by Douglas Yeo
NOTE: This article contains offensive material of an historical nature that is presented in an effort to inform the trombone community of a regrettable vestige of racism that continues to be a part of the trombone’s concert repertoire since it first came to light over 100 years ago. It is my hope that this article will lead trombonists around the world to make important, needed changes in the repertoire we choose for our recitals, and rid our concerts of music that is rooted in racial stereotyping and racist portrayals of African Americans.
UPDATE (July 6, 2020): Over 64,000 people have read this article since I wrote and published it a week ago. Today, I wrote a followup article, A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.” When you finish reading this article, please click HERE to read my response to the conversation that has been going on over the last week.
In 1908, American composer Henry Fillmore (1881-1956) composed Miss Trombone for solo trombone and piano; it was published by his family’s company, Fillmore Music House of Cincinnati. Miss Trombone was a novelty piece in ragtime style and it featured slide glissandos, or what were also referred to at the time as “trombone smears.” The glissando is a signature feature of the trombone and Miss Trombone capitalized on the technique. By 1919, trombone glissandos were known by a new name: jazzes; the technique was called jazzing. Around that time, three method books were published that taught trombone players how to add jazzing to their playing of popular music. These books were Mayhew L. Lake’s The Wizard Trombone Jazzer (Carl Fischer, 1919), Henry Fillmore’s Jazz Trombonist (Fillmore Music House, 1919), and Fortunato Sordillo’s Art of Jazzing for the Trombone (Oliver Ditson, 1920).
Miss Trombone was so successful that Fillmore followed it with more trombone solos in the same style, all with glissandos that ripped up and down the horn. The pieces had names that tied them together. Miss Trombone was followed by Teddy Trombone, and 13 others were added, and by 1929, the series was complete with the publication of Ham Trombone. Together, they were marketed as a set, The Trombone Family.
Trombone players have been playing these pieces for over 100 years. The most popular member of Fillmore’s Trombone Family has always been Lassus Trombone. It’s a piece that has appeared on countless trombone solo recitals, and trombone ensemble, band and orchestra concerts. YouTube features 8000 recordings of the piece.
But there is an uncomfortable truth about Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. It was born and marketed in a crucible of racial stereotyping, minstrelsy, racism, and Jim Crow. It is time to put these pieces to rest, to bury them, to remove them from our concert programs, and do better when selecting music in the future. For those who are unaware of the racist background of Fillmore’s signature works, or who may respond by saying, “It’s not such a big deal,” here is the story. It matters.
The trombone glissando first appeared in classical music in Alexander Glazanov’s symphonic fantasy, The Sea, a work for orchestra that was composed in 1889. In time, it found its way into other classical works including Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1899) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande (1902). For an excellent discussion of the trombone glissando in both classical and popular idioms, I refer readers to Trevor Herbert’s excellent article, “Trombone Glissando: A Case Study in Continuity and Change in Brass Instrument Performance Idioms” (Historic Brass Society Journal, Vol. 22, 2010, 1-18). The trombone glissando came into popular music by the turn of the century. Arthur Pryor recorded Trombone Sneeze: A Humoresque Cakewalk by Chris Sorensen Jr. with John Philip Sousa’s band in 1902 (Victor 1223); the piece is full of trombone smears. Have a listen below (to hear this piece on YouTube, click HERE):
It was not long before the trombone glissando began to be strongly associated with music that was a part of minstrel shows. These were entertainments that featured caricatures of African Americans, with both white performers in blackface and black performers made up to look like white performers in blackface. The shows were mostly presented for the benefit of white audiences, and the caricature of black culture that the shows embodied was a product of white, racist thought that saw African Americans as bumbling and unintelligent. Music that reinforced these stereotypes was a a part of the Jim Crow era and it proved to be very popular among many whites. Arthur Pryor’s song (yes, THAT Arthur Pryor, the most famous trombone player in all history), A Coon Band Contest or The Tune That Won the Ham for That Coon Band, was published in 1899 and recorded by his band in 1906. It’s a typical example of the genre of music that used racial stereotyping as a marketing tool. The cover of A Coon Band Contest (see below) featured a caricature of a bulging-eyed African American trombonist with several stereotypical depictions of other blacks who were listening to and conducting the trombonist (including a large lipped conductor and a suspender clad man emptying the trombone’s water key onto another person who protects him/herself with an umbrella). The publisher of the song, The Bell Music Company, probably thought the cover was cute. It wasn’t. Racism is never cute.
Into this environment of demeaning portrayals of African Americans walked Henry Fillmore. By the time Miss Trombone was published in 1908, the cakewalk had given way to ragtime which was beginning to morph to what was first referred to as “jass” and then jazz. There was no reason that Fillmore’s Trombone Family had to caricature an African American family except for one simple fact: placing Miss Trombone and her family members into the environment of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping sold music to whites and their audiences.
