I moved here shortly before Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael was murdered, so I never had a chance to see him play outside of Safeco Field. And consequently, I didn’t understand just what his death meant to the local musical community. So today, as the Mariners are set to honor McMichael with a tribute at their home opener, I asked Miles Ward, a tuba player in the Sounders FC’s Sound Wave band to tell me a little about Seattle’s most famous busker. This is what he said:
"He had this big, slow, heartwarming — and yet terrifying — voice. He was kind of like, [ in a rumbling, John Wayne-esque drawl ] ’Well, how are you doing?"’ And he was very interested in the music. He always wanted to know, ‘Well, what can you play?” And I’d say, ’Well, I play funk music. I like upbeat stuff. I like stuff that’s fast, that’s rhythmic, that’s popular.’ And he’d be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa — how about something a little more melodic?’
"It’s just the classic tragedy. The guy’s completely innocent, does nothing but add this positive vibe to the world, and he gets beaten to death for it. It’s the kind of thing that’s never supposed to happen, right?
"I’d see him at the Folk Life Festival, and because I had my tuba on, that piqued his interest. So he and I would have good conversations. And then we’d try to play songs together, and that was always a comedy. He’d know all this classic stuff, and I knew all this funk stuff. So he’d play something, and then I’d listen in and try to play along next to him, and people thought that was particularly weird. Two tubas is not a blissful duo, really.
"He had a joke for everything. There was a lot more going on than just a funny guy in a funny hat, playing ‘Baby.’ I think there are homeless folk who take a crack at busking, and it’s opportunistic, and it’s definitely money-driven. But for Ed, it was always clear that he was just having a lovely Saturday afternoon. He’d have been there if he was a millionaire, and he would have been there if he was starving. He was there to have a good time, and he hoped you’d have a good time, too.
"Music has changed from when I was kid, where the bands that I went to at the local clubs ended up with CDs and they were on MTV. There was this sense of accessibility to the artist. And since that time, I think people have got this feeling that there is a distance between musicians and people. So when musicians come down to that street level, there’s a kind of real, tangible quality. You can ask them about what they’re playing, and you can hear it in the context of your experience. For me, that’s what he did: He made music accessible to people."