Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype




The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … 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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings




“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier. Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. … Continue reading