All of the pieces in Fillmore’s Trombone Family featured trombone smears and they were given subtitles to frame them in the context of his fictional black family, what he called a “cullu’d fambly.” A look at all of the titles takes us into uncomfortable territory.
Miss Trombone (1908): A Slippery Rag
Teddy Trombone (1911): A Brother to Miss Trombone
Lassus Trombone (1915): De Cullud Valet to Miss Trombone
Pahson [Parson] Trombone (1916): Lassus Trombone’s ‘Ole Man
Sally Trombone (1917): Pahson Trombone’s Eldest Gal – Some Crow!
Slim Trombone (1917): Sally Trombone’s City Cousin – the Jazzin’ One Step Kid
Mose Trombone (1919): He’s Slim Trombone’s Buddy
Shoutin’ Liza Trombone (1920): Mose Trombone’s Ah-finity
Hot Trombone (1921): He’s Jes a Fren’ ob Shoutin’ Liza Trombone
Bones Trombone (1922): He’s Jes as Warm as Hot Trombone
Dusty Trombone (1923): He’s de Next Door Neighbor to Bones Trombone
Bull Trombone (1924): A Cullud Toreador
Lucky Trombone (1926): He’s de Thirteenth Member uv de Fambly
Boss Trombone (1929): He’s de Head Man
Ham Trombone (1929): A Cullud Bahbaque
Many of the subtitles are given in a caricatured African American dialect, something that, when done by whites, has always been racist. Fillmore, when asked about the title, “Lassus Trombone,” had a standard answer: “Why, molasses, of course. I really don’t know why except I thought of molasses on bread for breakfast, dinner, and supper.” However, as J. Stanley Lemons pointed out in his important article, “Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880-1920” (American Quarterly, Spring 1977, Vol. 29, No. 1), the minstrel-era character of Jim Crow “spent his time sleeping’, fishing’, hunting’ ‘possums, or shuffling’ along slower than molasses.” Molasses was one of many stereotypical tropes used to represent “the slow-thinking, slow-moving country and plantation darkey.” It’s worth noting that Shoutin’ Liza Trombone was originally titled Hallelujah Trombone. But Fillmore’s father, James Henry Fillmore Sr. (1849-1936), a prolific composer of hymns and a publisher of hymnals, disapproved of the piece’s appropriation of the opening measures of Georg Frideric Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In deference to his father, Henry Fillmore changed the piece’s title. Unfortunately, Henry’s father didn’t disapprove of his son’s racist portrayals in The Trombone Family—the pieces were all published during his lifetime. Offending Handel was off limits. But offending African Americans? It was par for the course.
Fillmore’s marketing of The Trombone Family with its stereotyping of blacks would be offensive enough. But it is for his advertising campaign for the music that Fillmore reserved his most outrageous insults.
The first ad reproduced below appeared in February 1919 in The Musical Messenger, “a monthly band and orchestra journal” published by Fillmore Music House. The second one was published in Jacobs Orchestra Monthly in September 1918. These racist ads were at the heart of Fillmore’s advertising for The Trombone Family. The cartoon of Slim Trombone in the Jacobs Orchestra Monthly ad is taken directly from advertising by Harvey’s Greater Minstrels for its trombonist, Slim Jim Austin. There can be no doubt that Fillmore’s Slim Trombone was given its title to capitalize on the popularity of Austin on the minstrel show circuit. And the image of the floppy shoed trombone player in blackface in the ad from The Musical Messenger appeared on the cover of the sheet music for each of the pieces. The language of the ads needs no explanation. It is disgusting stuff.
Had enough? Yet in the face of all of this, some may protest. “But Fillmore was just a product of his time. Minstrelsy and blackface were socially acceptable and he was just playing to the market.” This kind of apology just won’t do. It is revisionist history, a fiction promulgated by white “scholars” and others who try to make a distinction between “good minstrelsy” and “bad minstrelsy,” between “good blackface” and “bad blackface.” The truth of the matter is that there never was good minstrelsy or good blackface. It has always been offensive. Always. And the use of the “n-word” by whites was always offensive. Always. It was offensive in the nineteenth century, it was offensive in the twentieth century, and it is offensive today. Minstrelsy did not originate in or reflect the true black experience and true black cultural practices. It was a racist caricature of black life that was based in racial ridicule. It was always offensive, it was always racist, and it was always wrong. Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family promoted the racial stereotypes promulgated by the minstrel show era, promoted white domination of blacks, and reinforced harmful, hurtful stereotypes that are still, regrettably, with us today.
So, what to do about Lassus Trombone?
