A requiem for a Big Man Gone

Other people in New Orleans may get one procession. For musicians, the tradition is to play every night until the body goes into the ground. And sadly, the city loses too many of its culture bearers like this, to untimely, early death, from illness or from violence.

After playing a night of gigs – and maybe shooting a few games of pool – Jeffrey Hills Sr. walked into the door with his sousaphone slung over his shoulder, pulled on his plaid pajama pants with a muscle shirt, made himself a little snack and crawled under the covers.

If that sleep was like others, he snored loudly. So loudly that the windows in his old New Orleans houses sometimes rattled a little.

The next morning, paramedics tried in vain to resuscitate him. Having carried a sousaphone for thirty years, he was clearly so strong, they said.

They worked on him for almost an entire hour, family crying around him, as the chest compressions failed to bring the color back to his face.

His funeral program Saturday will note that morning, April 10, 2023, as his sunset. He was 47 years old.

Tuba player Jeffrey Hills, a New Orleans native, died April 10, 2023. His funeral was April 29, 2023.

That night, at Preservation Hall, staff, through tears, scrambled to put another tuba player on that evening’s shows.

When his close friend, Terence “T-Bell” Andrews got the news that afternoon, he was stunned. “I just thought, ‘No, not Jeffrey. Not Jeffrey,’” T-Bell told me, as we stood outside in Tuba Fats Square that night, after mourning for him the only way he knew how, by playing his bass drum through the streets of Treme.

Other people in New Orleans may get one procession. For musicians, the tradition is to play every night until the body goes into the ground. And sadly, the city loses too many of its culture bearers like this, to untimely, early death, from illness or from violence.

Jeffrey’s parades were packed with sousaphones, at least a dozen of them. Some were older guys who’d played with Jeffrey. But there were also young slim students who’d come to mourn their teacher, Mr. Hills, who’d taught them at places like Roots of Music or House of Brass.

He was patient. He had a giant smile and a big laugh that was his usual response when kids acted up.

Plus, he taught them to play the tuba in a way that no one could.

He’d toured the world with the Chosen Few Brass Band, Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, New Birth, Rebirth, Preservation Hall, Storyville Stompers and with bands led by lifelong friends like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Troy’s cousin, Glen David Andrews.

“Stylistically, there is no one else like him,” said his good friend, trumpeter Will Smith. “He could play. He could play absolutely soft, at a whisper. Or he could play as loud as he wanted to at a second line.”

Jeffrey had learned the tuba in the style of his mentor, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, who first began to play the tuba differently, Will said, by taking a bass line and walking the tuba up and down it, like a string bassist would.

Jeffrey took Tuba Fats’ innovation and went even further. “No one could compare to him,” Will said. “I mean, there are no tuba players in the city right now that could do what Jeffrey did.”

Today, April 29, the people at Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home, 1615 St. Philip St., will have him laid out by 9 a.m. for viewing. Dressed in blue and black, his funeral colors, mourners will file in to touch his cold hand, to say goodbye for the last time.

Then, the neighborhood will mourn him spectacularly, with a parade filled with sousaphones, all along the streets of the 6th Ward that he had called home for most of his adult life. People will dance fancy steps, tears rolling down their faces.

Jeffrey Hills was beloved, both as a musician and a person.

He was like a brother to me. My son Hector is his godson. Hector, who’s now 17-years-old, spent his whole life being guided by the man he called Parain.

After Hurricane Katrina, our little family – Hector, me and his father, trumpeter Kid Merv Campbell – spent a year displaced in Phoenix, Arizona with Jeffrey, his wife of 23 years, Patricia Ann, and their three children, Le-Ann, Jeffrey Jr. and Jeffreyell.

Jeffrey and Merv were close close. The two of them played their horns on Sunday at Valley Presbyterian Church, which put up our families for the year, took the Hills kids school shopping and gave us gift cards to buy groceries.

We had Hector baptized there at Valley, with Jeffrey holding him and agreeing to watch over him, as his parain.

He was the perfect choice.

With his own children, he knew exactly who they were. Le-Ann was a bookworm like him, with a gift for playing basketball that he was proud of. Jeffreyell was quiet and a daddy’s girl. I remember once she called crying from her aunt’s house and he picked up his keys and walked straight to his car to go get her – four hours away in Mississippi. Little Jeffrey had been scared by the floodwaters after Katrina. He’d ridden on his dad’s shoulders across the deepest water from their home in the Lafitte public-housing development. So he’d sit quietly by the pool in Scottsdale, not wanting to go in, even after the other kids had jumped in. Jeffrey would go talk to him, put his hand on his shoulder. “No rush. Whenever you’re ready, the water will be here,” he’d say.

He felt proudest of his role as Papa Bear. No one can fry chicken like Patricia Ann. But Jeffrey liked to cook a big spread, with macaroni and cheese and burgers and hot sausage.

He was so careful.

He covered every plate with a towel or a cover, to make sure no housefly ever touched his food.

