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

Duke Ellington’s music: how did he do it?




Duke Ellington was hardly a composer at all in the traditional sense. For centuries, both “classical” and “popular” composers had worked in solitude. They often collaborated with other people in the process, but they worked out their ideas by themselves. Ellington composition didn’t usually come about that way. He didn’t compose for instruments. He composed for people, and he needed those people around him. Composers rarely share their procedures with the public, but Ellington briefly described his in a magazine article. Sometimes he wrote out a melody, worked out the arrangement, and presented it to the band. That’s traditional composition, … 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

Beloved Christmas carols: Have yourself a merry little Christmas




Seventy years ago this month, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. The war years, in turn, provided the background for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one of the most melancholy Christmas songs ever written. The movie that introduced the song, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the exemplary 1944 MGM period musical, takes place in 1903, when St. Louis was preparing to host the world’s fair. While two songs from that period have prominent places in the movie, composer Ralph Blane and lyricist Hugh Martin produced three songs that became instant hits, including … Continue reading

Autumn Leaves, words by Johnny Mercer




“Autumn Leaves” has its origin in French popular song. In 1950, the head of Capital Records music publishing division, Mickey Goldsen, asked for recordings of songs then popular in France. He especially loved a song called “Les feuilles mortes” (The Dead Leaves), with words by Jacques Prévert and music by Joseph Kosma. In fact, he thought this mournful song was the greatest he had ever heard. Immediately he contacted the pair and they agreed to allow him to produce an English-language version. But he had to have it done in four months. He turned to Johnny Mercer, president of Capitol, … Continue reading

Tommy Dorsey, Thomas A. Dorsey: two different great musicians




Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) had a rare blend of musical ability and business sense that enabled him to lead one of the most successful dance bands of his era. Famously hard to get along with, he started out with his brother Jimmy, broke with him, and then reconciled later in his life. Tommy Dorsey’s sumptuous cantabile on the trombone is one of the most recognizable sounds of the swing era. He was white, by the way. Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) is considered the father of (black) gospel music. He started his musical career as a blues and jazz band leader, much … Continue reading

Chestnuts being roasted: Pachelbel’s Canon by PaGAGnini




Johann Pachelbel was a fine composer. He wrote lots of music. Why does it seem like the canon from his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo is the only piece he wrote? Why is it that when a radio announcer says that music by Pachelbel is coming up, it’s always the Canon–unless the announcement specifically says that it will be something besides the Canon? Anything that’s overexposed on the radio also appears on too many live performances. Orchestras can do it once in a season and be done with it, but pity the poor string group that … Continue reading

After the Ball, by Charles K. Harris




“After the Ball,” by Charles K. Harris kicked American popular music into a higher gear. I have even encountered the claim that it marks the birth of American popular music! Certainly, publishers and performers had long attempted to make as much money as they could by appealing to the tastes of a mass audience. Songwriters too often had to sell the rights for a song to a publisher for very little money. In fact, it was because Harris was offended by low payment for another song that he decided to publish “After the Ball” himself. It became the first sheet … Continue reading

Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez




The orchestra I play in is working on Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez. Since I have written quite a bit in this blog about building an audience for new “classical” music, I am very proud to present this fairly recent (1994) crowd pleaser by a Mexican conductor who is a little younger than I am. Who says composers have to be dead in order to write good music. (Well, my father has been known to say that, and I’m sure plenty of concert goers agree with him.) Márquez, son of a mariachi musician and grandson of a folk musician, … Continue reading

Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Saddleworth, and Nostalgia




I decided to look at YouTube for inspiration for today’s post and thought it was past time to mention the British tradition of brass bands. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, one of Britain’s truly outstanding bands, is one I recalled hearing live when I was in England. So I looked them up and was surprised to find this clip from the 1998 Saddleworth Brass Band Contests, taken in the village of Delph. More on why I was surprised later. By the way, the video has two marches; the first is called “The Cobblers.” British brass bands differ greatly from American wind … Continue reading