With a brassy "street name" like that of some improbable superhero, Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael, made a remarkable impact on his fellow townsfolk during a two-decade-long career as a Seattle musician who supported himself by earning tips from passersby who often made requests and tossed coins into the big horn.
Known for his silly hats, funny quips, friendly mien, odd manner, and basso profundo musicality, Tuba Man became a popular fixture within the community. Performing regularly wherever crowds gathered -- from game days outside big sports venues, to film openings at various theaters, to concert and ballet nights outside the Seattle Center Opera House -- he (like the Beerman, Peanut Man, and Spoonman before him) became a Northwest icon.
Born on March 15, 1955, and raised in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, Edward Scott McMichael began playing music on his family's piano but then, as a rebellious teen, he switched to tuba -- at least in part, according to his sister, Joyce Baker -- "to get back at my mother ... because she didn't like it particularly." An understandable perspective considering that when her son practiced down in the basement, "the house shook" (The New York Times).
After graduating from the Shoreline neighborhood's King's Garden High School in 1973, McMichael -- who was blessed with perfect pitch -- went on to join the music department's band while attending North Seattle Community College. From there he performed with the Seattle Youth Symphony, the Cascade Symphony of Edmonds, and for a decade as the principal tubist with the Bellevue Philharmonic orchestra.
Tubby the Tuba
McMichael's chosen instrument -- a contrabass tuba that he'd nicknamed "Tubby" -- is the lowest-pitched member of the family of brass wind instruments. Perhaps the most unlikely of instruments one might ever witness being played on a street corner, the XXL-sized tuba (Latin for "trumpet") is not an ancient invention. Its design was first patented in 1835 in Germany and after gaining initial favor in British brass bands later that century, the tuba eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean where the instrument ended up serving a key role in the early jazz bands of New Orleans.
Along the way, tubas won a fan-base of people and players who loved the lowdown instrument. Indeed, every year since 1979 the first Friday in May has been celebrated in an increasing number of American states and foreign countries as International Tuba Day. A website promoting the cause notes that many people "think of the tuba as just being one of those big, loud instruments that go 'oompah' in the back of parades -- having no real importance and being easy to play -- they're just there to look nice. As for tuba players, many people view them in the old stereotyped way: they have no real musical talent, no personality, just big, fat bodies with puffy cheeks and powerful lungs" (tubaday.com).
Now, certainly Tuba Man was a "big" fellow with "puffy cheeks and powerful lungs" -- but no one could ever fairly claim that he was a personality-free no-talent.
Tuba Man the Super Fan
McMichael began his career of performing outdoors -- rain or shine -- at the suggestion of a friend. His long run of sidewalk gigs at the Kingdome kicked-off on December 23, 1989, the final game-day for Seahawk Hall-of-Fame wide receiver, Steve Largent. And to Tuba Man's great surprise, he was rewarded with donations from sports fans who appreciated the efforts to entertain them while waiting in entry lines.
Like a merry musical migrant worker, McMichael soon developed his seasonal busking routes: fall was for football, winter saw him lugging his horn toward the Seattle Coliseum (today's Key Arena) for Sonics games, summer's Mariners games brought him to Safeco Field. Other times he and Tubby could be found outside of Thunderbirds, Sounders, and Storm games. Tuba Man became such a dependable presence -- and one that became associated in peoples' minds with such events -- that Sports Illustrated once acknowledged him as a "super fan."
And a devoted fan he was: whenever possible McMichael attended games – occasionally via the generosity of his own fans who slipped their Tuba Man a free ticket. Similar gestures of appreciation also occurred when staffers at the Pacific Northwest Ballet made sure McMichael gained free entry to see shows whose audiences he had just entertained outdoors at the Opera House (today's McCaw Hall).
