Tag Archives: mellophone

Mellophonia II

From @tjmullermusic via Webstat

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!

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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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