Selecting An Instrument To Study- Part 4: Social, Economic And Political Influences

You may wonder what social, economic and political influences have to do with the selection of our children’s instruments but you must realize that our surroundings have a great impact on many decisions in our lives. This posting addresses all three influences from an historic standpoint and it was written to share information relating to our changing views of the most popular instruments at the time.


During this period in our history, our musical taste leaned heavily toward a new music called Ragtime. The well known composer Scott Joplin led the way to this early example of jazz and the recordings of his famous Maple Leaf Rag was distributed worldwide through the medium of the piano roll. The piano was very popular at that time and many homes expected their young daughters to learn piano as well as perform for friends in the evening after dinner. This had a lasting effect on the selection of the piano as the most popular instrument of this decade. It is interesting to note also that the men and young boys of this period were not expected or even encouraged to study the piano for it was considered too feminine at that point in history. After the popularity of the piano rags began to spread, so did the acceptance of young men playing the piano.


The piano remained the most often played instrument through this decade and with the gaining popularity of Operettas such as Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, the combination of the piano and voice led in the public’s choice of entertainment.


Instrumental preferences began to change at this time and one of the most important changes came about when the Carl Fischer Music Company published the first full band score in our country. When the newly published band music began to circulate, along with it spread the band movement. The piano was now beginning to lose its prominence as the most popular instrument in the public’s eyes. Band instruments brought from Europe would now get a foothold in the market place.


Jazz had started to become more popular and one of the earliest big bands was Bennie Moten’s. Big Bands became established in the Kansas City area and with them came the required instruments for the ensembles. No longer were the community band instruments the only hot items in stores for the trumpet, sax, trombone, drums, and upright bass were also added to the list of sought after instruments. Important during this decade was the formation of Playboys led by Bob Wills. In 1935 Wills had added horns, reed players and drums to his Western Swing ensemble.


Popular music had hit the news stand when Billboard magazine began publishing music charts which documented the best-selling recordings in the various categories. The first song at number one was Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra’s recording of “I’ll Never Smile Again”. The instruments of the big band continued as the public’s choice of instruments to play.


Although the instruments of the big bands continued to hold strong as instruments of favor for most of the public, the musical taste was now beginning to shift to the new music. Rockabilly was first made popular by Bill Haley and the Comet’s recording of “Rock Around the Clock”. The original comets used acoustic bass, accordion, drums, tenor sax, guitar and steel guitar. The popularity of combos was beginning to replace the big bands.


A very important development during this period was the establishment of an easily recognized electric guitar sound called Surf Guitar which was originated by Dick Dale, a local surfer from California. With this sound also came volume, and acoustic instruments were beginning to be drowned out. Another reason the old school band instruments were being left on the music store shelves was the fact that the young musicians were able to produce loudly impressive chords (usually only two or three) with only minutes of instruction. Thus began the first phase of the decline in sales of band instruments. Interest in the acoustical guitar had increased at this time through the popularity of Folk music as performed by such artists as Bob Dylan and others during this decade.


Wide spread rock and roll was in full swing and few bands made use of horns with the exception of bands such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone which used horns for added effect even though the main focus was the driving guitars.


Some popular bands continued with horns but during this period most popular music interest were directed to country music.


Along with Grunge and alternative rock came an unknown singer with a voice very similar to Frank Sinatra- Harry Connick, Jr. We all hoped that through his use of a big band backing we would once again establish the swing era and even though he is still popular today, the big bands are losing ground and thus the exposure to band instruments.


Financial dilemmas caused continued cutbacks in music program funding throughout our school systems. Although this is not new, the degree to which these changes were implemented has made significant changes in many areas of our country. Sports programs continue to be funded but the arts have suffered greatly.

We were still losing ground and now we have the “boy bands”.


Michael Bublé has continued to help stimulate interest in big band vocal backing but this interest is limited only to his dedicated followers. One interesting phenomenon today is the live contests each week such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and Skating with the Stars. Through these programs, the viewer is again exposed to real musicians playing traditional instruments. Also continuing to entertain us are the musicians on the late night programs such as David Letterman, the Tonight Show as well as others.

Tribute must be made to the individual musicians who have brought interest to their chosen instrument and in order to recognize them, I have put together a “dream band” for your entertainment. The chance that you agree with my selection is doubtful and for that reason, I include this disclaimer: All individuals listed have been selected for this ensemble by one criteria  and one criteria alone, “these are my choices and if yours differ, I’m sorry”. I have also included numbers which they were most well known.

Sax section-

Alto- Paul Desmond, “Take Five” / Charlie Parker, “Yardbird Suite

Tenor- John Coltrane, “Blue Train” / Stan Getz, “The Girl from Ipanema”

Baritone- Jerry Mulligan, “Birdhouse”

Trumpet section-

Miles Davis, “Birth of the Cool”

Marvin Stamm, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

Maynard Ferguson, “MacArthur Park”

Al Hirt, “Java”

Louis Armstrong, “Hello Dolly”

Trombone section-

Glenn Miller, “In The Mood”

Tommy” Dorsey, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”

Kay Winding, “More”

J. J. Johnson, “Take The A Train”

Rhythm section-

Piano- Dave” Brubeck, “Take Five”

Accoustic Bass- Charles Mingus, “Changes One”

Electric Bass- Jaco Pastorius, “Birdland”

Drums- Buddy Rich, “West Side Story”

Guitar- Jimmy Hendricks, “Purple Haze”

Vibes-  Lionel Hampton, Anything with Benny Goodman

Please realize that the members of this ensemble were selected for only one reason: each had a profound effect on promoting interest for their particular instrument. If this organization had ever performed, it would have been a disaster.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.