A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone”

A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone”

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.

A week ago, I published an article on thelasttrombone.com, Trombone players: It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.” I subsequently wrote two short followup articles, A statement from Wycliffe Gordon: Will Things Change This Time? and It matters—in music, politics, sports.

Since the publication of my article, it has been viewed over 64,000 times on thelasttrombone.com. It has been republished on several other websites and blogs, and various online fora have featured threads of discussion. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have circulated the article and a vigorous discussion is taking place.

I’d like to follow up with a few thoughts, answer some questions, and propose a path forward in light of what we know.

Over the last week, I’ve been contacted by many trombone players, trombone teachers, and band directors from around the world. These include many members of major symphony orchestras, professors at some of the world’s top music schools, and directors of some of the most respected bands in the United States. I have already posted links to the statement by Wycliffe Gordon, one of the most respected jazz trombonists of our time. The support of Wycliffe and so many musicians is very gratifying.

But there are others who are not supportive, who for various reasons, want to hold on to Lassus Trombone. To those, I offer a few thoughts:

Some take exception to my phrase, “It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s Lassus Trombone.” They have a problem with my using the word, “bury.” To be clear: I am not suggesting that we should forget The Trombone Family. I am not suggesting that we burn Lassus Trombone. If all copies of The Trombone Family suddenly disappeared from the earth, we and the next generations could not learn from them. I have an original copy of several of the pieces and I plan to keep them in my library so I can show them to students and others and talk about them. By “bury” I mean “put away.” As I said in my article, we do not need to play these pieces today; we do not need them. When people are buried, they are still remembered; we place a grave marker over them, we continue to talk about them. That is my hope for Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. Bury, but remember. We need to remember The Trombone Family because we need to remember why a cover like this (below) was socially acceptable to a portion of white America, and why such a cover should never be considered acceptable again.

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_cover

Some assume I am calling for a boycott of all of Henry Fillmore’s music. I did not call for this; to say that I said this is false. Fillmore wrote a great deal of fine music, including several excellent marches including Americans We and Men of Ohio. Those pieces were not marketed using the kinds of racist stereotyping and demeaning language of the pieces in Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. In fact, I can find no other work in my brief survey of Fillmore’s compositional output that was conceived and marketed using racist tropes. [NOTE: Some may point to the title of Fillmore’s rag/march, Little Rastus (1920), composed under his pseudonym Harold Bennett. But the piece contains only the subtitle “Characteristic march” and was advertised in Fillmore’s The Musical Messenger as “A dandy, easy number. Just the thing for young bands.”] I don’t have a problem with anyone playing Fillmore’s fine music that does not carry that heavy baggage of a regrettable, racially insensitive past.

All of us do wrong. You, me, everyone. The Bible uses the word “sin.” In using racist tropes and stereotypes to promote and inform Lassus Trombone, Henry Fillmore did wrong. He was on the wrong side of right. He was on the wrong side of the judgment of history. He demeaned African Americans.  Whether or not he did so just to sell music or it reflected his personal view of African Americans I do not know. I do not know his heart and neither do I judge his heart. He was not alone in using racial stereotypes to sell music. For instance, Henry’s father, James Henry Fillmore Sr., was a devoutly religious man. The music publishing company that he and his brother, Charles, founded, The Fillmore Brothers Company (later Fillmore Music House) published many hymnals. J. H. Fillmore Sr. is remembered for the many hymn tunes he wrote, including that for “I Am Resolved No Longer to Linger”:

Fillmore_I_Am_Resolved

This hymn, with its noble aspirations, is still sung in churches today. But the same J. H. Fillmore Sr. who wrote the music to this inspirational hymn also published  Fillmore’s Prohibition Songs (1903), a book with over 200 songs on the theme of temperance; the song book also includes several hymns. Among the songs in Fillmore’s Prohibitions Songs for which J. H. Fillmore wrote the music is “It Am Come to Stay.” The dialect language and use of the n-word in this song, the first page of which is printed below, is hardly inspirational.

