There’s a Tuba Crime Wave Sweeping America
The only thing stranger than swiping one of the largest brass instruments around is how often it happens
Jennifer LevitzMarch 7, 2018 11:14 a.m. ET
It is roughly 4 feet long and weighs 38.5 pounds, which makes what happened last month sound like someone blowing hot air. A thief ran off with it, presumably slowly.
“What were they thinking?” says Ben Jaffe, the band’s creative director, who owned and played the sousaphone, a deep-pitched marching-band-style tuba. “What are they going to do with it?”
The horn heist unfolded while the band was loading equipment into a van, which at some point was unattended, after a Feb. 24 New Orleans performance. There were no apparent witnesses. “It just never really occurs to you,” he says, “that someone is going to walk off with your tuba.”
About the only thing stranger than tuba thefts is how often they happen.
Ben Jaffe in happier times with his Mario Corso sousaphone, now missing, during a Preservation Hall Jazz Band tour last year. Photo: Patrick Melon
There was a rash of tuba burglaries in Los Angeles-area high schools around 2012 that music teachers suspected stemmed from the growing popularity of banda, a Mexican style of music that showcases the tuba.
“Then they just kind of quietly stopped,” says Ruben Gonzalez, music teacher at the county’s South Gate High School, which suffered several stolen tubas that have never been retrieved.
In Greensboro, N.C., Walter Hines Page High School music instructor Eddie Deaton says he arrived one May morning in 2016 to find police tape across the band room.
Someone had broken into the school at 2:30 a.m., according to surveillance video he viewed. Leaving other instruments untouched, the burglar wheeled out carrying cases holding two marching-style tubas, he says.
“Whoever stole them knew what they were coming for,” he says, noting that the snatched sousaphones remain at large.
The tuba, the biggest and lowest-pitched among the brass family, can run from around $2,000 for beginner band models to more than $20,000 for specialized professional versions, says Martin Erickson, a past president of the International Tuba Euphonium Association.
People with “nefarious” intentions, he says, probably try to resell tubas or use them in other bands. “You don’t expect tubas to fall into that sort of thing.”
Kenneth Amis, assistant professor of tuba at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, imagines thieves assuming something so big would be valuable, not realizing how tough it is to unload one. “Few people are looking to buy tubas from a pawnshop.”
Robert Cooley got his silver-plated marching tuba back after someone tried to unload the stolen horn at a music shop. Photo: Bob Bach
The man who swiped Robert Cooley’s horn found out just how hard a tuba is to fence. Mr. Cooley, 24, who plays with the Minnesota Brass Drum & Bugle Corps, says he returned to his Minneapolis home after Fourth of July performances in 2016 and left his encased System Blue tuba in his car. A bandit smashed a window and carried off his 30-plus pound horn, which he values at $12,000.
The next day, 20 minutes away in Woodbury, Minn., a man entered Schmitt Music, an instrument store that does some consignment sales, and plopped a tuba on the counter.
Store manager Dave Strong says he found it off-tune that the customer seemed to know nothing about the silver-plated marching tuba.
He turned the man away, then hit Google. “Oh crap,” he says he muttered. It matched a report of Mr. Cooley’s poached treasure.
Mr. Strong alerted police and a nearby music store where the man had headed. Police later nabbed him and he confessed to the heist, says Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague. Mr. Cooley reclaimed his horn.
“Musical instruments are certainly stolen from time to time,” says Mr. Vague, but “they are not giant marching tubas.”
In Tacoma, Wash., Pat Van Haren returned from vacation last summer to find a burglar had lifted his 1928 King tuba from his garage, ignoring power tools and audio equipment.
“I was crushed,” says Mr. Van Haren, who plays in the Tacoma Concert Band, drives a van with tuba-themed vanity plates and works for a musical-instrument company. He had refinished his tuba after acquiring it about five years ago.
“How did they walk down the street with this thing without anyone noticing?” says Mr. Van Haren, 60.
He blanketed the city with missing-tuba posters, asking for tips. About seven weeks later, he says, he got a text from a “guy named Bill.” The tipster refurbished old instruments and believed someone had dropped off the hot tuba.
It was Mr. Van Haren’s, with a few new scratches. When he got home with it that night, he paraded through the neighborhood playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
His wife, Barb, says she stepped in: “I said, ‘People are trying to sleep, Sweetie.’ ”
After Pat Van Haren recovered his stolen sousaphone, he paraded through the neighborhood playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ Photo: Barb Van Haren
In New Orleans, Mr. Jaffe, 47, bought his tuba to replace one damaged in Hurricane Katrina. He likens it to “an extension of your soul.”
“Every little scratch, every little ding and every little bump on it, there is a story.”
That night, the band had finished a thrilling guest performance with legendary drummer Tony Allen. “Needless to say,” Mr. Jaffe says, “my head was kind of in the clouds.”
Between the hubbub of backstage photos and packing up, he didn’t realize until later the tuba had disappeared. A New Orleans police spokesman declines to offer theories for the filcher’s motivation.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, formed in the early ‘60s and named after the legendary French Quarter music venue, opened a tuba tip line and is offering an undisclosed reward.
New Orleans detectives are on the tuba beat. Musicians in New Orleans and beyond are mobilizing on social media to recover the hot horn, which has the band’s name hand-lettered in black on the bell.
Mr. Jaffe is confident, given the police investigation and an outpouring of support, “that the tuba is going to come back to me.”
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