The Tuba God

Not long ago, I was driving through Tennessee and happened upon a town called Cookeville, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. I had been advised that TTU, an engineering school out in the middle of nowhere, is also one of the world’s great centers for tuba playing.

This is largely due to the presence, since 1967, of Winston Morris, whom my source referred to as The TubaIMG_1277 God.

As a reporter, I pride myself on braking for anyone I hear who is colloquially known as the “God” of something, or the “King” of something else.

I have done stories on The Cambodian Donut King and The Tomato King and a Chinese-Mexican beauty Queen selected because she accumulated the largest number of Pepsi bottle caps (true story – Hell, they’re all true stories.)

Among the cool things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to barge into the lives of some of the most creative people in America. So that’s what I did.

I called Morris and he kindly allowed me to stop by on my way from Nashville to Knoxville. We talked a lot about tubas, the most relegated of instruments, and how it has emerged from the shadows where other instruments – mostly trumpets – had placed it. A civil rights movement for tubas, where the instrument was now breaking with all limitations, and playing any piece on the instrument was now possible.

Many years ago, Morris started the school’s Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble. He said he did this to attract attention to his program and to begin writing repertoire for the instrument, which had precious little. He envisioned the ensemble as tuba version of the string quartet or brass quintet. The Ensemble is now four decades old and has recorded pieces by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Gunther Schuller, Michael Jackson, and a bunch more.

He had more to say about tuba playing, about living in the Jim Crow South as a boy, about caring for his wife for 16 years after her massive stroke. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Cookeville.

Morris, btw, also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of tuba-related figurines – more than 2200. Rabbits playing the tuba, bears playing the tuba, Santa Clauses playing the tuba, soldiers playing the tuba, monkeys and elephants and cats playing the tuba. He’s donating it all to the school, which will set up an exhibit of tuba-related art.

Just another reason to stop while driving east from middle Tennessee.

 

8 Comments

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8 Responses to The Tuba God

  1. Carole Nowicke

    In a world of often unpleasant change, he is a constant and stalwart presence and champion of the tuba. …and he has the best stories.

  2. William Smith

    There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Morris. It takes a lot of drive, creativity, and passion to teach music using the tuba. It takes something even more special to use the tuba as a tool to teach so much about life!

  3. MaryBeth Hoover

    I’m a woodwind player, alumnus of Tennessee Tech as well and loved hearing his ensembles! They were fantastic!

  4. Lisa Bowen Field

    What a wonderful piece on one of my favorite people! I am a proud Music Education graduate of Tennessee Tech. Mr. Morris was my Brass Class and Brass Choir teacher. I have seen a lot of his tuba memorabilia, but I can’t wait for it to be on display all in one place for everyone to enjoy.

  5. A few more notes for your story, from a proud alumnus:
    – The ensemble has seven appearances at Carnegie Hall.
    – The group has produced over twenty recordings.
    – They have commissioned works from the mundane to the major, including from a number of well-known composers.
    – This fall we will have a major celebration in October, in honor of Winston Morris’s fifty years of teaching at the school and his major contributions. An amazing man, an amazing career.

    • Nolan Derrick

      Actually, the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble (TTTE) has been to Carnegie Hall EIGHT times with the most recent performance in 2014!! I would know, I am a current member of this amazing ensemble.

  6. Dave Ledbetter

    My hero! Morris taught me more about succeeding in life than any of the hundreds of instructors before or after. I will forever treasure my time in his studio!

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