Professional Music in the 1920's and the Rise of the Singing Trombone

By Robert Lindsay • April 18, 2006 • 25 min read

The late Dr. Robert Lindsay was economics professor at New York University for many years. He was also a trombone student of Stuart Dempster and an enthusiastic participant in the Weekend Warriors at International Trombone Workshops. He delivered this paper at the 1985 workshop in Nashville, Tennessee. Years later, he was disappointed that he had not been able to find a publisher for it.

After I became articles library editor, it occurred to me that it would be an excellent paper for the OTJ, and my referee agreed. I would like to thank Stuart Dempster for putting me in touch with Bob's widow, Helen Lindsay for giving permission to publish it, and their son David Lindsay for his editorial work in reconciling two slightly different versions of the paper.

- David Guion

Tommy DorseyWhy did the concept of the singing trombone have a new flowering as a working concept in the late 1920's and early 1930's, rising to a much higher level of achievement than ever before? More specifically, why didn't the singing style commonly associated with Tommy Dorsey emerge at some earlier time? The concept had long been established for other instruments - violins, flutes, oboes, even trumpets. Why not for trombone?

Dorsey himself provides excellent focus for any effort at answering this question. To begin with, there can be little doubt of his impact. The great French-hornist Barry Tuckwell, for example, has said:

I think the most important influences on me were Dennis Brain, Gottfried von Frieburg, who was the first horn in the Vienna Philharmonic...and Tommy Dorsey...I heard him play only on records, but his singing tone and refined phrasing impressed me as being very much out of the ordinary...I would say that I learned virtuosity from Dennis Brain, and also facility and security; sound from Freiburg, and beauty of melody - that singing sound - from Dorsey. 1

For exploring the broad social history out of which such a style emerged, Dorsey offers a further advantage. Not only is the audible evidence enormous, from hundreds of record dates. A great deal is known about his activities as a professional musician - the kinds of work he did, and when and where and with whom he did it. As a result, the recorded evidence of his playing can be linked directly to the social and technological setting that helped shape the style, and helped determine the timing of its emergence.

In what follows, therefore, we will make Tommy Dorsey our window into that world and that time.

A. Principal Components of Tommy Dorsey's Singing Style

The mature side of the Dorsey style can be heard on scores of records. Any sampling would underline, I think, the following characteristics:

  1. Long Line. There is a seamless legato that runs many bars without a break. Also relevant is the cleanness of execution, with no sense of strain in these lines.
  2. Upper Register. The comparable human voice is more tenor than baritone. It is also more counter-tenor than tenor, and more like a head tone than a chest tone. By today's standards, the range is not all that high, rarely moving above a D natural. But as others have observed, to stay up there all night long is very taxing indeed. It is still, in that sense, the upper register.
  3. Soft Dynamic. The range is mostly piano to mezzo piano, and quite often softer at the top than it is further down. While this soft dynamic is part of the style itself, it is also made necessary by the long line and the high tessitura - thus making it a principal component technically and well as musically.
  4. Unabashed Romanticism. This is a consequence of phrasing, but also is reflected in the use of what might be called a falling dynamic: a diminuendo at the climaxes. The result is a certain sense of vulnerability. Again the pianos and the mezzo pianos are part of the essence.
  5. Tone. The sound is one of great beauty, itself a singing thing. But also important here is a characteristic pointed out by Lawrence Brown, the great trombonist of the Ellington band:
    I think Tommy Dorsey was the best tone man I ever heard. He could keep his tone so thin, keen and cutting. I don't have. I have "oo" but not the "ee," and in all the recording you get that baritone sound.2

All of these elements of style are unmistakably evident in Dorsey's later years. But what is also striking is their nearly complete development by late 1935, when Dorsey can be heard at length on solos recorded with his own own band.

Pushing back still further, the earliest example I have been able to find of the style clearly stated is an eight-bar solo recorded in June 1928. (The cut is "Evening Star" on a Dorsey brothers date, reissued on Broadway Br112.) The seamless legato has not quite emerged, but no one knowing Dorsey's later playing would fail to recognize this passage as his. The only principal component not present at all on that cut is the high tessitura. The top note is an A flat above the staff and most of the passage ascends from the middle B flat below.

