By Rod Everhart, WJU #1351

Source: 2019-03 Circus Fanfare

While Henry Fillmore is often called “The Father of the Trombone Smear”, he wasn’t the first to compose tunes incorporating that concept. Certainly, due to the very nature of the slide trombone, or the sackbut, the smear has surely been used by trombone players for as long as the instrument has been around. In 1687, German composer Georg Daniel Speer wrote about the trombone glissando in anti-smear terms: “Some slur the trombone’s sound with the breath, but it comes out better and livelier when it is cleanly articulated with the tongue.”

Indeed, the trombone smear is the opposite of staccato. It is legato, played quickly with no separation between successive notes, and with a constant flow of air. If vibrating air is flowing smoothly, without interruption, through the instrument while the slide is in motion, the result is a smear. No other brass instrument in common use can accomplish this same effect.

Trombone novelty pieces existed before Fillmore began to write them. Arthur Pryor, trombone soloist with the John Philip Sousa Band, used slide effects in some of his novelty compositions as early as 1902. In that same era, several other composers, such as Frank Losey and Fred Jewell, used trombone smears in their pieces. No doubt, professional minstrel companies were largely responsible for popularizing the trombone smear. Trombones were often used in minstrel comedy routines, and ragtime and cakewalk music were common in that venue. What Fillmore accomplished was combining ragtime, march elements, and glissandos into a fun, humorous form. The tunes were tricky to play, but happy and catchy. The audiences loved them.

In the early 1900’s, ragtime was popular in Cincinnati, as it was in other riverboat cities in the U.S. Fillmore was moonlighting in theaters, minstrels, dance halls and clubs, and rags were popular tunes in those venues. A significant influence promoting ragtime were the African-American musicians coming up the inland waterways from New Orleans. Another was the circus sideshow bands, whose black musicians featured blues and ragtime pieces in their shows and in the circus street parades. Fillmore understood these people and their music, so much so, that musicians in Sousa’s band claimed that for years John Philip Sousa believed Fillmore was a black man because of how well he had imitated their music style.

Fillmore’s first tune in his “Trombone Family” was published in 1908, and his last 21 years later. In today’s society, the advertisements for these novelty tunes would be unthinkable in terms of both images and language. When the entire series was completed, they were published in a book titled The Trombone Family – A Collection of 15 Original & Humorous Trombone Novelties. The advertising copy included this literary gem: “AN ATTROUPEMENT UV UN- PRECEDENTED DIATHYRAMB PREMONSTRATING DE JOCOSENESS UV DE PERAMBULATIN’ TROMBONE.”

1908       Miss Trombone.       The soloist of the famous “Colored Ladies’ Band of America”.
1911 Teddy Trombone. Brother of Miss Trombone, and trombonist in the Great Side Show. (Dedicated to Theodore Hahn.)\
1915 Lassus Trombone. Valet to Teddy Trombone and a trombonist with the minstrel band.
1916       Pahson Trombone. The preacher, and father of Lassus.
1917       Sally Trombone.      Sister to Lassus and oldest daughter of Pahson. Long, shuffling, loose-jointed.
1918 Slim Trombone. Sally Trombone’s city cousin, a jazzin’ one-step kid.
1919       Mose Trombone.     Slim Trombone’s good buddy. (Dedicated to John Klohr.)
1920 Shoutin’ Liza Trombone. Mose Trombone’s girlfriend.
1921 Hot Trombone. “He’s just a fren ob Liza”
1922 Bones Trombone. “Just as warm as Hot Trombone.”
1923 Dusty Trombone. Bones’ next door neighbor.
1924 Bull Trombone. A toreador.
1926 Lucky Tombone. The family’s 13th member.
1929 Boss Trombone. The head man.
1929 Ham Trombone. “A cullud bahbaque.”

About Don George 24 Articles
Don (WJU #3911) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG. Don led WJU's 2019 strategic planning effort, and was instrumental in launching new website, emedia and marketing initiatives. Don was a professional musician, played several instruments and arranged scores.