Harvey Phillips is considered by many to be the best tubist in the world. His prodigious technical command of the tuba, musical sense, and rapport with the audience have made him in great demand as a performer. Through his efforts as a teacher, commissioner of new works, and popularizer of the tuba, he has been largely responsible for the present-day renaissance of interest in tuba performance and literature.
The youngest of ten children, Harvey was born on December 2, 1929, in Aurora, Missouri, to farmers Jesse and Lottie Phillips. The Phillips lost the family farm due to the Depression and became tenant farmers, finally settling near Marionsville, Missouri. Harvey began to study music in high school with retired circus bandleader Homer Lee, who introduced him to the sousaphone, the rap-around version of the tuba used in marching bands. "I had always wanted to play a brass instrument, but my folks couldn't afford to buy one." Phillips told the News-Sun. "So I fell in love with it. I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
After graduating in 1947, Phillips got a summer job playing tuba with the King Brothers Circus. Nine weeks later he left to go to the University of Missouri, where he had a scholarship, but he was unhappy there and gladly joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus band when he received an offer from Merle Evans, the band's leader. Phillips stayed with Ringling Brothers until 1950.
His time with the circus proved to be very beneficial as he learned to play many kinds of music to accompany different acts and in his first year he visited every state in the Union. During his second visit to New York City, he met William Bell, then tubist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Phillips later studied under Bell, and with his support attended the Juilliard School of Music, in New York, where he received a four-year scholarship.
Except for a two-year stint with the U.S. Army Field Band in Washington, D.C., Phillips remained in New York, attending classes at the Manhattan School of Music and performing with a variety of ensembles: the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the Goldman Band. Upon the request of Gunther Schuller, then president of the New England Conservatory in Boston, from 1967 to 1971 Phillips served as Schuller's vice-president for financial affairs. During his tenure there, he helped raise more than $6 million to rescue the conservatory from bankruptcy.
In 1971 Phillips joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Music, in Bloomington, upon the retirement and recommendation of Bell, and by 1979 he was made a Distinguished Professor of Music, the highest professorial rank. Phillips has taught many master classes and clinics, been featured at dozens of national and international music conferences, and served on many committees and panels. He strives to instill pride, commitment, and professional ethics in all his students.
Phillips aspires to expand performance opportunities in every musical discipline, eradicate musical prejudice and misunderstanding, and broaden the base of audience support for the performing arts. To these ends Phillips organized the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (T.U.B.A.), which has a mailing list of 12,000, and other societies to promote brass instruments. He has co-founded such ensembles as Orchestra U.S.A., the New York Brass Quintet, the Matteson-Phillips Tubajazz Consort, and Twentieth Century Innovations, and has performed widely in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
To generate audience support, in 1973 Phillips originated the annual TUBA-CHRISTMAS, which later engendered OCTUBAFEST, TUBAEASTER, and SUMMERTUBAFEST, festivals held across the country to celebrate the tuba. TUBA-CHRISTMAS originated when Phillips wanted to honor his teacher, Bell, who was born on Christmas day. Phillips arranged for tuba players to come to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center to perform Christmas carols in what has now become a tradition. OCTUBAFEST, held annually at Phillips's TUBARANCH in Bloomington, attracts as many as 4,000 participants.
Invented in the early 1830s, the tuba was a relative newcomer to the orchestra. It was a vast improvement over its predecessors--the serpent and the ophicleide--and quickly assumed its role in the orchestra. It was not until 1954, however, when Ralph Vaughn Williams composed Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra that the tuba's solo capabilities were made known. Nevertheless, the solo repertoire increased little until Phillips decided to take matters into his own hands. Phillips has been directly responsible for the composition of more than 600 works for tuba. He has inspired, cajoled, and coerced works from many composers--including Vincent Persichetti, Morton Gould, Gunther Schuller, and Alec Wilder--and has directly commissioned more than 100 others. Sometimes payment has taken various forms, such as a case of gin, and when Phillips found himself deeply in debt from commissions and festivals, he set up the Harvey Phillips Foundation to support his musical activities.
Indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of the tuba and tubists, Phillips maintains a hectic schedule of performing, teaching, and consulting. Though he is satisfied that people are beginning to appreciate, play, and compose for the tuba with appropriate enthusiasm, he sees no reason to slow his pace.
Perhaps Gunther Schuller, a horn player and conductor of renown, who has throughout the years worked with Phillips on many projects, describes him best: "Harvey Phillips is not only a supreme artist on the tuba, but through his multiple activities as a teacher, clinician, commissioner of new works, and organizer of tuba and brass festivals, he has been an indefatigable 'philosopher of the tuba.' His efforts on behalf of other musicians never cease. More than anyone else he has tenaciously proselytized the notion that the tuba can, in the hands of fine musicians, communicate the entire gamut of musical emotions and expressions.
For his missionary zeal and his exemplary performance record, Mr. Phillips has won the respect of all his colleagues, as well as countless composers whose works he has premiered, championed and performed. Harvey Phillips, in short, is the major progenitor in his field, and already two generations of younger players are forever indebted to him."
by Jeanne M. Lesinski
This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 24, 1995. Portions
were used (along with recordings) on WNIB three months later, also in 1997
and 1999. The transcription was made and posted on this website in
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here. To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.