Ensembles: The Big Band Jan26

Ensembles: The Big Band...

In the 1920s, as recorded music became more common, there arose the beginnings of an ensemble constructed to appeal to a popular music audience. These groups contained trumpets, trombones and saxophones; supported by a rhythm section, and joined with a group of string instruments for a more orchestral quality. Such groups performed popular tunes and acted as accompaniment for vocalists. The jazz influence was minimal, with little improvisation; however, many period jazz musicians supplemented their incomes as members of such groups. Probably the best known example of groups of this type for contemporary listeners was Lawrence Welk’s orchestra which remained active for many decades. It wasn’t until the late 20s that we begin to see the big band really come into its own. Growing primarily out of New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, these bands dropped the string players, and adopted a musical style that allowed for much more improvisation. With a few exceptions (like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer), these groups were primarily formed of black musicians and aimed at black audiences. The recordings were euphemistically referred to as “race records”, and were routinely dismissed as low quality. Still, talent will inevitably rise to the surface, and these groups began gaining larger audiences while crossing the race barriers. Black band leaders became household names and gained the respect of the musical community as a whole. The greatest of these would doubtlessly be Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra. Also, notable for this period is the fact that improvising soloists became nearly as famous as the band leaders themselves, many of whom would go on to form their own bands. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were just a few who came from this background. As the 1930s approached, the big band...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit Jan12

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit...

We’ve all seen them or heard them, whether we listen to Rock music, Jazz, Country, and increasingly Classical: the drum kit. Sometimes referred to as a drum set, or “trap” set, this is the collection of percussion instruments collected onto a rack system so that they can be played by a single individual. When you hear some child saying he wants to play drums, this is usually what they mean. The earliest forms of the drum set date to the late nineteenth century, in particular in connection with Vaudeville and other small performance venues. These arrangements of percussion instruments were imperative to having the benefit of a full percussion section using the minimum of space. A bass drum would be set on its side on the floor where it could be played by the foot, thus giving it the name “kick drum” which is still used today. A concert snare drum (a flatter version of the field drums military bands used which had catgut or wire strands stretched across the bottom head which vibrate sympathetically to the top head being struck) would typically be placed to the left of the bass drum between the legs. Usually a floor tom (a larger, un-snared drum) would be placed to the right of the bass drum. In addition, other auxiliary percussion instruments would be mounted or placed close at hand, such as cymbals, whistles, cowbells, and anything else the music called for. The whole set up was colloquially called a “contraption”, which appears to have been the origin for calling a drum set a “trap” set. Another possible reason for the term was that early kits had a bass drum with a trap door in the shell to use it as a box for transporting smaller percussion...

Ragtime Oct20

Ragtime

Jazz is often thought of as “America’s Music”, but everything comes from someplace. If any genre of music can be thought of as the primary predecessor of jazz, it would probably be ragtime. Ragtime arose from black music traditions of the late 19th century, mostly as a blending of American march traditions with the polyrhythmic dance traditions of black music. It’s earliest form would probably be black bands that would do their own take on marches. The thing that really caused ragtime to take off was the fact that it was the first time this music was made available as piano sheet music, which allowed people from all across the country, regardless of background, to enjoy it as well. Another strong point was the rise of the player pianos, which allowed noted ragtime composers to record and distribute their actual performances. Ragtime is not like march time or waltz time, which had specific meter patterns that they followed. It was more stylistic. In piano ragtime, the left hand would play strong bass notes on the first and third beats of the measure, and higher-voiced chords on two and four. The right hand handled the melody for the most part, but the stressed notes would fall in-between the beats that were provided by the left hand. This actually had the effect of making the beats more pronounced, and encouraged movement and dancing to the listener. Composer Ernest Hogan is usually credited with coining the term “ragtime”, which gets its name from the “ragged” rhythms of the syncopated melodies. His sheet music for “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is regarded as the first big hit in ragtime sheet music sales, and inspired a ragtime subgenre known as “coon music”. (Hogan later regretted using the racial...

Know Your Audience Jul21

Know Your Audience

My musician friends like to trot out a YouTube video every once in a while that shows violinist Joshua Bell playing “street musician” at a metro stop in Washington, DC. He received almost no attention at all, despite being one of the country’s best violinists. My friends usually present it as a demonstration of how little people care about quality music and quality performers. I like to add the comment: “The real lesson here? Know your audience.” I find it annoying when artists, any artist, assume the world revolves around them, or that everyone should enjoy exactly the same thing that they themselves enjoy. Theoretical physicists don’t assume everyone has a functional understanding of string theory. Electrical engineers don’t assume everyone knows what goes into designing a computer’s motherboard. Why should we be surprised when people moving quickly through a station in a major American city during rush hour don’t take the time to appreciate the intricacies of a virtuoso performer playing the works of J. S. Bach? Many people like to refer to music as being the “universal language”. This may be so, but any artist needs to understand that the effectiveness of the ideas and “vocabulary” one uses will vary depending on who is listening/looking/reading what they are presenting. One of my favorite writers is Harlan Ellison. There is something I’ve noticed when reading his work; his writing becomes much more complex when he’s writing a column or essay than when he writes fiction. He knows that his target audience is very different, and he tailors what he’s writing to fit who he expects to be reading it. The way this translates into music can be very obvious. However, among serious musicians it becomes a discussion of “good” music versus “bad” music....

Stirring the Pot Jul08

Stirring the Pot

I was reading up on one of my favorite icons of nostalgia recently, Schoolhouse Rock. For those not familiar with it, it was a series of short cartoons shown during commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons. They were all educational in nature, starting with the basics of grammar and then delving into multiplication tables. Eventually, they included science and American history, and much later basic finance, and  a spin-off on computers. Each one covered its topic with a specially written pop song and animation. If you’ve heard of “Conjunction Junction”, “I’m Just a Bill”, or “Interplanet Janet”, this is where they came from. I was dumbfounded when I read that one of the modern criticisms about the series is that most of the songs aren’t actually “rock”. They explained that some are jazz, others are R&B, and still others are folk music. Then I understood that younger generations don’t understand that there was a time that all these and many other types of music were all grouped together under the umbrella of “rock music”. In the 60s through the early 80s, anything that was even remotely pop music considered itself rock. Rock radio stations could be expected to play anything from AC/DC to Vangelis to The Manhattan Transfer to Ronnie Milsap. I suppose it was inevitable that by the mid 80s the range of musical styles would cause the whole genre to fragment, and while some acts tried to bridge the widening gaps (like ZZ Top with the ill-conceived “Velcro Fly” music video) inevitably the public’s tastes became so polarized that almost no one identified themselves as rock fans anymore. Even the later Schoolhouse Rock shorts abandoned any pretense of being rock in any way. It should come as no surprise that all this...