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  • Early Twentieth-Century Brass Idioms: Art, Jazz, and Other Popular Traditions
  • Martin D. Jenkins
Early Twentieth-Century Brass Idioms: Art, Jazz, and Other Popular Traditions. Edited by Howard T. Weiner. (Studies in Jazz, no. 58.) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. [xvii, 168 p. ISBN-13: 9780810862456. $50.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliography, index.

The thirteen articles in this slender volume represent the proceedings of a November 2005 conference held at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, and organized by the Institute and the Historic Brass Society (HBS). Two things about this conference made it a milestone event. First, despite the prominence in early jazz of trumpet, cornet, trombone and other brass instruments, there had heretofore been only a handful of articles devoted to jazz in HBS publications. Second, the conference brought together a mixture of jazz and brass scholars as well as active jazz performers, providing a range of perspectives and a variety of approaches to presenting not commonly found at more parochial conferences.

The publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book claims that two main themes emerged from this program, one being the contribution that brass performers made to the evolution of jazz, the other the influence of jazz and popular idioms on the evolution of brass performance in general. In fact, most of the essays relate much more to the first theme, and particularly to the development of jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century. The notable exceptions are Trevor Herbert’s introduction to the volume, which highlights the connections between early jazz and other contemporary performance traditions, while also cautioning against the temptation to make false connections based merely on coincidences; and his chapter on “Trombone Idiom in the Twentieth Century,” which does include a number of interesting points about the adoption of jazz idioms by twentieth-century “art” music composers and performers.

Reading through the book, one can almost sense the time restrictions placed on the presenters: the longest essay occupies only fourteen pages of actual text (excluding notes and references), the shortest a mere four, with most being between six and eight pages. A number of the items seem to end just as they are getting started, or to skim quickly over points where more depth would be welcome.

Possibly the strongest essay, and certainly the most fully developed, is Thomas Brothers’ “Who’s on First, What’s on Second, and Where Did They Come From? The Social and Musical Textures of Early Jazz.” Brothers begins with a description of the New Orleans practice of collective improvisation, in which the “front line” instruments (cornet, clarinet, trombone) would weave improvised polyphony around a melody (often simultaneously played “straight” by a violin or clarinet) over a rhythm section foundation. This is followed by a discussion of the social distinction between the “American” culture of uptown New Orleans and the French Creole culture downtown, and the musical cross-pollination that went on between the two. These arguments are reinforced in Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s chapter, “Expanding Parameters on Brass Bands in Early New Orleans Jazz.” Raeburn suggests that there was much more interplay between the “oral” brass tradition and more formal pedagogical training than is commonly recognized, and that research into this relationship is facilitated by focusing on the functions that bands performed rather than pigeonholing bands into singular categories.

The most intriguing argument in the book comes from Vic Hobson, in “The Blues and the Uptown Brass Bands of New Orleans.” Hobson takes issue with the common belief that the typical Delta blues chord progression, with its series of non-diatonic [End Page 94] dominant sevenths, arose from natural limitations of the guitar as an accompanying instrument, citing as evidence the fact that factory-made guitars were not widely available prior to 1890. Instead, Hobson presents a convincing argument that, among players who simply started playing 3-valve brasses without much in the way of real instruction, natural movement patterns in fingering would lead to the VI7-II7-V7-I turnaround pattern commonly found in the blues.

Joel E. Rubin’s chapter on the role of brass instruments in klezmer music is something of...


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