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Big Man Gone 

Local musicians play their hearts out, mourning the loss of Tuba Fats.

"If you didn't like Tuba Fats, you didn't like no one," said Bob French last Tuesday morning on WWOZ, as he announced that 53-year-old Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen had died from a heart attack. A listener phoned in, asking if there will be a jazz funeral. Of course, French said, shaking his head.

Lacen's reign in Jackson Square spanned the past quarter-century. From his iron bench, he may have shared close to a ton of fried chicken with almost anyone who gave him a hungry look. ("If Tuba had a dollar, he'd give you 90 cents," said an old friend.) Over the years from this bench, Lacen also dispensed advice to thousands, schooled two generations of musicians, posed for countless tourist photographs, and -- on occasion -- launched into the song "Ain't She Sweet" when a pretty girl was passing by.

In the summer of 2001, Lacen suffered a mild heart attack while playing his tuba here. Then he developed knee problems and, for several months, could walk only with a cane. Still, he'd make his way, nearly every day, to Jackson Square.

"Tuba acted like he was born out here -- that was the impression he gave you," says Elliott "Stackman" Callier, who spent many afternoons playing his sax on the Square. "As far as he was concerned, I think that he was happier out here than anywhere else."

"This was his office," says trumpeter James Andrews, walking over to Lacen's bench, now a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles, poems, signs and trinkets. "Tuba taught us those old songs -- and showmanship, how to deliver those songs. He was a crowd pleaser himself, a soulful singer."

Weather was no concern. On blistering afternoons, sweat would melt halfway down his T-shirt. "Even on rainy days and cold days, Tuba would be the one who would want to keep going," says guitarist Seva Venet, a regular in the Square since 1999 and, he says, a pushover for nearly any Lacen request. "He just had that charm, right down to his name, 'Tuba Fats.'"

The nickname was bestowed on Lacen in 1970 by Tambourine & Fan leader Jerome Smith, back when Lacen played in Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist band. Early on, Lacen had his eye on the trumpet. But McDonogh 36 Elementary School band director Alvin Thomas needed a big guy to carry the tuba, and Lacen fit the bill.

That tuba was carried with brass bands like Tuxedo, Onward, Algiers, Treme, Olympia, and with Lacen's own group Tuba Fats & the Chosen Few. The horn and its owner crisscrossed Europe many times and traveled through South America, Mexico, Australia, Israel, Africa and what was then the Soviet Union. One sweltering day last summer, Lacen listed off all the places he'd seen and a few that he still had hopes of seeing. "I hear Canada is real nice," he said, swabbing the sweat off his big forehead.

If Lacen was asked about his hands -- big strong mitts with fingers nearly twice the width of many people's -- he'd say that they came directly from his mother, Leola, the much-beloved "Mama Lacen," who also suffered from the same enlarged heart he did. His fingers matched the big plunger valves on a tuba like most fingers match the buttons on a pay phone. Some people said that he was custom-made for his instrument.

Maybe that's why Lacen did more with the tuba, why he soloed where others before him had been content to keep a steady bottom-line. "He made a new sound come out of that horn," says his old friend, grand marshal Richard "King" Matthews, who hung tight with Lacen in the early 1970s, when they were the youngest members of the Olympia "A" band.

Today, at almost any second-line parade in the city, you're likely to hear a groove called "Tuba Fats," which Lacen composed and then named for himself. To drummer Noel Kendrick, "There is a whole 'hood-oriented, black-oriented thing that permeates that groove. It can be festive and it can be sad. It's just a simple rhythm with an undeniable spirit."

Even as a boy, Lacen was drawn to the French Quarter's jazz scene. He loved to ride his bicycle up and down Bourbon Street just to hear the live music that, during the 1960s, emanated from clubs on both sides of the street.

"His home was Uptown," emphasizes his sister Althea Lacen, "and his musical life was down here." Lacen grew up in Central City, where in the 1970s he served as the Wild Magnolias' wild man for big chief Bo Dollis, who grew up around the corner.

