Tubas have a bad rep. The instrument is big and heavy and simply does not have the rock-star glamour of the guitar or excitement of the drums.
For this reason, unless you are a fan of brass bands, it is rare to stumble upon a tuba player. In fact, when an eight-year-old Theon Cross first played a brass instrument it was his parents' choice. But now at the age of 23, the Londoner has brought a unique and funky style to the tuba and can frequently be found starring in jazz bands around London, such as the award-winning Sons of Kemet, the Moses Boyd Exodus, and Kansas Smitty’s House Band.
The rarity of such a musician is why we were delighted to feature him in our latest multimedia journey Reawakening which investigates the new and vibrant face of UK jazz.
Since graduating from the Guildhall school of music and drama, he has toured various music festivals in the UK and abroad and has played in studio recordings for BBC 3, Channel 4, and Japanese pop star Ayumi Hamasaki, not to mention working with American rapper Pharoahe Monch and pianist Jon Batiste.
Also a composer, he is planning to record a follow-up this year to his impressive 2015 EP Aspirations. We caught up with Theon to see how all this came to be.
So why the tuba? What made you get into playing that instrument?
Well I didn’t actually choose it. My parents signed me up to lessons at school. It wasn’t tuba to begin with it was the tenor horn. Out of a bunch of mouthpieces that my teacher gave me, that’s the one I made a sound out of, so I played it but I didn’t quite like it at first.
When I moved to secondary school I moved to another instrument called the Euphonium and I started getting more into it. Pretty much then I joined a marching carnival group called Kinetica when I was about 12. But I picked up the tuba when I was 14 because it was the instrument that held most of the basslines and I just liked that role in the music.
Perhaps it’s my sheltered life but I’ve not come across many tuba players. Is it quite a unique thing to be a tuba player?
Yeah it is. It’s not an instrument people choose straight away and say “I wanna master that!” like the guitar or piano or something like that. But it’s getting popularised now a bit more because more brass bands are getting more notoriety but it’s still an endangered species.
Is it difficult to learn?
Yeah it is quite difficult. All wind instruments require breath obviously but the tuba requires more. And obviously you’ve got to be a decent size too to carry it around! But yeah it’s difficult like all instruments really.
So at what point did you start playing in jazz bands?
I got into in jazz pretty much when I was 16 or 17. I started going down to jazz workshops where I met lots of different people. I went to one at the Roundhouse. At the time I didn’t realise how unusual it was! [laughs] Because I’d always been in outside carnival thing tuba wasn’t that uncommon. But it wasn’t until I started getting into more traditional more standardised jazz that I realised it was a bit more unique.
And then it was like – ok so what is my role in this? I started learning walking basslines I things like that. But what inspired me first was lots of brass bands – that was my way in and then went back and started listening to lots of other brass bands such as Rebirth, Dirty Dozen, things like that…and learnt the vibe of how those bands played it. After that I started going to workshops and was interested in jazz. I wanted to learn how to improvise basically and play a groove.
Are there tuba players in jazz currently that you can look up to and say yeah I want to do what he’s doing?
Yeah Oren Marshall who I studied with at Guildhall Youth was obviously a big influence. The musician who put the tuba in my hand and who was a big influence on my was Andy Grappy who basically started me off. Other people like Bob Stewart from the states, Howard Johnson, Philip Frazier from Rebirth Brass Band, Kirk Joseph from the Dirty Dozen, John Sass, there are quite a few.
Is there a secret or key thing to playing the tuba – what would you tell someone trying to learn?
Breathe. [laughs] It’s simple but it’s the most important thing, breathing is the fundamentals of everything to do with mastering a wind instrument. They’re called wind instruments because they need wind!
What is it about jazz that made you want to get into it? What do you love about it?
That’s a big question! [laughs] There are many things obviously. The freedom of improvisation. I always was attracted to that. Being able to be free within a context. I have always loved that. I love dance music really and jazz has always been the foundation of that is that it’s a rhythmic music. Most of the music that I like derives from that. I thought studying it would help me in all aspects of music.
It’s the freedom of it. The democracy. The social aspects of it – learning to play with people: the idea that you can meet up with people that you’ve never met before and make music with them because you study the art is a beautiful thing man.
Do you think jazz is more fashionable now compared to say a few years ago?
I think so yeah. We’re definitely getting into the realm where people are interested in it again. There are couple of reasons. The Internet is a big reason. Instead of being told what to listen to people can go out and find what they want to listen to. And people aren’t as closed-minded as they are programmed to be. Given their own devices people will actually listen to music that has substance.
I think jazz and hip hop is a big fusion that’s happening as well and making more young people aware of it. People like Kendrick Lamar who released an album last year called ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ contains elements which will then bring in people and they’ll check out other things.
I think a lot of bands are starting to think about presentation as well – how to present their music to young people. Kamasi Washington for example. It’s appealing, it looks cool. We’re in a different realm I think. Just the fact that they have an artist like Kamasi on the Brainfeeder label just shows how it’s all fusing. The boundaries are just crossing each other.
Do you see it growing from here?
It’s only gonna get bigger I think.
And you released an excellent EP last year, what have you got planned this year?
The plan is to do another EP this year or at least record it.