So when, after 1928, does the high tessitura come to be the standard in Dorsey's playing? The late Joe Tarto, a tuba player who worked often with Dorsey from the mid-20's on and was a close friend, told me that the first time he heard the upper register was on a recording date with Victor Young in 1931. Tracking that down, one hears indeed a beautifully controlled couple of passages on "The Thrill is Gone." In Dorsey's second entrance, he floats in on a high D natural, which was pretty much his highest recorded note ever afterward in this kind of ballad playing.

More digging might narrow the period further, but the full style obviously dates from somewhere between June 1928 and October 1931. The question this raised is, Why then? Why not earlier? And the question is raised for all trombone playing, not just Dorsey's.

To be sure, there were trombonists who played songs long before these years. Fred Williams has reported, for example, that in 1896, the very first year of the famous Willow Grove concerts outside Philadelphia, the very first band was that of Fred Innes, the "pre-eminent trombonist of the day." Innes himself played solos regularly - one in the afternoon and one in the evening. This is a fairly limited exposure, but his offerings did include songs - such favorites as "Alice Where Art Thou?" and "The Vacant Chair." Williams reports further that the next year, when Walter Damrosch brought the New York Symphony, he made Wednesday evenings soloists' nights and featured a violinist and a trombonist, in this case Karl Hampe.

While the sound of all of this is lost to us now, we do have some recorded evidence from the early years of this century, before the 1920's. Most notably, we have the excellent LP of Arthur Pryor's playing produced by Fred Williams and issued by Crystal in 1983. As I hear the several songs Pryor does, however, as well as other scattered evidence from these earlier years, none of these soloists managed to put together all five of the principal components. Most especially does one not hear a long legato line in the upper register. Why not? Why does it not appear until the late 1920's and early 1930's?

B. Looking for an Explanation

We should be clear that we are not trying to account here for the existence of individual genius or talent. Such people are really freaks, a gift of the gods. This indeed is the theme of Amadeus. The point is also put well in a New Yorker story on the 1984 Olympics:

An American coach was quoted as saying toward the start of the Games that China would probably do well, because its huge population meant that it had a genetic pool of unequalled size to draw on. "In sports, you're looking for these genetic freaks," he said. "To be great, you have to be abnormal."3

What we want to try to explain, instead, is the manner in which rare talent is drawn to express itself. The answer, I suggest, is to be sought in the following three propositions:

  1. The larger the number of people in an activity, the more likely the group will include rare talent, and the more likely the talent will be developed. There is, to begin with the bigger gene pool. But economics also teaches us that with the increasing numbers there can be more specialization. There will therefore be greater strides in learning, in imagining, in inventing. There can be more coaches, more hours for practice, more equipment, a larger pool of creative teachers.
  2. The particular directions open to that talent will depend in some part on the opportunities for large numbers to be involved in a given activity. Technology will play an especially important role, as will more broadly the state of the art involved.
  3. These opportunities will more likely be pursued if economic incentives are also present. Musicians, to be sure, are much stimulated by fame, and by pride in the art itself. But somewhere there must be economic support for the activity, even if only to sustain the effort. And it is only human for many to respond also to the higher earning power that one form of musicmaking may offer over another.

C. The World of Music in the 1920's

The 1920's brought a large increase in demand for musicians in the United States. Moreover, with the reduced flow of immigrants, particularly from southern and central Europe, much of this rise in demand for musical services had to be supplied by American-born musicians. Reflecting this shift in the balance of supply and demand, incomes appear to have risen for musicians in general. Indeed, the elite of the profession, especially those favored in the world of popular entertainment, were lifted by the boom years into real wealth.

The growth in sheer numbers of people in music is traced out by the census figures from 1920 and 1930. The occupational category used by the Census Bureau in both of those years was "Musicians and Teachers of Music," and the growth in this group over the decade was 27 percent. For all occupations together, the increase was much smaller than that - only 17 percent. New people were swarming into the music business.

