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…