One reason that McMichael gained such a broad swath of friends and admirers was his sense of musical humor. This character -- who already looked bemusing with his wacky hardhat (or Uncle Sam hat, or striped Dr. Suessian "Cat in the Hat" headgear) -- was known for selecting thematically relevant songs for every situation. Game day would often find him blatting "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." A rainy day would bring out "Itsy Bitsy Spider." A home team victory could dependably spark the giddy "If You're Happy and You Know It" -- while a loss would merit the anthemic "Chariots of Fire." A patriotic vibe led to the "The Star Spangled Banner," while a jazzy spirit brought on "When The Saints Come Marching In."
In addition, Tuba Man used music as a sort of shorthand greeting for old friends and acquaintances. Upon spotting someone he knew, he might signal them from afar with a snippet from a tune he associated with them -- even such off-the-wall selections as the "Flintstones Theme" or the "Adams Family Theme." He also happily took requests -- which rarely stumped him -- and he could rock-out with tunes ranging from the Champs' "Tequila," to the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie," to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," to Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4."
Urbanity & Humanity
Around midnight on October 25, 2008, McMichael was assaulted, beaten, and robbed of his wallet and ring by six teenaged thugs near a bus-stop at 5th Avenue and Mercer Street. Luckily, the attack was witnessed by a police officer who happened to drive up to the scene. Two 15-year old assailants were arrested on the spot -- the stolen ring was recovered -- and police began searching for the four who fled (one of whom would be arrested on November 5th for suspicion of homicide).
McMichael was transported to Harborview Medical Center for treatment -- upon being struck down he had reportedly hit his head on the pavement. After being released, the musician returned to his apartment at the Vermont Inn (2721 4th Avenue) to recover, and though shaken by the incident, he was healing up. But when his brother, Kelsey, arrived on the morning on November 3rd to take him to another doctor's appointment, McMichael was discovered dead in his bed -- presumably due to his head injury.
Seattle was shocked by the senseless attack and by Tuba Man's sudden passing. Sports blogs raged against the violent crime. Editorialists saluted the man. Friends posted messages both grieving and vengeful on various online forums. Within the week, a tribute event featuring a gathering of musicians performing tunes from McMichael's eclectic canon occurred outside the McCaw Hall. It was on Saturday, November 8, that KOMO news coverage quoted one participating musician, John Bigelow, stating that "He's part of the community you hate to see go. This is what makes urban living urbane. He was a real nice thing we had going on ... so we will miss him."
Talk had already begun -- and initial funds raised -- for a statue to honor Tuba Man and his esteemed place in the area's pop culture. One attendee guided the crowd across the Seattle Center grounds and over toward the Children's Museum in order to point out that among the many paver tiles (customized with donors' names and/or messages) imbedded there is one that McMichael had purchased (probably with tips funds), etched with his own message of gratefulness. It reads:
THANK YOU EVERYONE
FOR ALL THE TIPS. THE
MONEY ALWAYS PAID
THE BILLS, REDUCED
THE DEBTS AND FED
THE TUBA MAN. EDWARD
Blowing in the Wind
On Wednesday, November 12, 2008, a second memorial was held at Qwest Field Event Center, and before a crowd of 1,500 people KOMO television commentator, Ken Schram, bemoaned that "This city -- this world -- was a lot better place with Ed McMichael in it." News of Tuba Man's fate headlined articles from Boston to San Diego, Chicago to Miami. The New York Times eulogized the man: "Some people say ... he was a martyr, a victim of urban violence that must be stopped," noting also of his diminished hometown, "And some say Tuba Man represented the increasingly smothered soul of this city, more substantial and strange than its clichéd sheen of coffee and computers."
One sorrowful Seattle Times discussion-board contributor chimed in on that same notion of Seattle rapidly losing its old eccentric quirkiness: "Today's Seattle is richer and smoother and slicker than it once was. Ed McMichael did his best to prevent that" -- while another wrote (at the Seattle Weekly) of the dearly departed musician: "i can still hear him so clear, his familiar voice, the notes ascending from his brass. his notes will hum forever thru the breeze..."