Berklee Pierces The Membranophone

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Berklee College of Music celebrated April Fools’ Day today with a funny, well-produced video (which no one paid me to share or endorse) that made the spoon a little fuller for an instrument that already takes a fair amount of shit:

Maybe it’s the squawky timbre, the association with milk-mustached kindergarteners or how comically simple it is to use, but the kazoo makes for an effortless punch line.

Early jazz aficionados may not be laughing as hard. The kazoo was a hit among novelty-crazed listeners in the twenties and appears on many records from The Jazz Age. In hindsight it might be accused of gobbling up time on 78s that could have been put to better use by just about any one else playing just about any other instrument (when it comes to comb or tuba, it’s still a toss-up). It’s easy to imagine purists scratching their heads and pounding their fists at the travesty not just of George Brunies soloing on kazoo rather than trombone, but the fact that those twenty-five seconds of kazoo could have instead gifted us more time with Bix Beiderbecke’s seraphic cornet (fifty seconds if you count alternate takes!):

Most of the music’s original listeners were probably more interested in a good time rather than a profound emotional experience or instrumental exploration, so maybe we can forgive the kazoo, its practitioners and enablers. Judging from California Ramblers drummer Stan King’s energy and comic timing on the instrument, he either didn’t mind it or was simply that much of a professional. The double-kazoo (?)(!) chorus on “Tessie, Stop Teasing Me” is not only a funny little exchange but also another jittery foil to Bill Moore’s tightly muted trumpet:

There’s no way of knowing whether such musical considerations came into play as the Ramblers gave the public what it wanted and seemingly had a very good time earning a paycheck. It’s also unclear whether Jelly Roll Morton included the kazoo on several of his earliest recordings because he liked it or its potential to sell records. My own favorite example of Morton with kazoo (though admittedly that’s not a very competitive category) is “My Gal Sal”:

Buddy Burton hoots and blasts under and between Volly de Faut’s clarinet and Morton accompanies it all with a sensitivity that belies the comic nature of the recording. Come to think of it, no one is phoning it in on this performance. If this was meant as a joke, both de Faut and Morton went pretty far for the sake of a gag. Maybe de Faut and Morton were laughing at the kazoo, or maybe all the musicians on these sides were laughing with it.

Close to a century later, the kazoo is still fun to listen to and laughter is permissible in all but the direst contexts. Yet I can’t help but wonder how we might react to Alfred Bell’s slashing lead and haunting tone if we were hearing him on his customary trumpet rather than this particular member of the membranophone family (and thanks to Berklee for teaching me that term):


Would we be more impressed if the kazoo was harder to play, or if it was actually taught at a conservatory? The kazoo was marketed as the most “democratic” instrument, since anyone could play it, so are we laughing with the kazoo, or at participatory government? What if the instrument had its origins in folk music rather than novelty ephemera, in native traditions rather than the US Patent Office, in animal skins and woodcarving rather than plastic and the assembly line?

There is a lot more to be said about this funny little instrument. Someone should teach a class, or make it part of a curriculum! Oh, right

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13 thoughts on “Berklee Pierces The Membranophone

  1. jazzlives says:

    The Berklee video is fine but it doesn’t go far enough. The kazoo was a manufactured instrument. Where, I ask you, is curricular development given to its more informal cousin, the comb and tissue paper (or newspaper) as played by Red McKenzie for about ten years on record and now, in this century, taken up by first Paul Bacon and then Andy Schumm. The sonic impact is rather like Wild Bill Davison with sinus trouble or . . . words fail me. But I think it was easier for even amateurish players to get hot with the kazoo. Add Monk Hazel and Tony Sbarbaro to that list. It all gives me quite a buzz.

  2. And don’t forget alto saxophonist & clarinet player Larry Abbott. He played also the kazoo a lot

  3. What a hoot! Thanks Andrew for posting Berklee’s Kazoo Utube with your great commentary. My Grandpa Bob Effros, played trumpet (and occassional kazoo) with many Big Bands.He has a few hundred recording credits as trumpeter. Yet, his kazoo credits are only mentioned in Max Flieshcher cartoon history, Philco radio and family oral history.
    Note; the kazoo was and remains an affordable instrument ( of sorts).

  4. rob chalfen says:

    one upside, perhaps, of Brunies’ kazzoo choruses (2 takes) is that Bix spells Voynow on piano for the duration, thus adding to his pathetically small presence on wax on the instrument

  5. Seeing the word on Tiger Moan inspires some perplexity that out of the large pool of American musical jargon, the 50’s Brit roots movement landed on the word “skiffle.”

    • I first heard that recording and others from the March 19, 1931 State Street Ramblers session recorded in Richmond, IN (for the “Champion” label?) on a Riverside LP reissue focusing on Roy Palmer’s trombone (as well as sessions with Ike Rodgers’s trombone). Orrin Keepnews’s notes also describe the music in terms of “skiffle” as well as “folk.” Whatever you call it, the music remains some of the hottest, most rhythmic and to my ears out-of-place-for-1931 music I have ever heard in my short, sweet life. Darnell Howard really wails on clarinet and alto sax!

  6. Great video, by the way. It’s an institution that seems to have a much better sense of humor now than it did back in the prehistoric days I was there.

  7. Just ran across this story from Bill Crow, who says Baby Dodds said that Joe Oliver hired a guy to make a device that put up to 4 kazoos into the bell of his horn.

  8. John says:

    The Wolverine video reminded me of Ben Pollack, with some of the greatest musicians at his disposal, injecting that incongruous solo that sort of sounds like a duck call in the lovely “True Blue Lou”. It may be incongruous but it never fails to raise a smile!

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