Marimbaphone / Vibraphone Questions – Feb. 20, 2009

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The following questions were emailed to me by Jim Clanton, who teaches percussion at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and is finishing his DMA from the UMKC Conservatory.


Q.  Blades mentions in PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS AND THEIR HISTORY that the marimbaphone was used as a solo instrument by stage artists.  Are there any recordings that exist of the marimbaphone used as a solo instrument, either bowed (vertical) or with mallets (horizontal)?


Cahn:   I do not know of any marimbaphone solo recordings from the acoustic recording era (1877 to 1929).  I also do not know of any acoustic recordings on any keyboard instrument on which a bow is used.  I have published a 284-page discography titled, THE XYLOPHONE IN ACOUSTIC RECORDINGS 1877-1929, and the only references to a marimbaphone are the following:

1) two records on the Columbia label by the American Marimbaphone Band (ca. 1918)

2) one record on the Columbia label by the Yerkes Marimbaphone Band (ca. 1925/6?)

These ensembles probably included Geo. Hamilton Green, Joseph Green, and/or Harry A. Yerkes.  I do not know what marimbas/xylophones were played on these recordings.  If I had to guess, I would say they used Deagan marimbas and xylophones.  The term ‘marimbaphone’; was used by the J.C. Deagan company (Catalogue G) to refer to both metal and wood marimbas that could be played with bows as well as mallets, in contrast to ‘marimbas’ which were only played with mallets.  I have listened to the three records identified above, and only mallets are used.


Q. What are the most obvious differences in sound between steel bars (Leedy vibraphone – 1925) and aluminum alloy bars (Deagan vibraphone – 1927, model 145)?


Cahn:  I have not heard a steel bar vibraphone in a long time, but my recollection is that the steel bar instrument had a somewhat more ‘glassy’ sound – more audible overtones.


Q.  Nearly all of the original promotional material for these instruments states that it should be used for solo and accompaniment purposes both in the professional world, as well as in the home.  To me this indicates that the manufacturers were hoping that this instrument would catch on and be used in this manner.  Contrary to this, Howard Howland states in his article ‘The Vibraphone… ‘ published in Percussive Notes in 1977, that the early manufacturers did not intend for these instruments to be anything more than additions to their line of novelty instruments.  Based on your experience, which view seems more accurate?


Cahn:  In my opinion, both views are plausible.  Without printed references it is impossible to know the original intent without hearing directly from the original decision-makers.


Q.  Through the Library of Congress I have obtained and transcribed several recordings from 1924-1926 of solo vibraphone music performed by Lou Chiha Friscoe and George Hamilton Green.  They are all on the Edison record label and include ‘Aloha Oe’, ‘Gypsy Love Song’, ‘Melody of Love’, and several others.  I am discussing the music, instrument, and the stylistic differences between these two performers in the paper, and the transcriptions aid in this discussion.  (I have also enjoyed playing them myself!) The instrument in the recording is a Leedy vibraphone which was manufactured before the damper bar that Deagan added in 1927.  I have several questions regarding these recordings:  How much of these early recordings would have been improvised?


Cahn:  The Edison ‘vibratone bells’ recordings I have heard are very straightforward renditions of the melody with chordal (not contrapuntal) accompaniment.  It is unlikely that there was much room (if any) for improvisation with these elements.


Q.  Would any have been written down or published?


Cahn:  It is very likely that the players simply used a lead sheet – music published for piano.


Q.  Are there similar recordings, perhaps by other artists?


Cahn:  The Green Brothers made several Victor-label records in the 1930s for vibra-harp and chimes.  These records were ‘electronically recorded’ – not acoustic – using electric microphones.  Electric-process recordings began in the late 1920s and by 1929 the acoustic-recording process was obsolete.

Also on the Victor label are a number of records made in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the Hilo Hawaiian Orchestra, Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra, and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, in which a vibraphone is clearly audible, sometimes along with other keyboard percussion.  On the Vocalion-label are records by Ferera, Franchini, and Green, a Hawaiian trio on which a vibraphone is heard.  There are likely more recorded examples starting from the late 1920s, as the vibraphone gradually came into wider use.


Q.  Were these recordings intended for public consumption, or were they for the record label, artists, or manufacturers?  Were they popular in the general public?


Cahn:  These records were certainly for the general public. But, the vibraphone did not really achieve its height of popularity until the mid-1930s with the emergence of ‘swing’ music.  In the 1980s I interviewed Red Norvo in Toronto.  He said that in the early 1930s he was a xylophonist at NBC-radio in New York City.  One day in the mid-1930s he came into the radio studio for a broadcast and, at the decision of the NBC upper-brass, all of the xylophones had been replaced by vibraphones.  A decision had been made that xylophones were ‘old-hat’ and vibraphones were ‘in’; along with the new taste for swing music.


Q.  Are there solo recordings produced after 1927 that utilize the damper pedal?


Cahn:  On one of the Green Brothers’ Victor records for vibra-harp and chimes (‘Goin’ Home’ – Victor 25669E, ca. 1937) the damper pedal is clearly used on the chord changes.  As for the other dance orchestras listed above, because of the masking of the sound by the other instruments in the ensemble I am unable to tell whether or not a damper pedal was used.


Q. Was there any published solo vibraphone prior to Musser’s ‘Master Solo Arrangements for Vibraphone’?  He states in the preface that it is the first published vibraphone music.  Is that true as far as you know?


Cahn:  I have a ‘Premier Modern Tutor for Xylophone and Vibraphone’ by Harry Robbins published by the Premier Drum Co. Ltd. in London England.  There is no copyright date but from the pre-swing style of the lessons and the songs included in the back of the book – ‘Annie Laurie’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – I would guess it was published in the early 1930s.   I am as yet unaware of any original works – comparable, for example, to the original compositions for solo xylophone of that era – published for the vibraphone outside of the vibraphone method books mentioned above.


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