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Big Man on the Square

For years, music on Jackson Square has been the heart of New Orleans jazz. And at the heart of the Square has been Tuba Fats.

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The squad car turned on its loudspeaker as it cruised through Jackson Square. "If anybody gives Tuba Fats any fried food," said the officer, "they're going straight to jail."

That was last summer. A few weeks previous, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen had suffered a mild heart attack while sitting on the bench where he and his tuba have rested for nearly a quarter-century.

"I really felt like I was going to die," Lacen says now. Tests showed that he had an enlarged heart, a condition that runs in his family and one that came as no surprise to those who have for years bummed cigarettes, food and advice from Lacen.

His baggy pants reflect 42 pounds lost on a diet of salads, no liquor, and very few fried foods. An ice-cold cranberry juice is now his standard order at the Cafe Pontalba, whose doors open onto the Square.

When Lacen's at the Pontalba, his calling card -- the crumpled tuba he's played for decades -- sits on its bell outside the door. The bell itself has some pretty serious dents, and the rest of the horn, as it coils around, looks as if it's been hit by golf-ball-size hail. Gray duct tape marks repairs made on the fly and a Phillips-head screw sits in place of the last valve stem, which disappeared from the Square a few weeks ago.

The horn was never shiny, says Lacen. He bought it used, then he took it through years of hot sun, drunken and jostling crowds, four-hour Sunday parades, and gigs on almost every continent. It's now gorgeously worn, like the spattered brushes used by a master painter. "It's like a part of me," he says, slipping the horn over his head and walking to his spot in front of the Cabildo.

Lacen was born in Charity Hospital in 1950 and was raised in Central City. In school, he tried to take up the trumpet, but the band director needed a big kid to carry the tuba, and Lacen fit the bill. His nickname came in 1970, he says, courtesy of Jerome Smith of the Tambourine & Fan organization.

Lacen's gigs with brass bands started in the 1960s. Since that time, he's played with nearly every traditional brass band in town -- Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church Band, Eureka, Onward, Mahogany, Tuxedo, Dirty Dozen, Algiers, Treme, and Olympia. In 1975, Lacen started the Chosen Few Brass Band to help Olympia, who was keeping both an "A" and a "B" band busy but still had work they couldn't take.

The Chosen Few have now become an institution in their own right. The band has gigged extensively on the American festival circuit and throughout Europe, and its third CD, Tuba Fats' Chosen Few Jazzmen, will be released next month through Connecticut-based Jazz Crusade records (www.jazzcrusade.com).

Lacen played in Jackson Square throughout the 1970s, but it wasn't until the '80s that he became a regular there with his wife, Linda Young. He met Young, a singer from Virginia, in the Square in 1979; the two were inseparable, on the Square and off, until her death of cancer in 1987.

Some musicians see Jackson Square as a touchstone to New Orleans jazz. "Wynton Marsalis, when he's in town, passes through and plays a few numbers. Branford, too," says Lacen.

Lacen remembers Mayor Dutch Morial playing tambourine with them during the 1980s. "Nobody bothered us then," he says. That had changed by the mid '90s, when area residents first tried to limit music on the Square. Today Lacen is vexed because the metal benches -- originally removed for repairs -- are not coming back. Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson has stated that they attract a bad element ("Tents Time for the Homeless?" July 23).

Not true, he says. While the band plays, those benches are filled by residents, the elderly, and working people. Besides, he says, if there are problems, they can be resolved with different solutions. Just last summer, for instance, he was beeped by the Eighth District police station and told that a lone trombone player had been bleating nearby late at night. Lacen guessed who it was, talked to him, and it stopped.

But Lacen will not compromise on one point: the idea of music on Jackson Square. "This is New Orleans," Lacen says, exasperated. "When you watch advertisements to come to New Orleans, who do you see? You don't see Jackie Clarkson or the city council," says Lacen. "You see jazz musicians."

You probably will see Tuba Fats, whose face has graced countless tourism guides and vacation photos. For some, a snapshot with Lacen in New Orleans is as quintessential as a pose with the Eiffel Tower in Paris. "I remember you from my friend's photos," said yet another tourist last weekend, as she handed the camera to her husband and took her place next to Lacen.

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