I_Am_Come_To_Stay

The same can be said for another song published in J. H. Fillmore’s Prohibition Songs.  I Draws De Line Right Dar has music written by Charles H. Gabriel, the noted composer of gospel songs that include”His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” But “I Draws De Line Right Dar” is yet another example of a song written by whites that uses the n-word and parodies the black experience and dialect. And, incredibly, more than 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the song makes reference to “de Mastah.”

I_Draws_De_Line_Right_Dar

These songs are despicable. They were despicable in 1903 when they were published and they are despicable today. We don’t sing them today. We buried them. But we do still sing other songs that J. H. Fillmore and Charles Gabriel wrote. With The Trombone Family, Henry Fillmore showed that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Racial stereotyping ran in the family. But the good news is that Henry did not continue to write music that had racial stereotyping at its core. So, I’d prefer we not play Lassus Trombone today—just like we don’t sing his father’s racially insensitive songs today—but I have no problem with people who play other music by Henry Fillmore and others that does not include racist tropes and the denigration of African Americans (or any other people or culture).

Some ask why we should not play Lassus Trombone while we still play the music of the avowed racist composer, Richard Wagner. See above and think through what I said carefully. But there is this: Talking about Wagner in a discussion about The Trombone Family is deflecting from the issue, what some scholars call “centering.” If we want to talk about Wagner, let’s talk about Wagner. It’s a big conversation. But right here I’m talking about The Trombone Family. The parallels between the two men and their music are not all analogous. Let’s not get off point here.

Some refer to me as one who is “woke,” engaging in “cancel culture” and “virtue shaming.” The applying of such labels to people is unfortunate. I am none of those things. I am a trombonist, teacher, historian, and writer. I bring up topics and use my platforms to let people know about them. And discuss them. Name-calling doesn’t help any conversation. One of the reasons society struggles to tackle difficult issues is that some people have trouble engaging in a civil conversation, one that does not devolve to name-calling and epithets. You may not agree with me or like that I brought up the uncomfortable origins of The Trombone Family. I get that. But calling me—or others—names or insulting me because of my views doesn’t change the historical record and how I choose to respond to it. I hear the insults but I won’t take the bait.

Some say they never knew about the origins of The Trombone Family in the dark swamp of white minstrelsy and racial stereotyping. They like the pieces and because they never played them with any racist intent, they want to keep playing them. They say it’s too late to bother with dealing with the pieces’ racist beginnings, that they are by now so firmly entrenched in the repertoire. There was a time when I didn’t know about racist roots of The Trombone Family, either. But I learned, and now I know. Now you know. Now that we know, I’m arguing that we ought to have a conversation with ourselves and act in light of what we now know. At one point, we were ignorant of the racist origins of the pieces. Since we now know about them, we can no longer claim ignorance. As to whether it’s too late to deal with the racist origins of The Trombone Family, a driving principle of my life has always been that it’s never too late to do the right thing. It’s never too late.

Some believe that because Carl Fischer changed the image of the blackface trombonist that appeared on the original cover of the pieces and also removed the dialect subtitles that we should just forget about the original racist images and language and move on from them.

In 1978, Carl Fischer published all 15 of Fillmore’s trombone rags in a single collection. At that time, they discontinued selling the individual pieces with the blackface cartoon on the cover. Fischer colorized the cartoon, but it kept the trombonists’ large blackface lips, exaggerated eyes, and floppy shoes. His face became white. Fischer was trying to change the blackface trombonist into a clown. It didn’t work.

Fillmore_Lassus_Fischer_1978

Then, in 2010, Fischer republished the collection with a revised caricature which removed the trombonist’s blackface eyes and lips and the dialect subtitles found on each piece. It seems clear Fischer was aware of the racist nature of the original cartoon and the subtitles. So we give them credit for removing them. But that was a whitewash; it didn’t erase the history of the pieces. Four generations of trombonists and conductors played the pieces with the original racist cartoon on the cover. Other publishers still sell The Trombone Family with the dialect subtitles today.

