For the better part of a year, I've had a saved search running on Craigslist that would send me an email whenever anyone posted the word "sousaphone" — anywhere from Portland, ME to Richmond, VA, and as far west as Chicago. During that time, there have been a few days when I've seriously considered jumping in a rental car and trekking out to Pittsburgh or Cleveland to pick up a cheap horn.
But to be honest, there are surprisingly few sousaphones — especially affordable sousaphones — on the internet. So at the end of last football season, I reached out to a bunch of school band directors I know to see if their schools had extra horns they needed to get rid of. Still, mostly dead ends.
Then, in March, I got a text from my dad. He sent a photo of of a sad-looking sousaphone.
My dad's a retired band director himself, and a few days earlier, he was at a dinner party with a former colleague, his friend Al. He mentioned that I was looking for a horn, and Al said, "I think there's one in the attic at my school. Let me check it out."
Sure enough, it was an old Buescher sousaphone, in BBb. Based on the serial number, we estimated that it was built in 1923. Al had bought the horn for his school sometime in the late 80s, but nobody had ever played it. It had just been sitting in that attic. The school would part with it for a small donation to the music department.
So my dad took the horn home, and the next weekend, I hopped in a rental car and drove to my parents' house.
The horn was in decent shape for having spent the last three decades in an attic. The valves all moved, and it didn't seem to be too beaten up. But it didn't have a neck or any bits, and since Buescher went out of business in the 1960s (and the revamped brand has a different neck design), it's hard to find necks that fit. So I bought a King neck and hoped for the best.
The King neck didn't really fit. It was loose, and I couldn't get a good seal. But it was enough to know that the horn worked. At the end of the weekend, I put it in the car and brought it back to New York.
A day or two later, I took the horn into the city and brought it to the incredible J. Landress Brass. (Possibly the most exciting part of my entire trip was meeting their shop cat, Mima.) They talked me through what my horn needed — a complete flush & polish, plus a simple roll-out of some of the dents — and quoted a reasonable price. So I left it there and went on my way.
After about a week, I got the call: the horn was done and ready to be picked up! So I swung by Landress on my way home from work.
It was beautiful. It looked all shiny and brand new, and it played like a dream. They had tightened the place where the neck goes into the lead pipe, so my King neck fits perfectly. It's amazing.
As I finished checking out, Josh, the shop owner, said to me, "You have no idea how many people saw that sousaphone on the table and asked if it was for sale. It's the perfect NYC horn. Not too big, nice, tight wrap. Enjoy it."
I brought it home, and even though it was already 9:30 by the time I settled in, I couldn't help playing for an hour (there's no way I was nearly as loud as my upstairs neighbor is on an average day anyway). There are a few things I still need to figure out — I have to get used to its tuning, and it resonates really weirdly on a mid-staff Db — but it's so exciting to have a sousaphone at my disposal.
First gig is this Saturday, when Funkrust plays at the BIG Reuse Earth Day Party. Can't wait to break it in!
Now, what do I name it?