Tuba Fats, born Anthony Lacen on September 15, 1950 in New Orleans, is an icon of brass band players. From the defunct Gibson Brass Band to Doc Paulin’s brass band to the Fairview, the Olympia, the Onward, the Eureka and the Chosen Few, Tuba Fats has provided the bottom notes for virtually every performing brass band ensemble in New Orleans. Most afternoons, he plays in Jackson Square. Fortunately for us, a recent deluge temporarily prevented this activity, thereby freeing Tuba Fats to sit down and reflect upon his career.
I started playing tuba in grammar school at McDonogh 36 with the band director Clyde Kerr, Sr. I wanted to play trumpet and I went in to join the band and Mr. Kerr said, “See that big horn in the corner? If you want to be in the band, you play that big horn.” I never did get to play the trumpet. He said I was a big guy and he needed somebody big to carry the horn.
You’ve got to like the tuba–that’s the key–you’ve got to really like it. You have to have a lot of wind to put in it also. I listened at a lot of upright bass players and I perfected the tone and the sound that I got from listening at upright bass players. At one time, I was one of the youngest tuba players in the city of New Orleans.
I was born and raised six blocks from the Dew Drop Inn. I used to sneak out at night and go ride my little bike down by the Dew Drop. I was always big so I was able to get in. I’d see Big Joe Turner and B.B. King. We’d be playing ball and see these big busses going up Simon Bolivar and say, “Somebody’s at the Dew Drop tonight!” Later on that night, my parents would be sleeping and I’d sneak out the side door and later, I’d catch a whupping. My mother whupped me so much! She didn’t want me playing this music. She used to always tell me, “Get that music out of your head!”
My parents were very religious–church peoples. They looked at the drugs and stuff and figured everybody had to be that way. My mother used to tell people, “That’s the worst kid I got in my house because he’s got that music in his head.” After she started seeing me playing and saw I was doing all right, she’d tell ’em, “He’s the best kid I got!”
I worked out of Preservation Hall. I played with all the greats–Kid Thomas, Sweet Emma, Ernie Cagnoletti. It’s just a nice thing that Allan Jaffe gave me the opportunity to come in to Preservation Hall, to learn to play the old music.
The music changed around 1974. I was playing for the Olympia Brass Band and we kinda did some rhythm and blues tunes like “I Got A Woman” and Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and a tune I wrote called “Tuba Fats” and the Mardi Gras Indians tune, “Iko Iko.” It changed the music around and that’s what brought on the ReBirth, the Little Rascals and all these other bands that’s out. I had also formed a band called the Chosen Few Brass Band and we started hipping the music up a little bit. That’s what brought the big change onto the music scene.
Tuba FatsNew Orleans musicians have a certain feeling in their music that peoples like. It’s that beat–we’ve got that beat. No matter where we go, we’re always recognized. I just went on a little small tour to Austria and peoples enjoyed it. I went back to Munich, the week after, with James Andrews, and people still enjoyed it. There’s something about New Orleans music that just moves peoples around and it’s gonna always be there. It’s not ever gonna leave us.
It’s just like gumbo. You can do a gumbo and if you don’t put that filé to it, it’s not a gumbo. It’s the same way with New Orleans music, it’s got that filé in it. That’s what it’s all about.
Tourists get all different types of ideas about the music here in New Orleans. Some peoples tell ’em bad things about it, some peoples tell ’em good things about it. I play in Jackson Square and I do it because peoples love music and I love to see peoples enjoy music. There’s some musicians that don’t talk to me or think bad about me because I play out on the street and all but I care less about that because when I die, I’m gonna die by myself. And they’ll be the ones standing over me, saying, “Oh, he was a good man!”
People come to New Orleans to hear the music and they don’t get it up and down Bourbon Street. It’s not there anymore. When I’m on the square playing, I can see the joy in these peoples’ hearts–they’re really enjoying the music. New Orleans music is something that will never die.
I’m fine–I don’t need to be a millionaire. If I want to play on the street, that’s my business. We’re not beggars, we’re not homeless. People should wake up and realize we’re playing on the street because we’re playing for some old folks who can’t get out at night. Doctors and lawyers are crazy about music on the square. Danny Barker played on the square with us. Louis Armstrong played on the streets.
Music is communication and relaxation. You can go somewhere and be very, very mad and hear some good music and you forget about the madness that you have.
Some of the musicians who are sitting back with their mouths pushed out, putting out bad things about music should come forward and spread it a little forward so that peoples can enjoy it because you only have a short life. I’m enjoying mine. Music will go with me all the way to my grave. That’s how I want to die–I want to play that last note and die. That’s the way to go–take the joy with you.