FIllmore_Lassus_Fischer_2010

Some argue that they’re not racists and that if they play Lassus Trombone, that doesn’t make them a racist. They want to keep playing Fillmore’s The Trombone Family and don’t see the pieces as being offensive. When I read comments by people who hold this view, I’m struck by an obvious fact: Such comments are usually made by white men. Here’s a suggestion. Michael Dease, associate professor of jazz trombone at Michigan State University has been engaging on Facebook with some people who are discussing my article. He told me that he finds it unfortunate that some people “equate education and empathy with censorship.” When he engages white people who say they will keep playing The Trombone Family, he says (reprinted here with his permission):

As a Black American musician, I would ask defenders of “Lassus” to show and discuss Yeo’s article with a black friend or colleague, and listen to their reaction.

Should white people decide if representations of black people are racist? “The lady [or man] doth protest too much, methinks,” is what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, and the quotation seems apropos to this discussion. Take Michael Dease’s suggestion. Before your next performance of Lassus Trombone, show this advertisement (below) to one of your black friends. Don’t just talk about it with your white friends. Show your black friend this:

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_ad_1919.1

Then show your friend the cover of the music.

Fillmore_Lassus_cover

Finally, show your friend the dialect subtitles.

Fillmore_Lassus_solo_incipit

Explain as much as you want; justify as much as you want. Make your best case. Then listen to what your friend has to say about this. And, after listening, decide if you still want to play it. I can say this: Much of the outpouring of support for my argument has come from African American players, teachers, and conductors. What African Americans say about this matters.

So, where do we go from here? I have a few suggestions.

First, it is important to acknowledge the troubled history of Lassus Trombone and similar pieces. It is important to learn how these pieces were originally conceived and marketed. It may make us squirm today but if we ignore their origin, then we are ignoring history. And we cannot ignore history.

Second, we need to have a broad conversation about music that has racial stereotyping at its core. In my recent articles, I’ve been talking about Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. I will leave it to others to initiate and continue discussions about other pieces with a troubled, racially stereotypical past. If white trombonists and conductors talk about Lassus Trombone with black trombonists and conductors, and all trombonists and conductors inform themselves about how these pieces came about and were marketed for most of the 20th century and even today, the ensuing conversations and the actions that flow from them can help us learn from the past and do differently going forward.

Also, we can seek out other pieces to play that are not mired in racism. Fillmore’s pieces in his The Trombone Family are not the only pieces written in the ragtime/trombone glissando genre that are worth playing. They might be the most famous but it doesn’t mean they are the only or best exemplars. And if there are other fine examples available of the same kind of piece, why is it necessary to play pieces with an embarrassing, ugly origin story?

In my first article in this series, I suggested a piece like Chris Sorensen Jr.’s Trombone Sneeze that was recorded by Arthur Pryor and John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1902. The music for the band version of this piece is available for free (it’s in the public domain) and you can download it HERE. There’s no racial stereotyping Trombone Sneeze.

Sorensen_Trombone_Sneeze_trombone

I also mentioned Mayhew Lake’s Slidus Trombonus (1905), a piece that I think that has more musical interest than Lassus Trombone. You can download the trombone and piano version of that piece for free (it’s also in the public domain) from my website by clicking HERE. There’s no racial stereotyping in Slidus Trombonus.

