UND ensemble is all about that brass as part of a national salute to the holidays and one special alumnus


Jordan Cespedes

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UND ensemble is all about that brass as part of a national salute to the holidays and one special alumnus

Musical fame struck the University of North Dakota and its finally being discovered almost 100 years later.

William Bell, a well-known classical tubist regarded as the premier player and teacher of the instrument in America during the first half of the 20th century, turns out to be a UND alumnus. So good was Bell that he was a fixture in the world famous Sousa Band as well as the NBC Orchestra under direction of Arturo Toscanini.

Bell, a native of Iowa, enrolled at UND in 1918, at the age of 15, on a full music scholarship. In addition to his time as a performer, Bell would go on to have a distinguished career as a music teacher, becoming a professor of tuba at the Manhattan School of Music, and later, the first tuba professor at the University of Indiana in 1961.

However, Bell's enrollment at UND was unknown by current Music Department faculty and students ? until now.

Bell's time at UND might have been brief, but his musical legacy is still strong because of something called "TubaChristmas." TubaChristmas was started by one of Bell's students, Harvey Phillips, to honor Bell with a yearly tuba performance. The first TubaChristmas took place on Dec. 22, 1974 ? three years after Bell's death ? at the iconic ice rink below New York City's Rockefeller Center. The performances have continued there each year as well as in more than 200 cities across the country, including Grand Forks.

"Bell loved Christmas and was born on Christmas day," said Joel Pugh, a low-brass instructor at UND. "Honoring him during this time is really special. Christmas has traditions and this is a tradition that has been going on for 41 years now."

For the past six years, Pugh has been leading an ensemble of UND tubists and other low-brass players from the area in Grand Forks' annual rendition of TubaChristmas. This year will be no different. TubaChristmas in Grand Forks is set for 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6, in the Grand Cities Mall.

All are welcome to attend, and community members of all ages also are invited to join the performance if they wish. TubaChristmas allows participants to get experience performing and working with other musicians.

Bell's legacy

Pugh took an interest in researching Bell's history and legacy after William Heimer, a retired local band director and participant in the TubaChristmas in Grand Forks, pointed out Bell's connection to the early years of the University.

"In our 'TubaChristmas' books, they have a biography of Bill Bell and I always saw this and it said 'North Dakota University,'" Pugh said. "I never took the time to research that. 'North Dakota University' might not have meant 'UND.' And this year, I finally called the registrar and they said Bill Bell was enrolled as a student at that time.

"I don't think anyone knows that Bell came to UND because of the ambiguous title of 'North Dakota University.'" Pugh said. "This is something in which UND should take pride."

Pugh said he wants to do even more research on Bell and his experiences at UND, and then write an article about it for the journal of International Tuba Euphonium Association.

"I think this is a forgotten area of his life and UND should be recognized as part of his life," Pugh said.

Jordan Cespedes University & Public Affairs student writer

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