Thursday, December 13, 2012

The last gasp for upright bells

The year 1908, when the bell-front design first appeared, really was a major turning point in the history of the Sousaphone. It marked the beginning of the end for upright bell horns, that is, the end for the original Sousaphone design.

By 1926, Conn had stopped making bell-up Sousaphones - much to Sousa's dismay, I would think (see post below) - and other companies appear to have done the same at around that time. Everyone, it seems, preferred the bell-front horns.

But thirty years later the original Sousaphone design did make a brief comeback. Starting in 1957, as noted in the catalog for that year, Conn's popular 20K Artist BBb Sousaphone, which listed for $740 (plus $53 if you wanted the silver finish)  had an extra upright bell available for an additional $75 (or $90 in silver). Or one could simply buy the 21K Artist BBb Sousaphone - a new model that was the same as the 20K, but with an upright bell only:

Image courtesy of Mark Overton at
The Conn catalog from 1958, from which the image above comes, offered this brief explanation about the benefits of interchangeable bells:

It would appear that this experiment lasted only a handful of years, with the 21K being discontinued by 1962. But I came across some anecdotal evidence suggesting that other companies may have revived the upright bell (however briefly) a number of years before Conn did.

In the article "Employing the Tuba as a Solo Instrument" by Rex Conner (side note - I studied with Rex back in 1979 when I was at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, MI), which appeared in the February 1954 edition of The Instrumentalist (vol 8, no. 6, p. 26), it says this:

We have often wondered why major symphony orchestras employ the upright bell rather than the bell-front tuba. This question was answered quite adequately by Bruce Jones, director of the Louisiana State University Band, at a recent clinic in Missouri. When we listen to a string bass section in an orchestra, regardless of where the players are standing, the tone is non-directional. It comes from all over the orchestra and supports the entire orchestral tone.
Not so with the bell-front tubas. The tones, good or bad, smack the listener right in the face, usually quite blatantly. Mr. Jones told us how he had his sousaphone players turn their bells toward the wall in a demonstration that gave a very fine effect. A recent picture of the Louisiana State University Band reveals that it is now using bell-up sousaphones just as Sousa originally designed them. It now has two sets of bells for sousaphones, one for marching and one for concert work.
The question, of course, is where Mr. Jones obtained that second set of bells - the ones that pointed straight up - back in 1954. Conn wasn't making them (yet), but perhaps other companies were.


  1. Which model of the sousaphone was LSU using in 1954? If it was the 20K, they would have still been producing the 2xJ series and therefore be able to supply LSU with the proper sized bells. That series of tuba has been around since the 30s,

  2. Whenever I could, I used to turn my Sousa bell around and stand a few feet from a wall. What a lovely sound - with the advantage of not blasting the front line!