When Lacen was in the Olympia "A" band, trumpeter Mervin "Kid Merv" Campbell started tagging along with them. "I wanted to be like him, because he always seemed so happy," says Campbell, who later spent several years playing in the Square. As a child, Campbell especially admired Lacen's car, a big brown Chevy Roadrunner with a white top and a racing engine. In later years, Lacen was rarely seen behind the wheel, but instead was a familiar sight in the Quarter's taxicabs or on its sidewalks, headed to or from the Square.

"He was the most famous tuba player in this city," says Benny Jones, an original member of the Chosen Few. "Everywhere we played, he would stop and shake hands with the kids." A lot of youngsters really admired Lacen, says Jones, and that prompted a good number of them to take up the tuba.

The day after Lacen died, Andrews and fellow trumpeter Kermit Ruffins led an impromptu second line to the Square. On subsequent afternoons, other musicians crowded the benches, jamming. "We're going to be doing this until they put him in the ground," says longtime Square trombonist Keith "Wolf" Anderson. Nearby, clarinetist Earle Brown and guitarist John Rodli talk about being grateful that Lacen accepted out-of-towners like them, simply because they wanted to play traditional jazz.

Lacen's open-arms policy brought him the love of his life. In 1979, a young woman from Virginia named Linda Young walked onto the Square and sang in a big voice. The two formed a bond that musicians still talk about as "a musical marriage" or a meeting of soulmates. "They were made for each other," says Brown, who remembers returning here from Europe in 1997 and heading straight to the Square. There he found Lacen, who said that Linda had died of cancer and that he would be burying her later that day.

"He went through some tough times," says his sister Althea. "He lost Linda, then he lost his mother." It was a one-two punch, says Althea's fiance, Joseph Gill, and Lacen was never the same.

Althea agrees. "He grieved," she says. "The last time he was in the hospital, he told me that he had Linda's and Mother's pictures taped next to his bed so that he could see them when he rolled over." But, Lacen told her, he was going to move those pictures when he got home, "because he wasn't ready to go with them yet." He fell down before he got a chance to do that, she says.

Lacen often recalled a time when no one had a problem with street musicians, days when Mayor Dutch Morial would come through the Square and play tambourine, then pass the tip bucket.

New Orleans needed street musicians playing jazz, Lacen firmly believed, "for the working peoples" who couldn't see him and other musicians in their regular night gigs at Preservation Hall and other places.

About a decade ago, Quarter residents really began to demand limits on music in the streets. Musicians fought back, with attorney Mary Howell defending their rights in court. Howell recalls one affidavit from Lacen: "Here Tuba had played at Buckingham Palace and at the White House, and yet the city where he grew up was threatening to arrest him for playing the music he loved."

Lacen's role was one of a peacemaker. "Frequently, Tuba would be the only person that all sides -- the residents, the jugglers, the musicians -- could talk to," says Howell. When NOPD Capt. Ernest Demma headed up the French Quarter's Eighth District, he often went to Lacen's bench in Jackson Square to get help resolving, say, a trombone bleating in the Quarter in the wee hours. "I cannot say enough good things about him," Demma says. "And besides that, he was a good musician."

The city should honor this "national treasure," says Howell, by putting a plaque on his bench. It's a move supported by councilmembers Jackie Clarkson, Oliver Thomas and Eddie Sapir.

Years of listening made Lacen incredibly astute, says Kid Merv Campbell. "Tuba knew a lot about people -- or peoples, as he would say. He knew what made them tick. He would tell me, 'Don't worry about what other peoples think. Do what's right.'"

For King Matthews, it is that strong sense of what's right -- in music and in life -- that ultimately defines Lacen. "That's what made Tuba Fats a mentor, that's what made him a legend," he says. "That's why people will always talk about him."

click to enlarge Tuba Fats' bench merits a commemorative plaque, - say city councilmembers Jackie Clarkson, Oliver - Thomas and Eddie Sapir.
  • Tuba Fats' bench merits a commemorative plaque, say city councilmembers Jackie Clarkson, Oliver Thomas and Eddie Sapir.
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