In anyone’s house, if kids were nearby, he would scurry across a kitchen to turn pot handles to the inside. “Just to be on the safe side,” he’d say.

When Le-Ann had her daughter, Destiny – his only grandchild – he spent hours watching movies with her. They’d sit on the soft or she’d hop on the bed with him. He’d say, “What do you want to watch?” He’d click on Netflix and she’d choose whatever looked good to her.

He was a baby magnet. Toddlers would almost babble to him, in ways he somehow understood. “I speak fluent two-year-old,” he’d say.

Tuba player Jeffrey Hills, who played with The Little Rascals Brass Band, among others, died April 10, 2023.

But before he picked up any baby, he’d walk to the sink and wash his hands. With soap.

Jeffrey was a Charity Hospital baby, born on December 1, 1975 to James Harry Sims and Lorraine Hills Sims.

Growing up in the 7th Ward, in a house that stood next to Marie C. Couvant Elementary School, he was known for his book smarts. “The kind who carries books with him,” he told me once, as he explained how it had hurt him to have to leave school soon after his mom died when he was 14. With the help of his older sister Betty, he’d completed all the paperwork and had been accepted into the prestigious John F. Kennedy High School — only to drop out of school at 16, to pursue music fulltime. He’d had no other choice, he said — he needed to help support himself and his siblings.

He was dutiful like that. Neighbors paid him to mow lawns, rake leaves, paint fences. One neighbor hired him to make frozen cups using a secret recipe that included commodity pineapple, which had a special thick syrup, he said.

We’ve been friends now for 20 years. After we came home to New Orleans after Katrina, he slept on my futon in the front room and made money playing gigs. Then he’d “commute” in his car back to Dallas, where his precious family was. Then, after about six months of that, we went looking for apartments and he brought his family home.

Despite all that time together, I realized writing this that I don’t know how he started playing the tuba. Maybe in elementary school?

A few weeks ago when he passed away, we were all just too broken. I didn’t want to just pull out my reporter’s tablet and start asking questions. Maybe when I find out more, I’ll add a little Epilogue to this obituary.

Or maybe this will be one of the questions that just goes unanswered.

Like why he died so young.

Although the coroner hasn’t yet determined a cause of death, it seems like his big heart gave out. In 2005, his mentor, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, had similarly suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53. Doctors said Tuba Fats had an enlarged heart.

Doctors never gave Jeffrey Hills the same diagnosis. But emotionally, everyone knows it’s true.

When he was 16, Jeffrey began playing regular gigs with The Lil Rascals Brass Band, led by his friend, trombonist Corey “Bo” Henry. Most of the guys in the band were teenagers too, or just a little bit older.

Along with Corey, there was T-Bell Andrews on bass drum, Glen David Andrews and Gregory “Koon” Veals on trombone. On trumpets, Will Smith, Dewon “Itchy” Scott, and Chad Honore. Eldridge Andrews played snare. Vincent Broussard and Ben Elman were on sax.

Their 2001 album, Buck it Like a Horse, is still considered a classic, with tunes like “Knock With Me, Rock With Me.”

Will Smith, who was 13 years older than Jeffrey, remembers how Jeffrey took Tuba Fats’ place in Europe, when Tuba had double booked himself. Tuba went with the Olympia Brass Band and Jeffrey took his place in Tuba’s own band, the Chosen Few. It was Jeffrey’s first trip abroad.

Will and Jeffrey took a long train ride during that trip. And all they did was talk. About life and about music.

It was a traditional gig. They played classic New Orleans jazz standards.

But the two of them realized that they could learn from each other. That learning continued, after they arrived home. “We agreed that he would teach me some of the younger funky numbers and I would work with the Rascals on the more traditional songs,” Will said.

In April, Will played with him at the Hall. It was a normal gig. But something was a little off.

“Between songs, he told me that he couldn’t catch his breath,” Will said. “He told me it had happened before.”

He thought it would improve. Said he was gonna get it checked out. If any of us had been breathing with difficulty like that, Jeffrey would have grabbed his car keys and driven us there.

Maybe gigs got in the way. Or maybe he just had been through so much on his own, that he thought he would get through this too.

Two days later, paramedics tried to bring him back. And today he’ll be laid to rest by a throng of fellow musicians and hundreds, maybe thousands of people who love him. You deserve that rest, Jeffrey Hills.

Tonight in the wee hours, when you usually would be carrying your horn out of your gig, we will look upward and listen for the sound of a new walking bass line up above. But selfishly, we’ll wish for a little bit more time with you. He is survived by Patricia Ann, Le-Ann, Jeffrey Jr., Jeffreyell and Destiny, along with seven siblings, Betty Hills; Anita Hills Roberts (Mike) of Mt. Olive, Mississippi; Enda Mae Sims of Lincoln, Nebraska; Veronique Williams of New Orleans; Harry James Hills of Mt. Olive; Willie James Fairley of Beaumont, Texas; and John Henry Sims (Gloria) or Seminary, Mississippi.