April & Jazz Appreciation Month

Well, it’s been a while since there have been any posts here. To make matters worse, your’s truly has allowed most of Jazz Appreciation Month to pass without any jazz appreciation represented here. Thankfully, though, there’s still time. There’s always time. I think Albert Einstein said that.

For some (really) belated jazz appreciation, let’s go back to nearly the beginning of the previous century to a little thing called Livery Stable Blues, recorded by The Original Dixieland Jass Band for Victor in 1917. In these early days of “jass,” this sort of music was supposed to be somewhat comedic. The nascent recording industry used this idea of fun, novelty, and “jass” to “get over” with a popular market. In the case of Livery Stable Blues, this also meant — in part — a barnyard tie-in featuring musicians imitating animal sounds. Arguably, this constituted a disservice to both the animals and the humans. Other ODJB titles: Barnyard Blues, Ostrich Walk, Bow Wow Blues, and Skeleton Jangle.

Similarly constructed bands of this time played a music that musicians mostly identified as “ragtime,” and which didn’t need to be “funny.” The non-comic musical influence was coming from musicians like Joe “King” Oliver, whose band wouldn’t record for another six years.

Happy 2014

Happy New Year to all those who came by this website in 2013, and even those who didn’t. Sorry Commander Trombone wasn’t updated more often. I’ll endeavor to do something about that this year. Maybe a nine part series on trombone slide lubrication? Or slide maintenance? It’s a simple process, really, but you’re going to need a belt sander and your own lathe . . .

Jack Teagarden Tours the Near East in 1958

In October of 1958, Jack Teagarden and his working band undertook a tour of the near east for the U.S. State Department. The trip covered eighteen countries and 17,000 miles, winding up in January of 1959. The King of Thailand, himself a saxophonist and composer, was happy to see Teagarden, someone whose music he had only enjoyed on recordings up until that time. Naturally, the King decreed a jam session at his palace — it went on for 6 hours by Teagarden’s own account. “You tell your friend Eisenhower that you’re the finest thing he’s ever sent us,” the King said.

Of one concert stop, Teagarden later remembered:

“We played a kind of fair in Laos before about two thousand people, and they just stood there for two hours, with their arms folded, the women with babies on their backs. They didn’t clap, they didn’t say anything. But they didn’t move, either. They stayed until the last note.”

It was a taxing tour for the musicians involved. Because of the ambassadorial mission, the band had to be available for unscheduled concerts and performances, which added to the expected fatigue. In Afghanistan, there was a scarcity of pianos. Most of the band’s members got the flu. Jack’s bassist, Stan Puls, got appendicitis and had to be taken off the itinerary. He was replaced by Lee Ivory, a very capable bassist as well as an active duty serviceman (and apparently a reporter for Stars and Stripes).

In the amazing kinescope shown here, we pick up the band near the end of its tour in Japan. Teagarden looks gaunt — he had contracted uremia during this leg — but is otherwise in good musical form, as he always seemed to be. This TV-film is incomplete — some of the reels were apparently loaned out and never returned. A Japanese band plays and grapples (well) with the style that Teagarden and company tossed off without seeming to try. Jack performs with a studio orchestra next; included are Stars Fell on Alabama, Diane, Peg O’ My Heart, and Indiana. This studio orchestra format was becoming more common in Jack’s later recordings for Capitol Records. The working band returns for When the Saints Go Marching In.

Jack Teagarden’s working band, shown in the film:

  • Max Kaminsky, trumpet
  • Jerry Fuller, clarinet
  • Don Ewell, piano
  • Lee Ivory, bass
  • Ronnie Greb, drums

In July of 1959, Jack recorded the King of Thailand’s tune, When for Roulette Records.

Teagarden later said of the trip’s mission, “All the music I’ve played has finally paid off. I feel that I did some good for America.”

Essentials of Brass Playing

Essentials of Brass Playing.

Next in my list of edifying brass texts is Essentials of Brass Playing by Fred Fox. I like this book. Fox’s method might be summed up in his teaching slogan, “Eternal Vigilance.” He stresses that attention to details is what makes for excellent performance on a brass instrument, and likens mastery of these details to knowing a correct safe combination. Fox explains that the right way is the easiest way and eliminates the need for brute force (like blowing up the safe).

