Davis Shuman: neglected pioneer trombone soloist




In 1994, Michael Meckna issued the collective biography Twentieth-Century Brass Soloists. To my surprise, it didn’t include Davis Shuman. The careers of some of the people in the book would not have been conceivable without Shuman’s example. As I performed the research for my most recent book on the trombone, I found him absent from most of the rest of the literature. Davis Shuman biography Davis Shuman was born in the Ukraine in 1912. Pograms in conjunction with the Russian Revolution forced many Jewish families to leave. Shuman’s father relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts in the late 1910s. The rest of … Continue reading

Opera: when did it become highbrow culture?




“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick. What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish. Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music. What happened? … Continue reading

Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé




Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music. Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible. The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite. The few available … Continue reading

Victor Cornette and his trombone method




For most of a century, advanced trombone students have worked from a combination of the trombone method by Victor Cornette (1795-1868) and the Melodious Etudes compiled from Marco Bordogni’s vocalises by Johannes Rochut. Cornette published the first edition of his method in 1831. The Paris Conservatory taught trombone when it opened in 1795, but soon abandoned it. It didn’t offer trombone again until after Cornette published his method, … Continue reading

What a Wonderful World, by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss




What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong, always sounded to me like a Tin Pan Alley hit from the 1940s. I was surprised to learn that it first appeared in 1967. In reading for this post, I was also surprised at finding next to nothing about the composition of the song. Bob Thiele, who wrote the words, was at the time head of Impulse Jazz, a subsidiary of ABC Records. When he took that position, he was already a veteran of more than 20 years as a producer of jazz records. His obituary in the New York Times … Continue reading

Earliest jazz recordings: this year’s the 100th anniversary




A record of two songs by the Original Dixieland Jass band appeared in May 1917. It has gone down in history as the earliest jazz recording. Or was it? In any case, it made a huge splash. Recordings of dozens of other pieces with either jazz in the title or the name of the group appeared before the end of the year. The year 1917 marks a turning point not only in a particular art form, but in black music. Even though whites made the overwhelming majority of the earliest jazz recordings. … Continue reading

L’histoire du soldat, or, The soldier’s tale by Igor Stravinsky




Igor Stravinsky didn’t set out to write a masterpiece when he composed L’histoire du soldat (or The Soldier’s Tale). The popular cliché of the starving artist came too close to home for him when World War One broke out. He needed cash. For that purpose, the piece utterly failed. … Continue reading

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

Don Drummond, a great, but underappreciated trombonist




I came across the name “Don Drummond” on the Trombone Forum in connection with something called “ska.” I mentioned Drummond and ska trombone in A History of the Trombone, but didn’t investigate. Then I thought of him when trying to decide what to write about here and listened to some videos. Wow! … Continue reading