Photo First: Tuba Christmas

Three hundred big brass horns playing Christmas songs in Pioneer Courthouse Square? Brace yourselves: It's a Portland tradition

Text and Photographs by K.B. Dixon

Improbable as it sounds (pun intended), Tuba Christmas is a real thing. An inspired creation, it is a mix of Santa Claus and Surrealism. An annual event in Portland since 1991, it features some 300 or so tubas galumphing their way through the Christmas songbook—Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful, The First Noel, etc., etc. It is a performance-art piece transfigured by the comedy of its cockamamie premise into an old-fashioned bit of mainstream fun.

This showcase for big winds was originally conceived (in what must have been a psychoanalytically significant fever-dream) by Harvey Phillips, “Titan of the Tuba,” in New York in 1974 as a tribute to William Bell, his teacher and mentor. Initially a sort of public-relations stunt to gain the poor old put-upon tuba (the Rodney Dangerfield of the brass section) a little harmless recognition, it evolved quickly over the years into a national phenomenon. There are Tuba Christmases everywhere now from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Elkhart, Indiana, to Sacramento, California.

Mr. Phillips—the first tubist to be inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame—was dedicated to this sea-creature of an instrument. He formed a foundation (the Harvey Phillips Foundation) to address all things tuba. It is active to this day with scholarships, lectures, clinics, and public performances financed by Tuba Christmas registration fees. If every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings, every time a sousaphone oompahs Silent Night a subsidized tuba player gets a cleaning snake (or a jar of tuning-slide grease).

Mining the preposterous for pleasure, this basso extravaganza has become a treasured local tradition. The Tuba Christmas in Pioneer Courthouse Square this year will be Portland’s 28th. The sound of B-flat thunder rumbling slowly up through 18 feet of intestinal tubing on its way to Frosty the Snowman will put a smile on even the most curmudgeonous face.

Tuba Christmas

  • Pioneer Courthouse Square, 701 S.W. Sixth Ave. Portland
  • December 8, 1:30 to 3:00 p.m.
  • Free

Conference, 2012

Warm-up, 2017

                    Elf & Friend, 2014

Fedora & Tuba, 2017

Christmas Jumpsuit, 2014

Reindeer, 2017

Waiting Patiently, 2012

Hedgehog, 2014

Mustache & Mutt, 2012

Heart & Antlers, 2017

A Tautology of Tubas, 2017

Embouchure, 2014

Harmonic Convergence, 2012

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Portland writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s new book Too True: Essays on Photography was recently honored as a Finalist in the Art category of the 2018 Best Book Awards.

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