And at halftime, he said, it’s the most important thing on the field.
“We’re the best,” said Harris, a section leader in the Marching Southerners, the 412-member marching band at Jacksonville State University. “We’re the biggest. We’re the burliest.”
Most people would call Harris a tuba player. But he — and the 20-odd marchers in his section — are quick to point out that they don’t play just any old horn. They carry the Conn 20J upright recording bass, a 52-pound brass behemoth that was built for concerts halls and studio sessions.
It’s the Southerners’ secret weapon.
Nearly twice as heavy as the sousaphones carried by most marching bands, the 20J tuba is rarely heard on the football field. In fact, it’s hard to find anywhere. But the Southerners have 30 of them. And they’re the secret ingredient in the band’s massive sound — a warm wall of air that often leaves new audiences stunned.
JSU’s band has long had a reputation bigger than one might expect from a 9,000-student state university. Among other gigs, the Southerners traveled to London in January for a New Year’s parade that kicked off Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee year. Part of the magic is in the band’s size: JSU is primarily a teacher’s college, and future high school band directors help swell the Southerners to a size that dwarfs many top-ranked football schools.
But the 20J, many band members say, is what helps push their sound over the top.
“It gives the Southerners our signature deep, rich, bass,” band director Ken Bodiford said.
“It’s a darker sound,” said Nick Staff, a senior who plays the 20J. “It’s more rich, more mellow than other instruments.”
The last 20J was made in the early 1970s, and the Southerners have been scrounging, repairing and cannibalizing the remaining tubas ever since. The band currently has 30 horns in its 20J section — including a couple of 24Js, an even larger version that was discontinued around the same time as the 20J.
Bodiford said that if there’s another college band that still uses the 20J, he hasn’t heard from them.
And he is looking. If anybody has a 20J for sale, Bodiford wants to know.
“We keep buying them as we find them,” he said. “The ones we have, we treat like gold.”
Actually, the original 20Js were plated with silver, though age has dimmed the shine on JSU’s herd of tubas. Some are coated with automotive paint for durability, band members say. Some have so many tiny dents, collected over time, that their surfaces seem wrinkled.
Behind the sound
Paul Sizemore has fixed some of the larger dents in the big tubas. A former JSU 20J player, Sizemore worked until recently at Southeastern Music Company in Huntsville, which has the contract to repair JSU’s tubas.
Sizemore said that to understand the 20J’s sound, it’s helpful to think of what the instrument would look like if you could straighten out all those twists and turns into one long horn. If you did that with a tuba, he said, you’d have a horn shaped like a cone.
That’s different from what you’d see if you straightened out a trumpet, he said. Then you’d have a long, cylindrical horn that flares out only at the end.
“Trumpets are cylindrical and French horns are conical,” he said. “If you think of the difference in sound, you see that a conical instrument is more mellow.”
The shape of the cone matters, too. Sizemore said most sousaphones — the wraparound tubas carried by most bands — are nearly cylindrical. That puts them more on the trumpet side.
“With a sousaphone, there’s a tendency to be blatty,” he said. “It’s possible to overblow the instrument.”
You can see 20Js in the old Lawrence Welk show, he said, and that’s the horn’s natural habitat. Sizemore said the heavyweight tuba’s forward-facing bell was made for big-band-era recording sessions, where players needed to aim the sound at the microphone.
JSU started taking the 20J onto the field in the 1950s, band members said, when the Southerners made a move away from the military aesthetic of marching bands and into a more orchestral sound.
The Southerners’ style may be less Prussian than other bands, but it takes a heap of discipline to march with the 20J.
“Band camp is in the second week in August,” Harris said, standing in the parking lot of Pete Mathews Coliseum, where many practices are held. “We’re here from nine in the morning to 10 o’clock at night.”
To make the 20J easier to carry, a band member will wrap a strap across his left shoulder and hook the instrument to his chest with a rock-climber’s carabiner. It takes a newcomer only a few minutes to understand why 20J players often gripe about shoulder and back pain.
Sizemore says he sometimes has a tingling sensation in his arm that he attributes to his years toting the 20J. Still, he said, he wouldn’t trade his years with the Southerners.
“I loved every minute of it,” he said.
Even when they’re not strapped into the horn, 20J players are easy to spot at band practice. They’re the big, shirtless guys who talk a little louder than most.
“We’re the Boss Hog of the band,” said one player in a group of 20Js who crowded around a reporter at a Thursday practice.
“We’re the shirtless-est,” said another.
“There’s an attitude that they have,” Sizemore said. “You either love them or you hate them. They’re cocky.”
Women have marched with the 20J, Sizemore said, but the section is usually male.
If they’re brash, the 20J players are also gentle, at least with their horns. Every dent is a threat to an instrument, and every 20J is a tuba that can’t be replaced.
“Some of these are nearly 100 years old,” Harris said. “We’ve got one that’s marked ‘patent pending.’”
Bodiford isn’t sure what he’ll do to replace the 20Js when they finally wear out. He isn’t sure how long they’ll last.
“I hope they’ll be here long after I’m gone,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be the one who makes the transfer to another instrument.”
The Southerners will make their home-field season debut today during halftime at JSU’s game against the Chattanooga Mocs, which starts at 6 p.m. at Burgess-Snow Field.