Ideally, we should sort out the major kinds of music all of these people made and devise some rough measure of the numbers involved in each. It is intriguing, for example, how often Chinese restaurants turn up in oral accounts, as places of musical employment in the 1920's. As one illustration among many, Artie Shaw's first full-time professional job was in Cleveland in 1926 - in a Chinese restaurant. It becomes quickly evident, however, that cobbling together even approximate estimations of types of employment would not be an easy thing to do.

1. Musicians and Teachers of Music

Indeed, one runs into trouble immediately, in the first obvious step of trying to unbundled the two groups combined in the census reports: i.e., to break apart musicians from teachers of music. They cannot be separated in the data for 1920 and 1930, short of someone disappearing into the files for several months to do a detailed study of raw reports, city by city and tract by tract.

Fortunately, the data published for 1910 do show the two groups separately. This gives us a benchmark. But, unfortunately, the 1910 figures also introduce a new puzzle of their own. They call to our attention a drop in the combined population of musicians and teachers of music in the decade prior to 1920. Because the population generally was not expanding in those years from 1910 to 1920, the decline in the musical population in that period makes its reported growth in the 1920's look a lot less impressive. Maybe it was little more than growth from an abnormally low base, reflecting mostly catchup for the loss of the decade 1910 to 1920.

The aggregate figures are shown in Table 1. In the end after wrestling with all of these numbers, one can arrive with some confidence at the following conclusions:

  1. The decline in the number of musicians and teachers of music in the decade ending in 1920 was more than accounted for by the drop in the number of women in the combined group.
  2. More than four-fifths of the women reported in the combined population in 1910 were teachers of music, not musicians.
  3. Many, perhaps even most, of these female teachers of music were marginally active in the labor force, in any case, in either 1910 or 1920.
  4. Thus, the change in the number of men counted in the combined category of musicians and teachers of music looks to be a good solid proxy for changes in the total population of active and performing musicians over those years.

If these inferences are correct, they point to an even more striking growth in the performing musician population in the 1920's than suggested earlier. In the decade from 1910 to 1920, the number of men in the combined occupational group had grown by only half the rate of change for all occupations together. In dramatic contrast, the increase in the 1920's was more than three times as fast as the growth in all occupations.

The details of some of these patterns may be seen in Table 2 and Table 3.

We need to keep in mind just what the census figures measure. An individual's occupation is defined, in these data, as the one that provides the person's primary income. Thus the count will include people who get a few dollars from an occasional piano pupil, but no income from any other source. This presumably was the case for many of the young, unmarried women listed as teachers of music. At the same time, it will exclude active performing musicians, perhaps people of great originality and influence, who nonetheless must support themselves chiefly with what they earn in a "day" job. They appear in the census as dock workers or bartenders or something else, but not as musicians.

To carry the point further, we know in our own times the importance of a teaching job in a school or college, as an economic base for performing musicians. And indeed in the 1920's all such people would have been included in the census listing as musicians and teachers of music, so long as their teaching duties were predominantly musical. In those years, however, the school music movement was still in its infancy. If the high school band director played regularly in local dance halls on weekend nights, but spent much of his days teaching arithmetic, he would not be listed as either a musician or a teacher of music.

As still another face of this problem of fuzzy definition, we know also that many people who would be included by the census might, in fact, not be working at all at the time the census taker stopped by. Until recently, the census asked what occupation normally supplied your principal income, not how much you had worked at that occupation in recent months. In 1980, the census did ask that question. For the first time, they inquired of musicians and composers (meanwhile introducing a new form of the old category problem) if they had been employed in the previous year and, further, if their employment had been usually full time. About 92 percent said they had been employed, but only 34 percent reported full time.

The insecurity of a professional career in music is certainly not news to anyone in the business today. Nor has it ever been much different. A famous economist, John R. Commons, wrote in 1906 of the musicians of St Louis:

The steadiest job is in the theaters and summer gardens for four months. In the St. Louis local of six hundred members, only about 100 have these positions...The other five hundred must depend for their earnings upon all sorts of fleeting engagements - private parties, weddings, balls...And so on for baseball, 4th of July, corner stone laying, flag raising, dedications, saloon concerts, and the hundred other occasions where the musician softens sorrow, fires patriotism, or drowns bedlam.4

Nor does the evidence from the 1920's suggest any difference in that time. The dozens of ways in which musicians could hope to scuffle a living in New York City in that decade may be observed, and wondered at, in the so-called "price lists" published each year by the union. Just one page for one such list (Table 4) suggests the terribly miscellaneous character of such a livelihood.

