Notes On The Life Of Anthony ‘Tuba Fats’ Lacen (photo: The Daily Spectrum)

Back in the eighties you could regularly find Anthony ‘Tuba Fats’ Lacen performing live at Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter. He was already famous as a founding member of Dirty Dozen Brass Band but he kept it real on the streets by playing for tips tossed in a plastic bucket on the stone flagons of the sidewalks.

On Sundays he’d gather his Chosen Few band, and march a few miles on the second line parades blasting away on his sousaphone all the while.

Jackson Square was still plenty gritty thirty some odd years ago, and it wasn’t uncommon to see brigands and pickpockets plying their trade on the hapless tourists. Saint Louis, the oldest cathedral in North America watched over the scene.

Lacen came by his career as a professional jazz musician honestly. As a school kid growing up in New Orleans 3rd Ward, he played tuba at McDonogh 36 under the tutelage of band director Clyde Kerr. Young Anthony had dreamed of being a trumpet player but he was a husky lad, and Kerr needed a boy strong enough to be able to tote the 30lb instrument.

In an interview with Bunny Matthews Tuba would relate:

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!

Thankfully the young and budding music-maker did not pay any attention to his mama. And I would have loved to have seen her reaction when she found out her son was masking ‘wildman’ for the Wild Magnolia Indian gang.

While playing with Doc Paulin’s band, Fats was recruited by the legendary raconteur Danny Barker to join the brand new Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band.

The kids in the outfit were having a hard time mastering the tuba so Danny brought Fats on to mentor them. Fats would laughingly recall that he shaved his beard off to better fit in with the youngsters in the band.

That group would go on to become a powerhouse before a rumpus with the local musician’s union forced them to disband. The union claimed that Barker was exploiting the children he was attempting to introduce to the world of real jazz. The old cats in the union saw a bunch of fresh-faced kids playing gigs for free, and perceived them as a threat to their livelihood.

Tuba Fats was not at loose ends for long. He hit the ground running, and formed the Hurricane Brass Band with Leroy Jones while other alumni would create Liberty Jazz Band and Original Tuxedo Brass Band.

Hurricane got their name from Mr Barker who told them, “…when you come up the street y’all blow like a hurricane.” They did just that.

After the Hurricane gig wrapped Tuba would go on to play with Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band w/Milton Batiste.

“The music started changing in the seventies….these young boys were thinking up different riffs…” said Lacen.

The Batiste family’s Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band was a free-wheelin’ outfit of Treme’ irregulars who loved to take to the streets during Carnival, and raise a ruckus with their kazoos and snare drums. Lacen would fall in with this group of merrymakers, and soon enough an actual working band of professional musicians was performing at second lines and house parties.

The outfit dropped ‘kazoo’ from the title of their ensemble and, morphed into the Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band before finally settling into the truncated Dirty Dozen Brass Band for good..

Over forty years later it’s easy to look back and see how groundbreaking this group was in the seventies. The second line culture in New Orleans in 1977 was faltering. The old time brass bands were content with playing the occasional funeral, and working their day jobs, and the new crush of heavy blowers had yet to form.

Dirty Dozen changed all that when they began incorporating avant-garde, soul, and rap into their street-music repertoire. It wasn’t long before they were hottest Black band in the city, and other little groups started popping up to take over the work that the Dozen had to turn down due to being overbooked.

How influential were Dirty Dozen?

“The ReBirth, Tuba Fat’s Chosen Few, the Pinstripe and Tremé brass bands sprang up to take the work we (Dirty Dozen) couldn’t. Even the Olympia Brass Band became active again…” That’s Gregory Davis, trumpet player reflecting back on the scene in New Orleans back then.

Fats didn’t last with the Dozen for long said founding member, and baritone sax player Roger Lewis

Anthony Lacen had his own yearnings and desires that he wanted to fulfill, and to meet those ends he started a new outfit called Chosen Few.

Tuba Fats new band would become legend in New Orleans. On one second line Lacen started blowing real hard with his horn pointed at a pregnant lady named Vana Acker’s tummy. Her water broke, and future trombonist Glen David Andrews was delivered in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Over the years Fats morphed into an ajax of a man, finally tipping the scales at over 300lbs. He had the attendant ailments that come along with being oversized, and would finally pass of a heart attack at the tender age of 53.

On January 18th, 2004, thousands of people filed through Gallier Hall in downtown New Orleans for Anthony Lacen’s memorial. A brass band was playing Just A Little While To Stay Here. Following the service a mammoth second line took place through the French Quarter; 14 sousaphone players would be counted in the pickup band that processed with a fair stampede of second-liners. The procession passed through Fat’s beloved Jackson Square where three priests blessed him for a final time.

“…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.” Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen.

Brief radio interview with Tuba Fats

b. September 15th 1950
d. January 11th 2004

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Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans By Matt Sakakeeny
Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music By Thomas W. Jacobsen
Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans By Richard Brent Turner
Keeping the Beat on the Street: The New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance By Mick Burns
A Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz By Samuel Charters
The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans By Ned Sublette

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