: a .773-inch bore and a 28-inch bell. The only differences between the models are the number of valves and the weight: the 46K has three valves and weighs 42 pounds; the 48K has four valves and weighs 54 pounds. Despite the large bell, it was still proportionate to the rest of the body and valves, unlike H. N. White’s KING Giant, which sported a similar 28-inch bell with a broader flare but smaller body in comparison. (See figure 5) In recent years, a number of sousaphones made by C. G. Conn have appeared with serial numbers pre-dating the alleged production dates of the Grand Jumbo sousaphone (1924-1934). These Grand Jumbos have a simple number stamp on the body, such as 10, 4, and 8. No one knows why these numbers were stamped, as they do not designate a model number. Although the serial number on each sousaphone indicates these Grand Jumbos were manufactured before the invention of the recording bell, with the possibility that they were once used in Sousa’s Band.15
As a point of interest, the largest sousaphone ever made, and most well known, is the C. G. Conn Fiftieth Anniversary Grand Jumbo sousaphone. This sousaphone bears a 36-inch bell complete with ornate engraving covering the interior of the bell, which took three weeks to complete.16 (See figure 6)
Jumbo Sousaphone Models Prior to World War II
- H. N. White had two jumbo sousaphones – the 1270 Giant with a 28-inch bell and .750-inch bore and the 1265 Jumbo (see figure 7) with a 32-inch bell and a .687-inch bore or a .750-inch bore.17
- J. W. York & Sons “Monster” sousaphone with a 30-inch bell and a .750-inch bore.18
- Martin “Mammoth” sousaphone with a 30-inch bell and a .720-inch bore.
- Holton “Mammoth” Holtonphone model 130 with a 30-inch bell.19
- Buescher didn’t specifically call their largest sousaphone a jumbo, but merely indicated a number: No. 690 – 3 valves and No. 691 – 4 valves. Each had a 30-inch bell, but there was the option to have a 32-inch or 34-inch bell on request.20 (See figure 8)
- C. G. Conn produced several jumbo sousaphones under various titles – Monster, Grand, Jumbo, and Grand Jumbo.21 Each had certain bell sizes, bore sizes, and valve configurations. The largest of these were the Grand Jumbo, with an especially large bore of .773-inches. (See figure 9)
The Big Band Era
In the latter half of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, live music performances by professional concert bands, consisting of the best musicians of the era, entertained the growing working class. These performances originated back with the first military bands, as the troops needed a beat to march along with. Over time, as the size of the military grew, so did the quality of musicians within the military grow and expand. The military band often put on shows for crowds of people playing marches and arrangements of orchestral scores.
This type of regimental concert band became a favorite around the country and slowly, as directors like John Philip Sousa began to retire from the Armed Forces, they put together professional bands of their own.
The most famous concert bands of the late 1800s to the early 1900s were under the direction of: John Philip Sousa, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, Arthur Pryor, Patrick Conway, and Edwin Franko Goldman.22
Sousa’s Band was the first to adopt the sousaphone (the upright bell sousaphone, see figure 10) as the primary bass voice; even the first sousaphone was a Jumbo.
Photographs of Sousa’s bass section commonly show three standard sized sousaphones and two Jumbo sousaphones, although Sousa usually had a mix of concert tubas and at least one sousaphone for most of the band’s tours.23 (See figure 11)
These early sousaphones were by no means made for marching; just imagine carrying an instrument of more than 40 pounds for a mile or more:
…The cold was intense, and we were all tired out by the time we reached the hotel. The man who plays the big brass instrument known as the Sousaphone said afterwards:
“That instrument weighed thirty-three pounds at the beginning of the walk, but at the end of the three miles it weighed three hundred and thirty.” 24
Rather they were intended to provide the velvety, dark tonal quality, which approximated that of the organ. As stated earlier, recording bell sousaphones were a popular substitution for the string double bass, particularly jumbo sousaphones given the larger construction of the instrument. Before electrical amplification, larger instruments often produced a clearer and darker sound, especially with the heavy gauge brass that was used in the manufacturing process – another reason why jumbo sousaphones weighed so much.
With the invention of electrical amplification, there was a need for the bass player at times to double on the double bass and the sousaphone.25 The only way for this to happen, though, was to place the player outside of the circle of tubing of the sousaphone, relying on a stand to support the instrument. This type of doubling was surpassed by the recording tuba, notably the 6/4 size recording tuba like the C. G. Conn 20J, which, although smaller in overall size, still allowed for the depth of sound that jumbo sousaphones had, while also being far more portable and user friendly. Furthermore, the introduction of the Conn 20J in 1934 coincided with the discontinuation of their Grand Jumbo line, also in 1934.26
Jumbo sousaphone production by all band instrument manufacturers ended just before World War II. The meticulous craftsmanship of these monstrous instruments proved to be a far costlier expense as opposed to making several smaller instruments, such as trumpets and trombones. Not many people were willing to pay the high price tag or bear the weight of these behemoths, especially when similarly smaller sousaphones could be purchased. The jumbo line of sousaphones from any band instrument manufacturer is sought after by tuba players everywhere, but, due to the rarity of them, few turn up and many are likely tucked away in museums or barns on farms. Even more may have been scrapped for parts, such as the rare large bore valve block, for other brass instrument projects.27 Modern sousaphones retain very few characteristics of the jumbo sousaphones of the early 1900s.
By Ian Church: Sousaphone-ologist
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