Lake Slidus Trombonus

And here’s something else you might not know. Fillmore’s was not the only “trombone family” composed in the early twentieth century. Nathaniel Cleophas “Shorty” Davis was an African American trombonist, band leader, composer, and publisher. Between 1915 and 1921, he composed five trombone ragtime/glissando features that were all part of a “family” just like Fillmore’s pieces. They were published by Davis’s own Nashville-based company which he ran along with his brothers Otis and Clarence, as well as C. G. Conn. And also Carl Fischer, publisher of Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. Clearly there was a market for more than one trombone family in the early twentieth century, although Fillmore’s works, with their connections to blackface and racial stereotyping, went on to be famous and Davis’ trombone family, which had no racial stereotyping, has largely been forgotten.

Davis_Mr_Trombonology_tbn

Here are Nathaniel Davis’ trombone pieces. I’ve been able to find subtitles that Davis gave to a few of his pieces both from the pieces themselves and some advertisements Davis’ company took out in 1917 in The Musical Messenger, a monthly publication of Fillmore Music House.

Oh Slip It Man (1916) — Trombone novelty. That heavy dose of thunder on parade. [NOTE: The word “slip” derives from a late nineteenth and early twentieth century slang word for the trombone, sliphorn, that referred to the trombone’s slippery slide.]

Mr. Trombonology (1917) — A characteristic trombone smear. The son of Oh Slip It Man. One great flash of lightening on parade.

Miss Trombonism (1918)—A Slippery Tune. The granddaughter of “Oh Slip It Man” and daughter of Mr. Trombonlogy.

Master Trombone (1919) [NOTE: The word “master” is an honorific title for boys and young men, a male equivalent in some quarters to “Miss” for females.]

Trombone Francais (1921)—Trombone novelty.

The band music to all five of these pieces is available for free (they are all in the public domain) by clicking HERE.

By the way, if you’ve heard of or played Tommy Dorsey’s composition Trombonology (1947), now you know where he might gotten the name for his piece’s title.

And now a few questions, ones I’m hoping might capture the imagination of some enterprising arrangers.

Is there someone out there who might take up the project of arranging Sorensen’s band version of Trombone Sneeze for trombone and piano? At this time, there only seems to be an edition of the piece for band. As one of the earliest known pieces in the ragtime trombone ragtime/glissando genre, it’s an item of some historical importance and interest. After all, it was performed by Arthur Pryor and John Philip Sousa. Not a bad endorsement.

Davis_Miss_Trombonism_trombone

And is there an arranger who would be interested in taking Nathaniel Davis’ trombone family pieces as we have them for band and arranging them for trombone solo with piano? Don’t you think there might be a market for a set of works written by an African American composer 100 years ago that have real charm? Works that are new for most of today’s audiences? Works that never stooped to racial stereotyping in their marketing? Works that provide us with an attractive alternative to the racially baggage-laden Lassus Trombone and others in The Trombone Family? I have to believe there is someone out there who would take up the challenge and provide us with something interesting to play if one wants to include a work from the trombone ragtime/glissando genre on a concert or recital. And here’s an added incentive if you’re inclined to make these arrangements. My friend, publisher Gordon Cherry, founder and owner of Cherry Classics, has told me that he would be thrilled to publish the best arrangement of Davis’ pieces that is submitted to him. So there you go: A publisher wants to publish your arrangement of Davis’ ragtime trombone works. Your arrangement has to be the best that Gordon receives, and he gets to decide if he thinks it is good enough. So, here’s a challenge—and a reward. You can contact Gordon Cherry directly through his website at www.cherryclassics.com. Thank you, Gordon.

UPDATE (July 12, 2020): Gordon Cherry has announced the publication of Nathaniel Davis’ Miss Trombonism in an arrangement for trombone and piano by Aaron Hettinga. Hettinga plans to arrange the other four of Davis’ trombone works and Cherry plans to publish them as well. It is great to see these coming into print. Click HERE to see and order this new publication.

When I wrote my article about Lassus Trombone last week, I was hoping to inform the trombone community of the history of a popular piece in our repertoire, ask some questions, and make some suggestions. I wasn’t trying to start a “movement.” I just wanted to bring it up. So I did. And look what happened. Thanks to many people who read my article and felt it resonated with them, it got passed around and an important conversation is going on around the world.

