Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke




The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs. New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York. That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable. … Continue reading

A revolution in the music business: the phonograph




New media and services like YouTube and Spotify are shaking up the music industry. But they have no more impact than the phonograph record player did just over a hundred years ago. Not very long ago, if anyone wanted to experience music, they had to go to a concert or make it themselves. Many towns and smaller cities had no local professional concert organizations. Their citizens could attend a concert only if traveling performers chose to stop there. On the other hand, nearly every middle class household had a piano. Many people sang and played other instruments. Even small towns … Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs




Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs. Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint. Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry




  What’s the popular music industry? For that matter, what’s popular music? Most people today seem to equate “music industry” with “recording industry,” but it’s older than that. There’s no point in talking about a “classical music industry.”I looked that term up and only found articles about how badly classical music leaders conduct business. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “industry.” Only three seem applicable: systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; especially:  one that employs a large personnel and capital especially in … Continue reading

How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry




Tin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication. The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before. … Continue reading

April in Paris, by Vernon Duke




Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song. Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression. The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit. … Continue reading

Answers to a Civil War tearjerker: Weeping sad and lonely




In a nation torn and divided over slavery, everyone could unite in their fear and grief at the carnage. “Weeping Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” became the most popular of the many songs that expressed it. Families on both sides of the conflict sang it. So did the soldiers. The lyrics sounded such a note of despair that some commanders tried to forbid soldiers to sing it. It was so successful commercially that it inspired more optimistic songs explicitly published as answers to it. … Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone




The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds. Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute. Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound … Continue reading

Kid Ory, Trombonist, Businessman




Music history has no shortage of musicians with no business sense. In jazz, Jack Teagarden never led a successful band; he drank too much, was too generous with friends, and had no idea how to make contracts. Fletcher Henderson failed so miserably financially that he had to sell all of his arrangements to Benny Goodman just to get money. In contrast, Kid Ory, the legendary tailgate trombonist, displayed his business sense at the age of 8, the same time he started performing music. … Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music




Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough. Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony. Harmony. That’s a musical term. The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. … Continue reading