Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, a bandana and a 40-pound, nickel-plated sousaphone wrapped around his midriff, Milton Jennings “Jay” Converse draws stares, smiles and more than a few honks as he marches down Braddock Road performing hits such as “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” on his tuba.
Traffic is heavy as commuters head home from work, but many slow down to watch Converse 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 a local celebrity, complete with the rumor mill.
“The rumor at Robinson [Secondary] School is that I was either a crackhead or a homeless guy because who else would do this,” said Converse, who works for Herndon-based SystemLink as an IT/accounting consultant.
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 Braddock Road in Fairfax, to Shirley Gate and back, a five-mile trek.
Converse’s sousaphone often is decorated with pinwheels and drawn on or fitted writing, depending on the holiday.
“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 that 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, his wife. “We’re all just very happy that he’s found something to do.”
She 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.”
Jay Converse is the father of three: Jay, 26, Rachel, 22, and Stuart, 20.
Daughter Rachel said: “I think I’ve gotten used to my dad’s persistent attempts to embarrass his children . . . so taking up the sousa-walks wasn’t too surprising. Though I went from going, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad,’ paired with an eye roll to stopping conversations to load up his Facebook page. I think now that I’ve realized that everyone has parents that do weird stuff, having the weirdest dad in the room is pretty sweet.”
Rachel said she has seen a change in her father’s life since he took up his march.
“He spent hours and hours on the back porch polishing the thing for his first pep band reunion,” she said. “Testing out different polishing compounds and methods was definitely the obsession inception. It has given something for my dad to really put time into that he may have had to set aside while he was raising a family. My brothers and I are all grown up and out of his hair now — or lack thereof.”
Converse’s repertoire has grown with his length of route. His catalogue includes a little bit of the Beatles, a little bit of show tunes and Disney movie soundtrack classics.
“It’s freedom. I’m the only guy out there. I get to play what I want to play,” Converse said. Sometimes, Converse receives requests from cars flying by on Braddock Road.
“I hear ‘Play “Free Bird’ a lot. People laugh. I actually know ‘Free Bird.’ 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 a master’s degree at neighboring George Mason University, was invited last fall to play with the school’s Green Machine pep band, led by music professor and fellow tuba player Michael “Doc Nix” 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.
“The day I met him, I was driving near Braddock and [Route] 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,” neighbor Rich Juchnewicz said. “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 often is 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-themed decor for his horn.
Although his initial goal was to play more tuba and exercise more, Converse said he’s a true multitasker 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?’ ”