The following blog is a guest post by Marcia McCants, a summer intern in the Music Division’s Concert Office. McCants is a rising senior at James Madison University where she is majoring in music.
New musical styles and genres, as well as instrument timbres, emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. The xylophone gained prominence during this period, specifically through the performance of rags. Most people consider the xylophone an orchestral instrument, one that is primarily in the background or associated with certain types of folk music. One of the earliest uses of the xylophone in an orchestral work was in Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre, op. 40 (1874). After this point, other composers began including the instrument in their orchestrations. Thanks to two major pioneers of this instrument however, the xylophone became a stand-alone concert instrument and was thrust into the forefront of some jazz and big band ensembles as the featured instrument.
A noted pioneer of xylophone as a solo instrument was George Hamilton Green (1893-1970). Green began recording rags on xylophone in 1917 under Edison records. He typically performed with his brother Joe in a trio called the All Star Trio, or with Joe and a jazz band. Green developed his own distinctive sound on the instrument, as his technique and playing style earned him recognition as one of the top xylophonists on the concert circuit. He performed for radio broadcasts and in concerts that featured ragtime music at the heyday of its popularity. The Library of Congress National Jukebox contains many of Green’s performances with his All Star Trio. Without Green’s influence on rag music, the xylophone would not have the extensive repertoire it has today.
In England and Paris a performer known as Teddy Brown (1900-1946) developed a large following through his work in nightclubs. He was a contemporary of Green and in the 1930s advanced the notion of the xylophone as a featured instrument. He led his own band from the xylophone, primarily playing rags. Brown brought a new level of showmanship to performing on the xylophone. With his technical skills, he was known to switch from playing with both hands to playing with just one, while maintaining the style and time of the rag. He would then switch back seamlessly. Brown’s technique is considered one of the best among xylophonists, though he is no longer a mainstream figure in music history.
Green and Brown paved the way for future xylophonists, such as Evelyn Glennie and Bob Becker, the latter of whom helped revive the art of the xylophone rag years after Green and Brown had died. The influence of early xylophone masters on the percussion world and on ragtime performance is significant and worth exploring.
The Library holds a film, called Elstree Calling, that features Teddy Brown and his xylophone playing. To understand more about ragtime music, the Ragtime collection is a good place to start. Sheet music, sound recordings, and films are available for perusal through that collection. Also, check out Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 collection, which contains over 47,000 pieces of sheet music.
Percussive Arts Society. (n.d.). Percussive Arts Society: George Hamilton Green (1893-1970). Retrieved from http://www.pas.org/resources/research/GerhardtCylinder/CylinderRecordings/GeorgeHamiltonGreen.aspx
Vienna Symphonic Library. (2016). Vienna Symphonic Library: Xylophone history. Retrieved from https://vsl.co.at/en/Xylophone/History
Wright, J. (2007). Teddy Brown. Retrieved from http://www.jabw.demon.co.uk/tbrown1.htm