Trombones on five continents during the Renaissance




A recent book by Stewart Carter The Trombone in the Renaissance: a History in Pictures and Documents, sheds light in some previously dark corners of the history of the trombone. Among other things, it documents the use of the trombone on five different continents in the sixteenth century. For the record, here are the numbers of items the book contains from various geographic areas, from most to least: Italy, 178 Germany, 130 France and the Low Countries, 78 Spain, 45 England, 39 Asia, Africa, and the New World, 20 Portugal, 12 Scandinavia, 4 Eastern Europe, 4 Asia, Africa, and the … Continue reading

Juan Tizol, Ellington’s valve trombonist




Of all the people who populated the trombone sections of professional big bands in the swing era, not many played valve trombone. Not many became famous, either, unless they became known as soloists or band leaders. Puerto Rican Juan Tizol was one of the few in both categories. Most municipalities in Puerto Rico offered musical instruction, and produced many excellent musicians in the process. Jazz bands and theater bands that catered primarily to African American audiences began to recruit them in large numbers beginning before World War I. Tizol first arrived in New York in 1917, but returned home, overwhelmed … Continue reading

Kid Ory and the tailgate style of playing trombone




Born Edouard Ory on Christmas day 1886 near New Orleans, the future jazz great Kid Ory would have been classified “octaroon” before the Civil War. His father was white, of French ancestry. That explains the French spelling of his name on his baptismal certificate. His mother was the daughter of a Hispanic and an African American, so he had one black grandparent. Under racial segregation, however, he was simply regarded as black and educated in the local black school through fifth grade Kid Ory’s early career Kid Ory was born and raised on Woodland Plantation in LaPlace, Louisiana and began his … Continue reading

An old oddity: the contrabass trombone




Trombones come in several sizes. Tenor and bass trombone are the most common. Orchestral trombonists frequently use alto trombones. Soprano and contrabass trombones remain novelties. The latter is by far the older of the two. Someone described a performance on a contrabass trombone (probably) in 1568. Michael Praetorius provided the first really comprehensive description of the trombone in the second volume of his Syntagma musicum (1619). He described and illustrated sizes from the alto trombone to the contrabass. The contrabass must have been an oddity in his own lifetime, because his description is rather vague. The one pictured here is … Continue reading

The enraged neighbor, or, trombones don’t get no respect




“The downstairs neighbors must have had quite a party last night. It almost sounded like someone was pounding on the ceiling until two o’click in the morning.” “That must have made it hard to sleep.” “It sure would have. Fortunately I was still practicing my trombone” I know I’ve had trouble finding apartments where I could practice, And I’m never up that late. I told prospective landlords that I would do my practicing mostly in the early evening and never practice late at night or early in the morning. Little did I realize that trombonists had had similar troubles for … Continue reading

Trombone ensembles: a brief history




The trombone has been primarily an ensemble instrument from the beginning. It found its first use in the bands sponsored by towns beginning in the 1300s. In fact, the bands predate the trombone. They started out as ensembles of shawms and trumpets, but rising standards of shawm playing left the natural trumpet in the dust. The trombone came along because shawms needed a competent companion. Ensembles of trombones alone came later. The 1500s saw a great deal of experimentation with new instrumental combinations. Courts in Italian city-states, notably Florence, led the way. They presented elaborate theatrical entertainments to project their … Continue reading

Adolphe Sax’s marketing campaign for new brass instruments




If people know only one thing about Adolphe Sax, it’s that he invented a lot of new instruments in the nineteenth century. Today, the saxophone is the most successful. That basically amounts to an ophicleide (a forerunner of the tuba with keys instead of valves) fitted with a clarinet reed. His redesign of the trombone with six independent valves, first introduced in 1852, was much more radical than any of the new instruments he invented. I’d like to look at at least part of his marketing campaign for that instrument as an illustration of his business methods. The important journal … Continue reading

A one-man band like no other: James Morrison




Historically the one-man band has been a form of low entertainment with one person playing multiple instruments at once. It dates back to the combination of pipe and tabor (a three-holed flute played with one hand and a drum with the other) in the 13th century. Nowadays, clever performers can make contraptions combining a dizzying array of different instruments, using their knees and armpits to play some of them. No one has ever considered such a one-man band to be art. As soon as recording studios began to record separate tracks and mix them together, ambitious performers began to record … Continue reading

Reprise: five early posts




I started this blog more than two years ago. Since then, I have learned a lot about blogging and what kinds of articles work best. Several of my early posts are way too short to deserve any attention, but I think you’ll still enjoy several of them. Here is a batch: In preparation of my latest book on the history of the trombone, I had to look at a lot of the Times of London. Before the book appeared, I posted some interesting selections verbatim. I did not use all of the quoted material in my book, so people who … Continue reading

Serpent, ophicleide, bombardon: the tuba’s forerunners




The tuba is the youngest regular member of the orchestra. Quite a bit of orchestral music is older, and it had to depend on one of three other instruments to provide a bass voice for the brass section. The serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon long ago disappeared from public view, but with the rise of historically informed performance, they have returned to concert halls at least occasionally. Serpent Of all brass instruments before the invention of valves in 1815, only the trombone could play a complete chromatic scale. Trombones were among the major instrument groups during the Renaissance. They were made … Continue reading