While there are few picture-illustrations in Essentials of Brass Playing, Fox uses his strong grasp of simile and metaphor to get his ideas across, and he uses his own descriptive names like “Accordion Effect,” “Hydraulic Effect,” or “Fourth Gear” to illustrate many of his concepts. When it comes to the production of brass sounds, these comparisons encourage the reader to think about cause and effect. Here, for example, is part of Fox’s discussion of the air column from early in the book:

Brass players usually believe, quite mistakenly, that they must literally blow the sounds out of the instrument. This is natural and very common misconception.

The purpose of the air is to pass between the tensed lips and make them vibrate. It is similar to a bow that passes across the string of a violin to make the string vibrate. True, more air is used to get a larger lip vibration, and thus play louder. In the same manner, more bow pressure is used on a string to produce a louder sound. But it should be observed that even when the violin sounds louder there is no rush of air past the strings. Similarly, with any other non-wind instrument, such as piano, tympani, or even loud speaker (which can reproduce recorded brass sounds), the rush of air is no factor in the volume of the speaker sounds.

Interestingly, Fox defines “diaphragm” in his own way:

For our purposes I consider the upper abdominal area the upper diaphragm and the lower abdominal area the lower diaphragm.

For firm, full-bodied notes, whether played loud or soft, the upper diaphragm must remain under tension as long as a note or phrase is played …

While Fox isn’t incredibly explicit about forming an embouchure, these main points come through strongly throughout the text:

  1. The buzz of the embouchure should be possible without using the mouthpiece as a crutch.
  2. The embouchure corners should be firm, more-or-less pinned in the same position throughout the range of the instrument.
  3. Most, if not all, of the embouchure tension changes should occur within the mouthpiece.

Essentials of Brass Playing covers every technical aspect of brass performance and a few non-technical aspects as well; it’s highly recommended.

Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass

Carmine Caruso - Musical Calisthenics for Brass [Paperback]

Because it’s mostly true, it has often been said that when it comes to playing a brass instrument, there’s no substitute for a good one-on-one teacher. But it’s also true that people have been playing brass instruments for hundreds of years, and that, consequently, some great teachers have been able to collect their best insights and teaching methods into books. In a series of posts, I’m going to write about some books on brass playing I think are well worth your while. Is all the information you’ll find in these books perfectly consistent? Can you guess what the answer to that question is? I can say you’ll find common threads of wisdom throughout these books. First up, it’s Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass..

When I was in high school, I studied with a teacher who was studying with Carmine Caruso at the time [Warning: clicking on the previous link will cause you to return to the golden glory days of the World Wide Web, back when it was full of stars]. In turn, my teacher taught me many of Caruso’s brass calisthenics. To over-simplify somewhat, Caruso’s teaching and exercises revolve around three things:

  1. The exposure of embouchure muscles to the actions they need to perform in order to play a brass instrument.
  2. The consistency of airflow, or “blow.”
  3. The timing of 1 and 2 (accomplished by tapping the foot during exercises).

In the book, Carmine says this about timing:

It takes over 200 muscles to play a note. It’s important to remember that before you play music you must train your muscles to work together. The key factor is timing: it will determine when the muscles start and stop a certain movement. The type of time is established by tapping the foot to a regular, recurring beat.

You expose the muscles to a physical activity by repetition and timing until the muscles synchronize into a conditioned reflex response …

Caruso’s method also specifies a single setting of the embouchure on the mouthpiece for the duration of each exercise. During rests, the player breathes through the nose in order not to disturb the embouchure setting. The aim is to minimize the unnecessary movement of the muscles so that they can learn what to do. Caruso stresses that these are, after all, calisthenics, and not musical exercises.

What Carmine doesn’t discuss is how to create a embouchure specifically. Here, an embouchure that works — at least to a degree — is a given. This does not preclude the idea that, for a given brass player, a certain embouchure formation may be most efficient and simply “work better.” In my own experience, once I identified embouchure formation that worked well for me, Caruso’s exercises became that much more valuable.

How do you form an embouchure for playing a brass instrument? We’ll undoubtedly come across ideas about that as we proceed through the books I’ll be discussing in the next installment.