Tubist Karl Megules is a strong, passionate advocate for his instrument, a powerful but misunderstood big brass horn. He really hates the stereotypes the instrument has in popular culture. Take commercials, for example. “It’s always the heavyset (person) playing the tuba, his cheeks puffed out, not playing the horn correctly,” says Megules, the founder, leader and principal arranger for the Trenton Brass Quintet, which performs at the Princeton Shopping Center on Thursday, August 10, outdoors.
The stereotype contributes to the tuba, and its virtuosos, constantly being poked fun at. “They’d never do that to the piano or the violin,” Megules says, adding that he does his part to perpetuate another “stereotype” — that of the tuba as the foundation of the orchestra and the brass ensemble. “I call the tuba the magnificent bass,” he says. “The tuba adds the bass line, and in a concert band or brass ensemble it is an invaluable bass voice.”
The quintet has been going strong since 1973, and since 1983 has been officially billed at the Trenton Brass Quintet Plus One, because it also employs a percussionist. The group’s repertoire extends from the Renaissance to contemporary music, says Megules, who is joined in the ensemble by percussionist Leonard Pucciatti, John Peraino on trumpet, Nancy Gallagher on French horn, Peter Reichlin on trombone, and Megules’ son, Charles, on trumpet.
Although there have been brass ensembles for centuries, when he organized his group in 1973, Megules says, people were somewhat skeptical. “They would say to me and my wife (Natalie, who died in 2002), ‘Why a brass quintet? You must be kidding.’ We got a lot of rejection from a lot of people. But from then on, the rest has been history. We have played for President Reagan and done so many other great things.”
There is some history of brass ensembles incorporating percussion — one of the more contemporary examples is the British ensemble Acid Brass — but the configuration is still fairly rare. Early in the quintet’s history, says Megules, he had heard an early recording of the New York Brass Quintet that included percussion. “I thought to myself, ‘What a neat idea,’ When you do concerts outside, whether the song is Dixieland, jazz, a show tune or a march, (the percussion) adds so many colors. I had written an article about it in an international brass magazine, and I got so many responses: How do you do it, where do you put the drummer?
In some of his arrangements, Megules writes the drum parts almost as if they are for another trumpet. “Lennie (Pucciatti) is very smart. He can play any style you need,” Megules says.
The tuba, according to Megules, has been coming into its own as a solo instrument in the past few decades, and many of its more well-known players have gained reputations as virtuosi. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Mahler, Dimitri Shostakovich, and even Leonard Bernstein have written intricate, well thought out passages and compositions for tuba.
Musicians such as the late William Bell, Harvey Phillips, Roger Bobo, and Sam Pilafian have moved the tuba from the back of the orchestra to a solo instrument for which an entire classical repertoire has developed. Studio musicians such as Tommy Johnson have been heard on countless television and film soundtracks and appear on jazz, pop, and rock recordings continuously. And Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart have taken the tuba down the path of jazz improvisation and the avant-garde of low brass.
Every year, the International Tuba Euphonium Association has a convention, and every year, hundreds of tubists get together in more than 11 cities across the United States to celebrate TubaChristmas, a series of concerts first presented at Rockefeller Center in 1974.
Megules, of Hungarian ancestry, grew up in Mercerville surrounded by music. His father, Charles, was a professional string bassist who played classical, jazz, and ethnic music. Megules began playing trumpet and piano as a young kid, encouraged by his father, aunts and uncles, who had a band. “My father started me on piano at the age of 8,” he says.
In high school, says Megules, “something just clicked,” and he made the decision to become a musician. He enrolled in Trenton State as a music major, receiving a master’s in music performance in 1973. He became a music teacher and band director at Bordentown High School, where he began his love affair with the tuba.
“My involvement with the tuba was sort of an accident,” he says. “In my study and evaluation of the band, I knew that the tuba and drum sections were the most neglected sections. Well, one day a young fellow wanted to learn the tuba, and he came to me. I knew all of the brass instruments fairly well but had never really played the tuba, but we both picked up a sousaphone (a brass instrument similar in range to the tuba, named after John Philip Sousa) and started playing it, and I’ll tell you, I have never wanted to put it down.”
His dad had a mixed reaction to Megules’ revelation. “My father said I was really good at playing the tuba but that I would never make it (financially) playing that thing.” Megules remained undeterred — he fell in love with the sound and became a tuba and brass historian. Two of his most prized possessions are Cerveny tubas, manufactured by a family in the Czech Republic that has been continuously making tubas since 1842.
After retiring from Bordentown a couple of years ago, Megules stayed in music. In addition to being an organist at Holy Cross Church in Trenton, he is the head of the Burlington County Community College band program. He is an adjunct professor of brass ensemble, jazz ensemble and concert bands at the college. One of the first things Megules did when he joined the faculty at BCCC was to open the music program up to people in the community at large.
“I love teaching, and I love young people,” Megules says. “I wanted to make the groups I lead a community endeavor. There are a lot of pros and ex-pros around who want to keep playing, or want to play again, but they don’t necessarily want to go to college and go through that process again.”
As a teacher, Megules naturally imparts the inside and outside of playing, arranging, and composing. But another important area of emphasis is work ethic. It may not mean much to Allen Iverson, but good brass musicians must always find time to practice. “You need to practice every day just to keep your embouchure (applying the lips and tongue to the mouthpiece) up,” says Megules, who practices at least two hours daily. “It’s like an athlete stretching and running. If you really love your art, nobody should have to tell you to practice.”
Trenton Brass Quintet Plus One, Thursday, August 10, 6 to 8 p.m., Princeton Shopping Center, North Harrison Street. Free. 609-921-6234