2. Movie Theaters

One major feature of the demand for performing musicians in the 1920's, however, is very evident, and that is the great significance of the movie houses as continuous and well-paying performers.

By the 1920's, the number of moving picture theaters in the country had grown enormously. They greatly expanded the dramatic fare for all classes of American society in all but the tiniest of urban places. And they significantly increased the demand for the services of live musicians. Some of the music was supplied by pianists and organists, but even in small towns the need was often filled by small orchestras of six or eight members.

We get a glimpse of how important that demand came to be from some figures for the mid-1920's. The number of musicians employed in theaters across the country in 1926 was estimated at 22,000, or better than 27 percent of the reported membership of the American Federation of Musicians. (See Table 5.) Moreover, this significant share seems not to have been simply a long shadow cast by the great urban centers of entertainment such as New York and Chicago. In this same period, theater employment of musicians in New York City was barely 20 percent of union membership, a much smaller relative role for this source of demand than in the country at large. In Los Angeles, which was beginning to grow as an entertainment center, only 22 percent of union members had theater jobs. Movie houses created work for musicians all across the country.

There is also no mistaking the disaster created for musicians by those same employers when sound was suddenly added to the movies in late 1927. Within weeks after the opening of The Jazz Singer in late October, the success of that first "talkie" sent movie house owners scrambling to get machinery installed for sound. The orders greatly outstripped the manufacturers' initial capacity to respond, but layoffs of theater musicians began very soon, and within a year had become a torrent. From 1926, when the 20's were roaring, to 1929, when they were still roaring for the country as a whole, the number of musicians employed in theaters fell by 14 percent. In the following year, from 1929 to 1930, as things were slowing down for everybody but still a long way from the worst that lay ahead, theater work for musicians dropped another 26 percent. Thus, over the full period from 1926 to 1930, when the Depression was just beginning to take hold, theater jobs for musicians had already fallen by 36 percent, a disaster by any definition.

3. Other Growth in Demand for Musicians

The 1920s brought other important new demands for performing musicians. Radio swept in with a roar and overnight became a significant employer. It also brought sharply higher pay scales, reflecting, first, the sudden growth of the industry and, second, its management by people who had had no prior experience at hiring musicians but were eager to bid for the best. The second half of the decade also witnessed a new explosion of the dance craze. With steady work in factories, cheap cars and a developing road network, young unmarrieds could follow their dance band favorites from town to town. Ballrooms and dance halls expanded, and the music became the central drawing card, not simply background support, as in a cabaret. Dance bands gained their own identity, with leaders like Paul Whiteman skyrocketing to star status among popular entertainers, and paying top dollar to their sidemen. In the late 20's, the men in Whiteman's band were averaging $272 a week, or about $14,000 a year. That was more than 10 times what the average factory worker made. It put these musicians in the top three percent of all income earners in the country.

The record business was not as strong as it had been, nor as it would be again in the mid-30's. But it held to a plateau that kept many musicians working and, perhaps more importantly, served to stimulate demand for musical services in other forms - on the radio and in dance halls, for example. Finally, the moviemakers, now that they had sound to play with, hired many musicians at very good wages. Again, a lack of management experience, both in the new medium and in the market for musicians, led them to pay lavishly, often for many hours of idle standby time and very little performance.

The net effect of all of these changes - the surge of new demands and the sharp falling back of some of them - was twofold. First, they drew large numbers into the business, creating a much larger gene pool. The chance of more "freaks" appearing was greatly heightened. Second, and most importantly, when the cutbacks came, it was the weaker musicians who were winnowed out. Joe Tarto, for example, went right on making good money all the way into 1931, and even after that never had to scuffle.