Whether or not you agree with my premise that it’s time to put Lassus Trombone and the other members of Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family to rest, at least you know more about the pieces. And when you know something, it just might lead you to do something. And doing something is important.

It matters.

 

It matters—in music, politics, sports

It matters—in music, politics, sports

by Douglas Yeo

With cultural events happening at the speed of light, it occurred to me that this week may be remembered as one in which three independent events that affect particular communities in the worlds of music, politics, and sports, came together. Three events that are informing discussions among diverse groups of people that are clear signs of the effort to learn from the lessons of history, promote justice, and end racial stereotyping.

On Sunday, June 26, I called on trombone players to stop playing the fifteen pieces that make up Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family, among which is his most famous composition, “Lassus Trombone.” I brought this up because Fillmore’s pieces were birthed and advertised using racist tropes from minstrelsy, demeaning caricatures of African Americans, blackface, and use of the n-word. The response to my article has been astonishing; a world-wide conversation is underway.

On Tuesday, June 30, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill to change Mississippi’s state flag, and replace it with one that does not contain the Confederate battle flag. The state has been under pressure for many years to remove the battle flag from its state flag since the battle flag is associated with the American Civil War and the Confederacy’s push to preserve slavery.

Today, Friday, July 3, the Washington Redskins of the National Football League announced the team will “undergo a thorough review” of its name and nickname. Commentators expect this review will lead the team to change its name. The team has been under pressure for many years to change the name which is widely considered to be a racial slur against Native Americans.

Change is in the air. It’s time. It matters.

A statement from Wycliffe Gordon: Will Things Change This Time?

A statement from Wycliffe Gordon: Will Things Change This Time?

In the four days since I published my article, Trombone players: It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone,” more than 60,000 people have read it on thelasttrombone.com. In addition, my article has been republished on several websites and blogs, including Classical Minnesota Public Radio and Ernest Stackhouse’s blog, Block Us Up!  My article has been shared hundreds of times by people all around the world on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and it is the subject of vigorous discussion on many fora and message boards. And many well-known trombonists, conductors, and teachers have issued statements relating to the premise of my article and I am greatly heartened that it has provoked so much interest.

Henry_Fillmore_Jazz_Trombonist_1919

Next week, I will be publishing another article here on thelasttrombone.com, an assessment of the response to my article about “Lassus Trombone” and Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. There is much to tell. But today, I want to acknowledge a statement by my friend, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who has just posted a heartfelt piece on his website and Facebook page, Will Things Change This Time? Wycliffe —one of the finest people I have ever met and have the privilege to call my friend, one of the finest and most respected trombonists in the world, and recipient of the International Trombone Association’s highest honor, the ITA Award—has penned a thought-provoking essay written in light of the current conversation on race and racism.

I ask that you take a few minutes to read Wycliffe’s powerful statement, and if it resonates with you, please pass it on to others so this important conversation—and needed action—can continue. Thank you, Wycliffe. You asked an important question. Now we each have to answer it for ourselves.

Read Wycliffe Gordon’s Will Things Change This Time? on his website, wycliffe gordon.com.

Read Wycliffe Gordon’s Will Things Change This Time? on his Facebook page.

Click HERE to download a PDF of Wycliffe Gordon’s Will Things Change This Time?

[Photo of Douglas Yeo and Wycliffe Gordon, Midwest Clinic, Chicago, December 2019]

 

Trombone players: It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.”

Trombone players: It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.”

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.

Pryor_A_Coon_Band_Contest_cover_sm

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.

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_ad_1919.1

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_ad_1919.2

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_cover

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.

Lake Slidus Trombonus

“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.

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. I applaud Gordon Cherry for his action on this and I encourage you to look in on the Cherry Classics website in the coming days when he will be posting a message about Lassus Trombone. 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.”