With a brassy street name like that of some improbable superhero, Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael made a remarkable impact on the Puget Sound region 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 in the community. Performing regularly wherever crowds gathered -- from game days outside big sports venues, to film openings, to concert and ballet nights outside the Seattle Center Opera House -- he (like the Beerman, Peanut Man, and Spoonman) 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. Then, as a rebellious teen, he switched to the tuba -- at least in part, according to his sister, Joyce Baker -- "to get back at my mother ... because she didn't like it particularly." This was an understandable perspective, considering that when her son practiced in the basement, "the house shook" (The New York Times).
After graduating from King's Garden High School in Shoreline 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 nicknamed "Tubby" -- is the lowest-pitched member of the family of brass wind instruments, and perhaps the most unlikely of instruments one might witness being played on a street corner. The XXL-sized tuba (Latin for "trumpet") is not an ancient invention. Its design was patented in 1835 in Germany, and after gaining initial favor in British brass bands later in the nineteenth century, the tuba crossed the Atlantic Ocean, where it served a key role in the early jazz bands of New Orleans.
Along the way, tubas won fans and players who loved the lowdown instrument. 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). Tuba Man was certainly 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 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. 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 Center Coliseum for Sonics games, and summer brought him to Safeco Field for Mariners games. Other times he and Tubby could be found outside of Thunderbirds, Sounders, and Storm games. Tuba Man became such a dependable presence 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 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.
One reason that McMichael gained 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 "Addams 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."
A Senseless Death
Around midnight on October 25, 2008, McMichael was assaulted, beaten, and robbed of his wallet and ring by six teenagers near a bus stop at 5th Avenue and Mercer Street at the northeast corner of Seattle Center. Minutes earlier, the assailants had attacked two Garfield High School students nearby, and those victims had alerted police. When the police arrived on the scene, the assailants were surrounding McMichael. Two 15-year-olds were arrested on the spot -- the stolen ring was recovered -- and police began searching for the four who fled.
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 3 to take him to another doctor's appointment, he found McMichael dead in his bed, presumably due to his head injury.
Seattle was shocked by the senseless attack and by Tuba Man's sudden death. 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 McCaw Hall (formerly the Opera House). On November 8, KOMO news coverage quoted participating musician John Bigelow, who stated, "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 toward the Children's Museum to point out that among the many paver tiles (customized with donors' names and/or messages) imbedded there is one that McMichael had purchased, 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 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 death 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 the 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." A Seattle Weekly reporter wrote: "I can still hear him so clear, his familiar voice, the notes ascending from his brass. his notes will hum forever thru the breeze ..."
On April 3, 2009, three teenagers -- two 16-year-olds and a 15-year-old -- pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for their role in McMichael's killing. Two of the teens also admitted to robbing the two Garfield students. All three received sentences of less than two years. Reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Prosecutors had attempted to move the earlier robbery case against the boys to King County Superior Court, where they would have been tried as adults and faced much stiffer penalties. That effort was denied earlier this year when a juvenile court judge ruled against the motion" ("Three Plead Guilty ..."). According to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, more than a dozen people witnessed the attack on McMichael and all of them refused to come forward and testify. Satterberg described their absence as "one of the most chilling parts of this entire story" ("Three Plead Guilty ...).
In 2015, the P-I reported that Ja'Mari Jones, Billy Chambers, and Kenneth Kelly were the three who killed McMichael. In January 2015, Jones was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison for the 2012 shooting death of a man at a Bellevue nightclub. "All three young men have since been charged with gun crimes," the paper reported. "The allegations against Jones are the most serious, though Chambers is currently serving a federal prison term for gun possession" ("Tuba Man Killer Headed to Prison ..."). According to another report, "As of 2013, Chambers would have multiple felony convictions, including being sentenced to six years in prison and three years for being a felon in possession of a firearm" (KIRO TV).