The good years also created a very favorable climate for technological advance. The wave of inventiveness in the transmission of sound was especially notable. The new frontiers opened to radio broadcasting, for example, were a constant source of excitement and experimentation.

In sum, the economics of these halcyon years were creating a new context for musical style - and new potential for trombone playing.

D. Emergence of the Special Singing Style From Such a World

Out of all of this activity, there seem to have been three major elements that created opportunities for singing trombone solos to begin to reach a broad public. The incentives for these opportunities to be exploited are somewhat harder to sort out, but three or four significant developments, right in the teeth of the Depression, appear to have played a key role.

1. The Opportunities

The development of the microphone is clearly critical to the emergence of the style. The mike was essential, of course, for sensitivity to sound on records, once the electrical process was introduced in 1925. It was likewise essential to radio, starting slightly earlier, and growing rapidly in importance as radio ownership spread during the decade. And as the 20's turned into the 30's, the microphone slowly became available for live performances. Rudy Vallee claims to have made the first use, in 1930, of a mike for singing in a ballroom. As his band did a string of one-nighters at "armories, auditoriums and beach resorts," he created for himself a "sort of electronic megaphone." He "borrowed an old carbon mike from NBC and hooked up a homemade amplifier with some radios."5 How rapidly sound systems of this sort became commonplace in dance halls and ballrooms is less clear, but Rudy Vallee was too big a success in 1930 for that lesson to have been lost on others in the business.

As Henry Pleasants has said of the microphone, "What was new was its sensitivity. What was important was... its ability to pick up the lightest pressure of a singer's breath upon his vocal cords for transmission to listeners in the homes hundreds and thousands of miles away...No longer would singers have to pitch their voices to reach the ticket holder in the last row of the gallery."6

All of this meant a break was possible from the operatic style, the dominant form of the day. It opened the way for intimacy, for a gentleness of delivery not possible before.

A second important development was the new singing style that in fact did emerge to capture the popular fancy. Through the 1930's and into the 1940's, we still had the Nelson Eddy's and Allen Jones's, but by the beginning of the 1930's they had been overtaken by singers like Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. A whole new idiom was spawned by the microphone, a much more ballad-like way of making music. For the trombonist, this was worlds away from "The Blue Bells of Scotland."

Finally, a third opportunity for the singing trombone to develop was offered by the further evolution of dance bands, which created both a new vehicle and a new milieu. The dance craze first ignited by Vernon and Irene Castle in 1914 had stimulated a whole new business, including the innovation of the touring dance band, and this business continued to do well. But dance music performed for records and radio broadcasts required new adaptations, and made possible many more solos - even if only a few bars long - by instruments not as easily heard in the open air. The low register clarinet is one example, but so of course is the soft, high legato trombone.

[Dance bands became still more important as an incubator of the singing trombone, as instrumental soloists began to be leaders of such bands, and to feature their own playing. The Dorsey brothers recorded on their own as early as 1928, but were not a live dance band until 1934. Without a sound system, amplification at these dance jobs could be achieved only with a megaphone. Musicians stood the megaphone on the floor and played across the top of it - not much chance of getting an "ee" sound that way. But with amplification, the new fashion of leader-player made dance bands a major new opportunity for all five components of the singing trombone style to be heard live. The subsequent interaction of records featuring such playing, with paying crowds of ballroom patrons expecting to hear in person the kinds of solos they had heard on the records, thus opened a major opportunity for trombonists to develop this new form of singing voice. And, one should add, a dance gig gave the leader-player not two or three solos a night, but dozens of them. The style could be honed and refined and altered and extended. It could also now be witnessed, in ear and by eye, by other trombonists standing a few feet away, watching to see how they might do the same thing.

2. The Incentives

Some of these opportunities had built-in incentives, of course. In addition, I've already mentioned the big money earned by the first-call people before the Depression and the continued steady work some of them enjoyed as the Depression deepened. But the popular demand for music revived early, and in a form that offered special incentive for the kind of performing style we have been looking at.

