'Tuba Gooding Jr.' marches from South Philly to 'Tonight Show'

The band has given Bryson the nickname "Tuba Gooding Jr."
The band has given Bryson the nickname "Tuba Gooding Jr."
Posted: February 20, 2014

AS A member of the Roots, Damon Bryson is a musician of worldwide renown. Yet, he hasn't let go of one memento from his past.

"I still have my shirt from when I worked at Target on Aramingo Avenue," said Bryson, 36, a South Philadelphia native who joined the band in 2007. "It's still hanging in my closet because it keeps me grounded."

Bryson has every reason to be floating right now. Monday night, he played sousaphone with the Roots on the premier episode of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on NBC. Along with his fellow band members, he was also a part of the team at "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" for five years.

"I named it Onyx because of the color. And it is sleek and beautiful," he said of his 37-pound sousaphone, which resembles a tuba but was designed so it could be played on the move.

It's an instrument you'd commonly see in a marching band. A hip-hop band? Not so much. The unusual black instrument was custom made for Bryson by manufacturer Conn-Selmer.

It also earned him his Roots nickname - Tuba Gooding Jr.

Bryson's had an amazing ride, especially considering that he wanted no parts of "that big, bulky instrument" at first. As a teenager, he was all about basketball at Audenried High School, even keeping his musical aptitude a secret from his friends.

"Outside of church I would be so embarrassed to walk down the street or get on the bus with that huge instrument wrapped in a towel because I couldn't afford a case," he recalled.

Bryson comes from a musically inclined family. His brothers Jermaine and Travien play the trombone and drums, respectively, for Mozaic Flow, a popular seven-piece Philly band.

In his late 20s, Bryson worked the night shift at Target while playing frequent gigs with a group called Brass Heaven at spots such as Warmdaddy's and Chris' Jazz Cafe, in Center City. His work in that band caught the eye of Roots' leader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who offered him a shot at the big time in 2007.

There's a Roots mural - Bryson included - on a wall at 15th and South streets. It's just three blocks from where Bryson began playing as a 6-year-old at United House of Prayer for All People, at 16th and Fitzwater streets.

"It has been a great journey and it feels amazing to be a part of history," the divorced father of four said. "One day my children will be able to tell their children, 'Your pop-pop played sousaphone on the 'Tonight Show,' and that makes me feel good."

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