34th anniversary TubaChristmas expected to be a blast

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Tuba Christmas founder and conductor Tucker Jolly leads the audience in a Christmas carol during the 32nd Annual Tuba Christmas at E.J. Thomas Hall in 2011. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Tucker Jolly retired from the University of Akron School of Music in May, but he has no intention of retiring from TubaChristmas, the low-brass extravaganza that has drawn thousands of people to celebrate Akron’s holiday season in the last 33 years.

Jolly, the man with the perfect Christmas name, founded Akron’s TubaChristmas in 1980, the first year he was teaching at the University of Akron. It was his way of getting to know the community as well as other tuba players.

Now, TubaChristmas has become synonymous with the name Tucker Jolly. The beloved event will celebrate its 34th anniversary performances at noon and 2:30 p.m. Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall, where Jolly expects 450 to 500 tuba, sousaphone, euphonium and other tuba-family players to show up as usual. The festive concerts, which feature tubas trimmed in tinsel, garlands and lights, is free.

TubaChristmas was founded in 1974 at Rockefeller Center by the late Harvey Phillips in honor of his mentor, tubist William Bell, who was born on Christmas Day 1902. Akron’s Jolly is a Christmas-time baby, too, with his 67th birthday coming up Dec. 30.

“I’ve always loved the holidays. I’ve always loved Christmas music; that’s why I started TubaChristmas,” Jolly said.

The event has come a long way from its first year outdoors at Cascade Plaza, where 55 musicians played for a crowd of 250. TubaChristmas’ record year was 2002, when 600 musicians from near and far performed at the Akron Civic Theatre after the historical theater had been renovated. That year, more than 1,000 people had to be turned away from two performances.

Since moving to the E.J. Thomas Hall stage in 2007, TubaChristmas has played to packed houses of up to 2,800. This year, retired deputy mayor Dave Lieberth — a former trumpeter — will be guest soloist. Guest conductors Robert Jorgensen, retired director of UA bands, and Andy Larson, visiting lecturer of tuba and euphonium, will join in the fun. The event is a longstanding tradition for Jorgensen, too, who has guest-conducted for 25 years.

Low-brass musicians who want to participate can register between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall. Rehearsal is from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Musicians pay a $10 registration fee. Performers may call 330-972-8301 for more information. Audience members may call 330-972-7570.

TubaChristmas is really a giant community sing-along, with the tubists playing a carol verse first and the audience singing along the second time through. Jolly is a traditionalist who likes to use very simple versions of carols.

“It’s a really warm atmosphere and people seem to really enjoy it,” he said. “It’s very gratifying to do something and have that many people take part in it.”

Jolly, a professor emeritus who continues to teach part time at the University of Akron, says audience members are drawn to the shows’ friendly vibe. People who have made the event an annual tradition say their Christmas spirit isn’t in full swing until they take in TubaChristmas.

It’s a holiday passion that Jolly says he plans to keep leading “for the foreseeable future.” And despite what newcomers might think, even with 500 musicians, the TubaChristmas tunes aren’t too loud.

“It’s thick, it’s dark and it’s warm, so to sing with it, it doesn’t get in your way,” Jolly said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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