Smile Politely

The tuba of Theon Cross will make you dance

A black man up on a stage playing a tuba under dim red lights
Theon Cross on Instagram

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Theon Cross is coming to Urbana for PYGMALION, and his unique blend of jazz, funk, and Afro-Caribbean music is infectiously groovy. A London native and up-and-coming star of the jazz world, Theon has performed and recorded with numerous artists worldwide, has a recent solo album Intra-I, and is heading across the Midwest on tour this September. One more element that makes Theon stand out is his instrument: he’s a world-class tubist, and his band has a special quality because of his role as lead horn as well as bass.

Smile Politely: I think a lot of people would consider tuba to be an unusual jazz instrument. How were you drawn to the tuba? Did you start with jazz and then get into tuba, or vice versa?

Theon Cross: I didn’t actually start on tuba, but on a smaller horn called the tenor horn, which you find in brass bands that you find up north like Manchester, mining brass bands. My parents signed me and my brother up for lessons in elementary school, and there was a teacher who gave out different size mouthpieces, and he said “whichever instrument you can buzz a different sound out of is what I’m going to teach you,” and I got a sound out of the tenor horn mouthpiece, so that was me.

When I went to secondary school, I moved up to a slightly bigger instrument called euphonium — the lipset was more comfortable for me — and in that school, I met my music teacher who recommended me to a street carnival marching band called Kinetika Bloco, which played jazz and funk and soul music but with a brass band at these massive carnivals that would take place in August and September. That’s where I was exposed to jazz and improvised music, and was drawn to it, and also met a musician called Andy Grappe who introduced me to the tuba.

What drew me to the tuba was its role as a bass instrument. In the context in which I came to the tuba, there’s no string bass or electronic bass, because you’re playing outside. I love the role of holding down a large ensemble, love the responsibility of holding down a group. I started to look for the tuba in other jazz and improvised music, like New Orleans jazz bands in particular, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Soul Rebels… I could see the tuba being utilized in a way that spoke to me.

SP: Something that struck me about your music is that you walk a line between being the bass holding down the ensemble, and then coming forward to be the soloist.

Cross: Yeah! The tuba is both things. It’s a horn, like a trumpet or trombone, just bigger. When it does take over as a bass instrument, it’s so different from anything, because it’s not something you press or strum like a string bass. It’s almost human-sounding.

A black and white photo of a black man holding a tuba sideways.
Theon Cross on Instagram

SP: You have a recent solo album called Intra-I which you describe as “a sound system powered by breath.” Could you tell us more about that?

Cross: A lot of music that emanates from London comes from the lineage of my history, comes from my culture, from West Indian immigrants, “sound system” culture with dub reggae, and things like that. And the foundation of that music is the bass; the need for the bass speakers is to almost emanate a bass you can’t escape from. Bands like Jungle, drum and bass music all kind of stem from sound system culture. So I’m drawing from those influences, but I’m powering the bass of that music through the tuba, which is powered by breath. I’m bringing it full circle because of the origins of sound system music, they were originally playing jazz and acoustic instruments. I’m taking influence from the recordings of Black speaker-based music. It’s a circular effect, being influenced by DJs and things like that but in a live band capacity.

SP: My favorite track from that album is “Trust the Journey.” Can you tell us more about the process behind that album?

Cross: It’s a pandemic album, and an album where I wanted to stand on my own. I’ve had the fortune to collaborate with lots of people, like the band Sons of Kemet, and Jon Batiste, so in this album, I really wanted to stand on my own and use the tuba’s wide-ranging capacity to make a good body of work. Having that time in the pandemic and being able to work with producer Emre Ramazanoglu. He’s a fantastic producer, and that meant that I could expand my writing and really show off the tuba in the best way.

SP: The Sons of Kemet album Black to the Future you played on is also fantastic. What’s your favorite track from that album?

Cross: “Think of Home,” that’s one I really enjoyed playing. Also, “Pick Up Your Burning Cross.” That was a fun one to record and it always went off when we performed it live. Sons of Kemet was a group of musicians that were all quite eclectic, with lots of free jazz influences.

SP: If I wanted to hear more outstanding tubists, and learn more about tuba as a jazz solo instrument, who should I check out?

Cross: People like Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, Jon Sass. A guy from over here called Oren Marshall; [he’s] a legendary tuba player. Guys who are great improvisers and frontman players as well.

SP: What projects are new or coming up for you?

Cross: I have a new single “Wings/Back to Africa.” As for new things, expect bigger! Intra-I was very much about what the tuba could do on its own; now I’m writing for more instruments. New ways of composing for new instruments, with more collaborating. I’ll be going to Chicago after the show, to collaborate with International Anthem guys like Macaya McCraven and Ben LaMar Gay.

SP: Your live performances all look and sound tremendously fun and exciting. I think people are going to want to get up and dance at PYGMALION!

Cross: I hope so! I’m really looking forward, should be fun.

Theon Cross with Madison McFerrin, Haki N’ Dem, and more at PYGMALION
Rose Bowl Tavern
Sat, September 22nd, 9:30 p.m.

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