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...

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve Oct06

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve...

The biggest problem with most wind instruments is, of course, that one must blow into them to make them work. Apart from the rather distasteful act of repeatedly putting such an instrument in or on your mouth no matter where you’ve had it previously, there is the rather problematic fact that one’s, shall we say, expectorations will inevitably accumulate within said instrument. Except in the case of the bird whistle, this is generally regarded as a bad thing. How bad it can be is demonstrated by the case of the Royal Trumpet Corp of 1497, who were told they could not participate in the feast laid out before them until after they had performed. The sights and aromas of the banquet were so profound that their herald trumpets gathered many pints of saliva during the performance, resulting in the drowning of the whole corp. Henry VII was so appalled at the disruption of his meal that he had all four of the corpses beheaded writing, “Furely, the feafts of the crown are fuch that the provifion of mufic can be difpenfed with henceforth.” The mufician’s… er, musician’s guild realized that if they were to keep their sweet jobs, they needed to find some way to remedy the problem. This was resolved by the invention of the spit valve. Invented in 1498 by trumpet maker Alexander Spitt, the Spitt Valve was regarded as revolutionary, especially by people who were easily impressed. With the mere depression of a lever, a hole was opened in the body of the instrument which allowed the drainage of any accumulated bodily fluids that might find their way into it. The response by the instrument makers of Europe was universal: “Ew. Gross.” Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with these...