Unsurprisingly, I received great feedback about Phil Melick’s guest post on the mellophone. Readers hypothesized about the music and expressed further curiosity about the instrument. So here is more from Phil about this little-known, often misunderstood, and thoroughly fascinating instrument…
Before listening to more records, some technical information about the mellophone may help you hear it.
Most brass instruments in American popular music are pitched in B flat: that’s the note emitted when a brass player’s relaxed embouchure is buzzed in the mouthpiece without pressing valves or extending a slide. Tube length determines frequency, so cornets, trumpets, and flugelhorns have the same pitch of B flat. The trombone is twice as long so its B flat is one octave lower. The B flat tuba, twice the length of the trombone, is another octave down from the trombone.
B flat instruments are often complemented with several others pitched in E flat that add body to the ensemble. Many E flat instruments, such as the mellophone, have a tangy or nasal tone compared to their B flat cousins. If the B flat instruments make the cake, then E flat ones provide the icing. Here are the wind instruments in a typical 1928 dance band, from highest to lowest:
The mellophone is a freak among other brass instruments. It sounds like it has a cold. Mellophonists often need sheet music transposed for alto or baritone saxophone. Reed sections often included someone who could play passable mellophone, but the soloists usually came from the brass section.
Pictures of Fletcher Henderson’s band include mellophones but records feature few recorded examples. The full-bodied solo after the vocal on “Sweet Thing” sounds like Joe Smith:
Cornetist Max Goldberg reportedly started on mellophone, which sounds just right given his clear tone and solid intonation on the instrument near the end of “Wake Up! Chillun’, Wake Up!” with Ray Starita:
“Goody Goody” by Johnny Johnson’s band includes a relatively late example of the mellophone, from 1936, by trombonist Al Jennings (and a nice fiddle bridge):
When listening to these records, bear in mind that dedicated mellophonists such as Dudley Fosdick were the exception. Trombonists doubling mellophone had to contend with a smaller mouthpiece that made higher notes especially difficult. Doubling cornetists sometimes overblew after failing to generate adequate airstream on the relatively larger horn. Given those challenges, musicians grabbing a second instrument to make good music on recordings left to posterity deserve more attention and respect.
Thanks, Phil, for helping to give those players that respect!