Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, bandana and 40-pound, nickel-plated Sousaphone wrapped around his midriff, Milton Jennings ‘Jay’ Converse draws stares, smiles and more than a few car honks as he marches down Braddock Road performing hits like “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” on his tuba.
Traffic is heavy as area residents head home from work, but many slow down to watch Jay play.
Converse’s nearly daily after-work march is part of his workout routine, but the 56-year-old has earned himself the status of local celebrity, complete with rumor mill.
“The rumor at Robinson [Secondary] School is that I was either a crack head or a homeless guy because who else would do this,” said Converse, who works for a Herndon-based technology firm. The resident of note is commonly known as the “Tuba Guy” around Fairfax, with a Facebook following of 141, headlines and blogs dedicated to his march.
“I had this old Sousaphone in the basement and I started cracking some notes and my family started saying ‘Dad! Hey, Dad!’ because you could hear it throughout the house. So I went out to Braddock Road,” he said. “It started with it being ‘Well, let’s play for a few blocks’ to ‘let’s go around the high school Robinson [Secondary School], which is basically a 5K.” Today his route consists of traveling from his home, just off of Braddock Road in Fairfax, to Shirley Gate and back a five-mile trek.
“There are less people to bother [outside]. I like to crank it up a bit,” he said. “I try to tone it down when I pass the school and church.”
The routine began in late summer 2004 as Converse readied for the 30th anniversary of the University of Virginia’s pep-band, a group he helped form in the 1970s. Around this same time, Converse said he visited a doctor who told him his cholesterol was up. Since then, Converse has lost 30 pounds.
“He’s lost weight. He’s gotten in better shape. It’s a great stress reducer for him,” said Elise Converse, Jay’s wife. “We’re all just very happy that he’s found something to do.”
Elise said her husband is a high-energy guy who makes friends wherever he goes.
“He’s the kind of person who’s never met a stranger,” she said. “Everyone asks, ‘Well did your wife kick you out of the house’ and the answer is ‘No.’ He did that on his own… None of us are embarrassed by him. We think it’s great that he does it.”
Converse’s repertoire has also grown with his length of route. His catalogue includes a little bit of The Beatles, a little bit of show tunes, Disney movie soundtrack classics like “When You Wish Upon A Star” from Pinocchio and “Heigh-Ho [Height-Ho. It’s off to work we go]” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
“It’s freedom. I’m the only guy out there. I get to play what I want to play,” Converse says. Sometimes, Converse receives song requests from cars flying by on Braddock Road.
“I hear ‘Play Free Bird’ a lot. People laugh. I actually know ‘Free Bird’ [by Lynyrd Skynyrd]. But when I play it they don’t recognize it. They don’t know it,” Converse said of the tune that is commonly shouted out during live concerts or performances as a means of heckling musicians.
Converse, who received his master’s degree at neighboring George Mason University, was invited last fall to play with the school’s Green Machine pep-band, lead by music Professor and fellow tuba player Michael Nickens.
“When I heard about a Sousaphone player regularly and inexplicably cruising the neighborhood, I was happy to know that people are out there doing things that make them happy no matter how quirky or out of the ordinary they are. And if it includes a Sousaphone with text and propellers, then even better,” said Nickens, lovingly nicknamed ‘Doc Nix,’ a moniker that comes with similar out of the box antics seen at GMU basketball games.
“The day I met him, I was driving near Braddock and 123 and saw him doing his musical exercise,” Nickens said. “I happened to have my own tuba in the car with me, so I thought the best way to meet him would be an impromptu session of dueling tubas in the University Mall parking lot. After trading blues choruses quite skillfully on his part—I had to invite him to play with the Green Machine.”
During football season, Converse performs at Fairfax’s Fat Tuesday’s restaurant, where games are aired. Every time the Redskins score a touchdown, Converse plays “Hail to the Redskins” on his tuba and receives free drinks in return.
He jokes that he did not receive that many free drinks or play “Hail to the Redskins” that often this past season.
“He’s developed a following,” said neighbor Rich Juchnewicz. “He’s made a big kid out of all of us. It’s pretty cool… I’m just grinning ear-to-ear talking about him.”
Juchnewicz said, as a neighbor, Converse is loud but welcome.
“It’s more like a deep bass. You can feel it more than you can hear it sometimes,” he said, adding that children in particular are drawn to Converse and his tuba, which is often decorated in large propellers and a drawn-on license plate on the back of the horn that reads “TUBA.”
Converse said he hopes his application to perform during Fairfax’s Independence Day Parade gets approved because he is planning a new, patriotic-theme decor for his horn.
While his initial goal was to play more tuba and exercise more, Converse said he’s a true multi-tasker now.
“I’m …out in the fresh air, getting great exercise, practicing music, slowing down traffic, making little kids and a few big kids—happy,” he said. “I’m amazed sometimes when I see smile, smile, smile go by and then I see someone go by with a frown … I think, ‘How can you see something like this and not smile?’”