Category Archives: Dixieland Series

Brass Bands and Dixieland

Civil War Era “Colored” Brass Band

Pre-Civil War New Orleans was a musically active city, and part of that tradition was the military style brass band. The brass band was based on the traditional English brass band, and consisted of cornets, alto and tenor horns, and both valve and slide trombones. During the Civil War the military band tradition intensified, and occupational forces left behind after the war presented blacks with the opportunities to learn and teach band instruments. Before the war Creoles and whites were the only people to formally study music or learn traditional European instruments; blacks were relegated to playing on “cigar” box instruments of homemade design.

With these new opportunities, various types of ensembles appeared in New Orleans based on the old brass band tradition, ranging from the parade bands, dance bands, formal ensembles, and blues type bands consisting of two to four players.1 Between 1890 and 1900 the dance band tradition, whose ensemble consisted of violin, cornet, clarinet, trombone, drums, double bass, and guitar, developed into the Dixieland band. These early dance bands were often referred to as ragtime bands or orchestras; this was due to the popularity of ragtime music, and these ensembles adoption of this piano compositional style. Ragtime bands were divided two sections, the rhythmic section, and the melody section. The rhythmic section consisted of the drums, string bass and guitar; the melody section consisted of the cornet, clarinet, violin and trombone. The trombone in the ragtime band really served a dual function, as a player of counter-melodies to the cornet and clarinet and as a member of the rhythm section, helping to create the syncopated rhythms associated with ragtime. With this ensemble and its music the beginnings of Dixieland jazz were formed. Dixieland jazz quickly developed, and by 1915 it had spread to cities outside of New Orleans: north to Chicago, east to New York, and west to Los Angeles.

  1. James Lincoln Collier “Jazz,” New Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 2, 538.

Swing

Bix Beiderbecke and The Rhythm Jugglers

With the spread of Dixieland, jazz music began to change. Around 1920 the saxophone became a mainstay within the ensemble; before 1920 the melody or soprano saxophone had been used in place of the clarinet in few bands. The focus on group improvising, which had been the mainstay of the Dixieland style, began to give way to the soloist. Players such as Louis Armstrong were key in this development; while he had started out as a Dixieland player, Armstrong’s playing had the ability to outshine the rest of the ensemble. His brief solos and improvisations within the ensembles created the need for the extended solo. With the extended solo, there came the requirement for written arrangements; the ensemble players needed to know when a solo when end and the music that was to take place afterwards. With these arrangements the music began to take on new qualities of rhythm and orchestration that led to the development of swing.

The Role of the Trombone in Early Dixieland and Swing Jazz

ODJB
Original Dixieland Jass Band

The trombone’s role in early jazz music went through two stages; in Ragtime and Dixieland music it was defined as a melody instrument, but more often served as a source of counter-melodies or rhythmic accents, often linking harmonies with slurred chromatic glissandi that characterized the “Tailgate” sound.1 This dual role within the band was influenced by two major factors. The first factor was the instrument’s use in the brass band and military band tradition, where its role was largely limited to playing simple counter-melody parts to the cornets and providing a rhythmic foundation. The second factor is the possible lack of performance technique that relegated the trombonist to the playing of counter-melody parts, but also include special effect techniques unique to the trombone such as the glissandi, smear, and growling rip, an example of which is Kid Ory’s Creole Trombone.2 While the glissandi is self explanatory on a slide instrument, the technique of the growl may be unfamiliar. Mercer Ellington describes the growl as follows:

There are three basic elements in the growl: the sound of the horn, a guttural gargling in the throat, and the actual note that is hummed. The mouth has to be shaped to make the different vowel sounds, and above the singing from the throat, manipulation of the plunger adds the wa-wa accents that give the horn a language.3

While the growl was used in combination with the glissandi to produce a “ripping” effect, the use of mutes in combination with the growl happened at a latter date, during the early swing era.

The second role of the trombone was as a soloing instrument. The switch from a supporting role to a leading role began to take place in the early 1920s. The increased performing ability and the evolving swing style in New York gave the trombone the opportunity it needed to move away from the “Tailgate” style into the soloist position. Trombonists in New York at this time seemed to possess technical skills and abilities not found in the older Dixieland players, and they capitalized on the growing possibilities.

  1. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 83.
  2. These early dance bands were often referred to as ragtime bands or orchestras; this was due to the popularity of ragtime music, and these ensembles’ adoption of this piano compositional style. Ragtime bands consisted of two sections, the rhythmic section, and the melody section. The rhythmic section consisted of the percussive instruments, such as snare drum, bass drum, possibly a cymbal, and the string bass; the melody section consisted of the cornet, clarinet, and trombone. The trombone in the ragtime band really served a dual function, as a player of counter-melodies the cornet and clarinet and as a member of the rhythm section, helping to create the syncopated rhythms associated with ragtime.
  3. Kurt Dietrich, Duke’s ‘Bones (Rottenberg, Germany: Advance Music, 1995), 24.

Dixieland Trombonists

"Papa" Jack Laine
"Papa" Jack Laine, seated

“Jass” music from 1890-1920 and included the first trombonists to perform in the ragtime-style tradition. The term “jass” had not been used at this point to describe the music, and the earliest groups to play in this style were the dance bands or ensembles often referred to as orchestras. One key figure in this period was Jack “Papa” Laine (1873-1966); Laine is referred to as the earliest Dixieland bandleader, and he led seven different bands all called Reliance.1 Many of the early trombonists had their start with Papa Laine’s groups.

The brass bands or dance bands of late nineteenth-century New Orleans were the teething ground of many early “jass” trombonists. While many of the best early players started with Papa Laine, he did not have a monopoly on trombonists; bands such as the Onward Brass Band (1889-1930) and the Excelsior Brass Band (1880-1928) also contained many of the more noted trombonists. Information on these early trombonists is very difficult to locate and often consists of little more than birth and death records, ensembles they performed with, and more rarely, anecdotes told by other New Orleans musicians, many years after the fact. The following is a list of some of these early trombonists; the amount of information on these individuals is too short to include here, but a brief biography of each can be found in the index.

  1. Al Rose and Edmond Souchon, New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 71.