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.
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.