In his message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln said, “Fellow citizens, we cannot erase history.” That is true. History is history; it happened; we can’t change it. When we view history, we need clear eyes. And clear eyes lead me to only one conclusion: It is time to bury Henry Fillmore’s Lassus Trombone and The Trombone Family. They were born of racism and a racist culture. They padded the pockets of the Fillmore Music House and, later, Carl Fischer Co. which took over the copyright from The Trombone Family, and in recent years, since the works went out of copyright, a host of publishers around the world. Fillmore’s racist portrayals of African Americans sold. Racism was good business.
It is time for this to stop.
First, we need to inform our trombone community about the story behind these pieces that have been such a part of the fabric of the trombone’s performance history of the last 100 years. For instance, several years ago, I was invited to be guest artist at a major American university, to give a masterclass, solo with the university’s trombone choir, and conduct a massed trombone choir of high school and college students. The school’s trombone professor—a very good friend of mine—and I engaged in a conversation about what piece I might choose to conduct. He said he had a really nice arrangement of Lassus Trombone for trombone ensemble that he had used on many occasions; he thought it might be a good closer for the concert. I told him I would not conduct Lassus Trombone, and I shared with him the story behind the piece that I have laid out in this article. He was horrified; he didn’t know. He had no idea of the racist roots of Lassus Trombone. And he was so grateful that I told him. Lassus Trombone quickly disappeared from his trombone choir’s library. I conducted Simon Wills’ Tinguely’s Fountain instead.
Second, it is time for us to bury Lassus Trombone and the other members of Fillmore’s Trombone Family. We don’t need them. We don’t need to play music that is rooted in racism and racial stereotypes. We don’t need to play music that makes fun of any person. There are other pieces in the trombone glissando “jazzing” tradition that would make for a fine substitute for Lassus Trombone on a recital program. Why not try Mayhew L. Lake’s Slidus Trombonus? Composed in 1915—the same year Lassus Trombone was written—it was written for Gardell Simons. He was the celebrated soloist with Patrick Conway’s Band who also played principal trombone with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1915-1930, and the piece was recorded by Conway’s band in 1916. You can hear Conway’s recording of Slidus Trombonus on the Library of Congress website by clicking HERE. And I have scanned my copy of Slidus Trombonus (which is in the public domain) and made it available for free on my website. You can download the trombone and piano music to Lake’s humorous piece by clicking HERE.
“We cannot escape history.” But we can learn from it. We must learn from it. For over 100 years, trombone players have been complicit in continuing and fostering harmful racial stereotypes by performing Henry Fillmore’s Lassus Trombone and other pieces from The Trombone Family. We can do better. We must do better. And we will do better.
[UPDATE: One way to do better is to consider alternative programming. See my second article about this issue, “A Path Forward From Henry Fillmore’s ‘Lassus Trombone'”, where I discuss the trombone glissando rags of African-American composer Nathaniel Cleophas Davis, whose five rags were composed around the same time as Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. These are excellent works that are available for band and have also been newly arranged for trombone and piano. And they do not carry the baggage of racial stereotyping.]
This is not a matter of political correctness or of censorship. This is a matter of righting a wrong and doing the right thing.
And here is something else. There is someone else who is doing the right thing with this. I began writing this article yesterday, June 27, 2020. I woke up very early this morning and went right to my computer to complete it. Between proofreading sessions, I went to look at my email “in” box and found a message from my friend, Gordon Cherry, founder and owner of Cherry Classics, one of the largest publishers of music for brass instruments in the world. Gordon is the retired principal trombonist of the Vancouver Symphony and his Cherry Classics catalog is very deep and wide. Gordon and I are in contact about various issues from time to time and he had something important he wanted to share with me. Gordon said that he had come to the realization—a realization that had been hiding in plain sight but that he just didn’t put all together until last week—that he was profiting by selling two arrangements of Lassus Trombone. Gordon told me that he plans to remove those arrangements from his catalog—something he will do tonight—and send a message to his email list of 6000 subscribers to tell them why he is removing this piece that has its origin in racial stereotyping. Gordon wanted to let me know about his thinking about this and he wanted to know what I thought about it. We just finished a FaceTime call where we both marveled that the two of us, friends separated by 2,000 miles, were thinking about the same issue in the very same way at the very same time, and that both of us had decided to do something about it. Thank you, Gordon, for doing the right thing. He has set a model for all publishers. Sometimes doing the right thing is more important than making another dollar. This is one of those times.
If you’d like to join me in removing Lassus Trombone and The Trombone Family from today’s trombone repertoire conversations, please feel free to share this article on social media and other types of platforms. Let’s get the message out. Ending racial stereotypes matters. Thank you for doing your part in this.
NOTE: Now that you have read this article, please click HERE to read my new article, “A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.”
© 2020, Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.