Record sales, for example, had all but collapsed by 1932. falling in that year to only 10 million, from a 1929 level of 65 million. The end of Prohibition in 1933, however, reopened many a saloon and cabaret, and a very large number of them installed juke boxes, a device newly on the market. Decca introduced a new 35 cent record, and Victor soon followed. The stage was set for the swing band era, which erupted in 1935. Radio stations were giving lots of air time to dance band records. The whole thing took off again, with the strong dynamics of interaction mentioned above - records promoting live music promoting radio and, back around again, radio promoting both records and live performance.

Let me end by quoting from an article written by Gordon Pulis in 1948 while he was playing with the New York Philharmonic in one of the great trombone sections of all time. His main point was the importance of dance band players in the development of contemporary trombone technique. He called attention to Gardell Simon as "probably the first person to evolve and teach the theory and technique of the tongue legato." Pulis describes this as the "trombonist's solution to problem of the legato style - a difficulty due to the limitations inherent in a slide instrument."

But Pulis then says: "...great as the advances of Simon and others were, the young dance band players have developed this even further, so that today one can tune in the radio and hear almost any dance trombonist singing on his instrument that would undoubtedly delight Simon, were he living today."


Table 1.

Year Musicians and
Teachers of Music
Musicians Teachers of Music
1900 92,264 - -
1910 139,310 54,858 84,452
1920 130,265 - -
1930 165,128 - -

Table 2.

Musicians and
Teachers of Music
Musicians Teachers of
Male Female Male Female Male Female
1900 39,887 52,377 - - - -
1910 54,832 84,478 39,163 15,695 15,669 68,783
1920 57,587 72,678 - - - -
1930 85,517 79,611 - - - -

Table 3.

Male Female
All Occupations Musicians and
Teachers of Music
All Occupations Musicians and
Teachers of Music
Percent change
1910 to 1920 +9.9 +5.0 +5.6 -14.0
1920 to 1930 +15.2 +48.5 +25.8 +9.5
Percent in Composition
In 1910 79 39 21 61
In 1930 78 52 22 48

Table 4.

Extract from the Price List Governing Special and Regular Engagements and Theater and
Opera Houses for the Regular Theatrical Season of 1923-24
Local 802, American Federations of Musicians
Carnival Sitzungen
Central Park Concerts
Christmas Tree Festivals
Church Fairs
Coney Island
Continuous Playing
Confirmation Parties
Curtis Field Concerts
Cycles Races
Dancing Palaces
Dancing Schools
Dedication Exercises
Department Stores
Dramatic Shows
Engagements Not Specified
Engagement Parties
Entertainment and Ball
Evening Receptions

Table 5.

Year Musicians and
Teachers of Music (a)
Union Membership
Theater Employment
U.S. NYC U.S. (b) NYC (c) U.S. NYC (d)
190092,264 - 6,200 - - -
1903 - - - 3,500 - -
1910139,31015,14640,000 - - -
1913 - - - 5,100 - -
1920130,26515,39370,000 - - -
1921 - - 74,60012,000 - -
1922 - - 75,000 - - -
1923 - - 75,000 - - -
1924 - - 77,100 - - -
1925 - - 80,000 - - -
1926 - - 80,000 - 22,000 -
1927 - - 80,000 - - 3,187
1928 - - 96,70015,500 - -
1929 - - 100,00017,00014,000 -
  1. U.S. Census of Occupation
  2. Wolman, Leo. Ebb and Flow in the Trade, NBER 1936.
  3. Leiter, Robert D. The Musicians and Petrillo, Bookman and Associates, 1953.
  4. Local 802 Minutes, January 9, 1929.


 1 - Quoted by Winthrop Sargeant in The New Yorker, March 14, 1977, pp. 61-2.

 2 - Dance, Stanley, The World of Duke Ellington, New York: Scribner (1970), p. 120.

 3 - The New Yorker, September 3, 1984, p. 67.

 4 - Commons, John R. "Types of American Labor Unions - Economics (May 1906), pp. 439-40.

 5 - Oblensky, Ivan. My Time Is Your Time, Inc., (1962), p. 89.

 6 - Pleasants, Henry. The Great American Popular Singers, New York: Simon & Schuster (1972), p. 25.