Meet The Mellophone

I’m thrilled and grateful for the following guest post from prewar jazz aficionado Phil Melick. Among other interests, Phil has spent years giving a lesser-known but colorful instrument its due.

Courtesy of “Mellocast” on Flickr.

What’s the most important and now misattributed instrument on jazz and dance band records before 1935? Hands down, it’s the Eb mellophone, that instrument in many band photos that looks like a French horn with piston valves played with the right hand and its bell facing left. They’re usually seen on the floor because most players were doubling trombonists, cornetists, or occasionally even saxophonists.

For decades, dozens of mellophones on record have been misidentified as trombones, disregarding the musicians who played them well (or not). The instruments were often cheaply produced, notoriously hard to tune, and produced a puny, sour tone when a forced embouchure was substituted for the full airstream of solid brass playing. But when played well, mellophones added a piquant solo voice, and the best arrangers used them to complement both brass and woodwinds.

Musicians who mastered the mellophone were given more of their due in the twenties and thirties, when enthusiasts still had live bands in front of their eyes as well as their ears. By the time records became the only connection to the actual sound of the period, many of us “saw” the trombone, which has led to lots of discographapocrypha. I’ve kept a list for about fifteen years now, and it’s still growing.

Have even more fun with records by training your ear and digging in–these guys have been waiting for you! You can start with two sides recorded on September 10, 1927 by Don Voorhees on Columbia:

Can you spot the mellophone(s)? Let Andrew know in the comments, and tell him if you want to read and hear more!

Thanks to Phil for his introduction to this Cinderella of a horn! If readers are passing through Charleston, West Virginia, be sure to visit Phil at Elk City Records, his beautiful, family-owned and operated record store.

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4 thoughts on “Meet The Mellophone

  1. Albert Haim says:

    I hear the mellophone after the vocal on both records. Acc.ording to Rust, the mellophonist is Bill Trone.

    Bloom on Mellophone. From the Bix forum.
    Mickey Bloom, brother of Rube Bloom, played trumpet and mellophone. We have discussed several recordings of Mickey Bloom on trumpet, but not on mellophone. Here he is on mellophone in the Feb 28, 1928 Al Bernard recording of “Ida.” Courtesy of trombonist Dymitr Markiewicz. Includes the seldom heard verse. Thanks Dymitr.

    http://picosong.com/zxxX/

  2. AJS says:

    Phil has offered some additional comments on this topic and these records…

    The mellophone’s virtual extinction is part of the problem, which is why I’ve played a vintage mellophone when presenting a program on this topic to record collectors. There is also something lost in streaming dubbed records, especially when it comes to timbre.

    The soloists on “Clementine” and “Baby’s Blue” are, respectively, trombonist Miff Mole and mellophonist Bill Trone (though the YouTube contributor of “Baby’s Blue” apparently thought the latter was Mole, whose picture appears at that point in the video). If you have access to the 78s or good dubs and keep comparing them, you’ll eventually hear the difference: a mellophone has a cloudier yet tangy tone. It reminds me of singing while pinching your nostrils closed when compared to the trombone’s brighter tone.

    My other favorite primer, although not available online to Andrew’s or my knowledge, is the non-vocal version of “Sweeping The Clouds Away” by the Casa Loma Orchestra. The eight-bar introduction and first 32-bar chorus include no audible mellophone. But after a six-bar transition, that cloudy sound emerges during the brass choir’s four-bar exchanges with the baritone sax. The same player then takes a 32-bar solo. The different sound of the mellophone, compared both to the trumpets in the subsequent six-bar transition and the trombonist’s eight-bar solo thereafter, is as good an example of distinguishing all three brass instruments as I know of. The mellophone on this record was overlooked in the last printed edition of Rust’s Jazz Records, but the American Dance Band Discography now attributes it to Pee Wee Hunt, who would have also had time to switch to trombone for that solo.

  3. Drizzz says:

    Fascinating article. I’d like to hear more examples!

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