Saturday, October 31, 2015

That's an odd looking helicon bass!

For the first few years of the Sousa Band, which was before the first Sousaphone had been created, it appears that Herman Conrad played a helicon bass. For example, check out the upper right of this band photo from 1893:

Sousa's band in St. Louis in 1893 (courtesy of the U. S. Marine Band Library)
Sousa was not a fan of helicons, as he felt their sound in a concert band was too "violent." And this is exactly why he had asked J. W. Pepper, back in 1892, to create a new horn that would have a body like a helicon, but a larger bell that pointed straight up, like a tuba, so that the sound would "diffuse over the entire band like the frosting on a cake."

But it took a few years for that modified helicon bass to become a reality, and until that time, Conrad seems to have continued to play the old-style horn. For example, in one of the newspaper notices for the band for its early 1896 cross-country tour, we see that helicon right in the middle of the back row in the drawing:

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 1896, p. 16
While this illustration was used to promote the previous year's stint at Manhattan Beach for Sousa's band (see the fine print in the ribbons at the lower left), it suggests that this was the standard look of the group. The bass section consisted of a helicon and a couple of tubas.

But for at least part of that early 1896 tour, as we now know, Conrad was playing the very first Sousaphone. And yet most people might have simply thought it was an odd-looking helicon, and maybe that's why it didn't create the stir that a huge new instrument should have. Further, perhaps it was not yet known that the modified helicon had a cool new name - a Sousaphone! That would have created a stir, don't you think?

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