The Book Of Jazz - online reference book

Its Nature, Instruments, Sources, Sounds, Development & Performers

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The work of the painter who employs his fingers instead of a paintbrush tends at first to arouse a skeptical curiosity, but ulti­mately it is the quality of his work, rather than the tool em­ployed, that becomes the yardstick of appraisal. In jazz the media of expression have encompassed almost everything capable of producing sound, from washboard and kazoo to harmonica and one-string fiddle. Because the end invariably justifies the means in any art, many instruments strange to classical music have arrived, after a transitional period of doubt, at a state of serious consideration and ultimate acceptance in jazz. Not the least of these are the mallet family, of which the precocious and suc­cessful cadet was the electrically controlled vibraphone or vibra-harp.*
Mallet instruments were a novel accouterment of percussionists in the 1920s, used mainly for novelty side effects in dance band music, stage acts and brass bands. Not until the advent of Red Norvo was any of them considered as a possible outlet for jazz expression. Norvo's instrument was the xylophone, a sort of de­hydrated vibraphone. Its keys were wood instead of metal; there was little resonance, and the only way to give the impression of sustaining a note was to use a half-tone tremolo or hit the same note repeatedly. The sounds resembled nothing more than the dripping of a leaky water faucet; yet Norvo, who had begun to play it in 1920 and had gone through the vaudeville phase, playing Poet and Peasant and doing a tap dance, began to ex-
* The term "vibraharp," a trade name, is synonymous with vibraphone.