14 August 2015


Tuba Skinny: Scruffy? Unprofessional?
In recent months, a few elderly musicians have complained about the 'scruffiness' of the young bands who currently busk so brilliantly on the streets of New Orleans.

There was even a minor debate on this topic in the English 'JAZZNORTHWEST' web-site, sparked off by a comment from Louis Lince, the great banjo-player, bandleader and former jazz magazine publisher. He said: '...if Tuba Skinny want to play concerts in the UK they will have to smarten themselves up. Dirty jeans/cut-offs, tennis shoes and t-shirts are NOT the way to go.' I smiled when I read this, as I thought Louis was making a good ironic joke - deliberately mimicking a long-retired colonel living in Kent - the kind of man who used to write to the newspapers under the pseudonym 'Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells'. But I later came to realise he meant what he said.

And this week a correspondent (who says he is a 'huge fan' of Tuba Skinny) wrote to tell me he wishes the band would 'become more professional'. He says 'I wish they would smile more, dress better and look like they are having fun'. He goes on to name particular members of the band, saying they look bored and that one appears to be in dirty clothes.

He asked me to give my opinion. Well, here it is.

I must warn you first that - sadly - at the time of writing this article I have never personally seen Tuba Skinny. So I'm not well placed to judge. But I have spent many hours watching them on dozens of YouTube videos.

I am a very old Englishman and I grew up amidst the British conventions of the 1940s. Those conventions were still influenced by Victorian and Edwardian manners and by military discipline, because our school-teachers and fathers and grandfathers - our rôle models - had fought in the First or the Second World War.

So in my working life, I was required to wear a clean shirt, a smart suit and a tie every day - even in the hottest weather. (I did not enjoy doing so.)

If I had turned up for work with a tattoo or with a ring through my nose, I would have been summoned to the boss's office and sacked.

So you can see that the culture from which I come is alien to that of the young jazz musicians on the streets of New Orleans. But what they and I have in common is a love of traditional jazz and a desire to play it as well as we can.

I feel envy and admiration for the courage and determination of those young people who (in some cases after a good college education) have thrown up the chance of becoming bankers or business executives or lawyers or accountants in order to busk on the streets. I suspect some of their critics are unconsciously envious of them too. While honing their music-making skills, they barely make enough to pay the rent; they have to buy their clothes from charity shops (what the Americans call 'thrift shops'), and make do with old bicycles for transport.

I can understand audiences being disappointed because some of these young musicians do not always look cheerful. But when you are playing session after session in 80 degrees to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees to 32 degrees Celsius) - sometimes till 3am as at The Spotted Cat - and repeatedly playing the same tunes, it is difficult to appear always fresh and cheerful. Sometimes you will look weary. What makes it harder is that you are constantly pestered by tourists wanting to 'sit in' or to be photographed with you or keen to tell their friends they talked to you.

By the way, I have frequently seen Shaye smile in videos. I think it's only because she is such a thinker and because she concentrates so hard on what is going on that she sometimes gives the impression of looking too serious.

I don't object to their casual laid-back approach to life. As far as I can tell from the many videos, they keep as clean as is possible in the hot, humid and sometimes dusty conditions. Their dress for busking is appropriate to the weather and the environment. At commercial gigs it is 'smart casual' and that's fine with me.

[Edited note - added several months later: I have now seen the band on the streets of New Orleans. I stand by all I have written. They are clean and smart, wearing sensible casual clothes that are just right for the hot climate and the music scene in which they participate.]

On tour, they typically attract audiences of 500 happy, excited, mainly young people. How many of our bands dressed in jackets and ties could do that?
Thank goodness we all agree the music they produce is - as my correspondent said - 'fabulous'.
Footnote: I have received many emails in response to this post. Nobody so far has agreed with the view that Tuba Skinny are 'scruffy'.

Here is a selection. First from Fred Burnett who runs the JAZZNORTHWEST web-site:

Hi Ivan,
In case you hadn’t seen it, there’s a  whole debate on this subject on my site which started back in July 2012 and the last entry being towards the end of April this year.
I appreciate though that Tuba Skinny first got cited as an example by Louis this year after Norman Gibson resurrected the subject.

From an Englishman who visited New Orleans in April:

Morning Ivan

Totally agree with your comments. The band members might appear to be bored and uninterested but they all take their work seriously. Off duty they are chatty, charming and great fun. We had long chats with most of the band and they were happy to share their thoughts on their music and their fans. When I told Shaye that she had inspired me to start playing cornet again after 20 years she was genuinely chuffed. Bill

Here's another email from England:

Hi Ivan
I want to say how much I agree with your view of Tuba Skinny. The dissenting voices come from that club that does so much to kill off accessible jazz: the old man's club playing old man's music. The accent is on 'man'.
There are two women in Tuba Skinny. Not girls, not ladies. Women.
If it's image you're after then get a band full of shop window dummies.
The future of acoustic swing has been passed to another generation. 
Long live the music of the future.

And another:

Hello Ivan,

I must say I agree with your every word about Tuba Skinny's dress.  Contrary to the quoted comment, casual clothes are not necessarily dirty or scruffy!

Tuba Skinny is a street band and I don't see any problem if they choose to appear in more formal settings dressed like a street band.  I'm just trying to imagine Metallica performing in grey lounge suits.

After the hottest two weeks of the year, I guess a lot of orchestral musicians would prefer T-shirts to white tie and tails!


And one from a Dutch reader:
Dear Ivan,
Also I find this band: fabulous
The band members should receive all our respect: I feel some shame that this discussion is raised here in Europe.
Tell those elderly musicians, that they better should write a letter to Obama, that this band should receive a subsidy or prize for safeguarding this jazz heritage.

Rgs, Jan