Thursday, August 14, 2014

Let’s Talk About Sax(ophones)

Adolphe Sax invented and patented an invention in the 1840s. He was looking to create an instrument that was basically a blend of the brass and woodwind instruments. And then, of course, his secondary goal was to name something after himself. To fulfill both these goals (and probably to make his dad proud), he created the saxophone.

The saxophone is made out of brass, but it is a woodwind instrument. Say it ain’t so/How can this be? It’s because whether an instrument is a brass or a woodwind isn’t determined by material, but by how the sound is produced. Please allow us to gloss over some detail here and say that the main difference in how sound is produced basically has to do with whether or not the player’s lips vibrate. Brass = Yes. Woodwinds = No.

So, to get back to the point, there are many, even several, types of saxophones. The four main kinds are the soprano, the alto, the tenor, and the baritone. The Big Band Experience showcases three of these: soprano, alto, and tenor. So, let’s take a little bit of a deeper look at these, shall we?

Aaron Moe takes care of soprano and alto duties while Ronny Loew holds tenor patrol.

The soprano saxophone is usually straight (think of the instrument Kenny G plays) and is similar in tone to the oboe.

The alto saxophone is larger than the soprano and, along with the tenor, is one of the most commonly played types of saxophones.

The tenor saxophone is lower and bigger than the soprano and alto. As shown in the picture above, you can spot a tenor saxophone by the bend in its neck (near the mouthpiece).

Famous saxophone players include the aforementioned Kenny G, John Coltrane, and Bill Clinton. Wearing sunglasses is often a prerequisite for playing the instrument.

Photo credit: Adil113

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sonic Seasoning

"I'll have a fish with a side of big band."

In The Guardian's Word of Mouth Blog, Amy Fleming writes "sound is the final frontier in food presentation."  According to research, sound affects the taste of food:  tastes are intensified or lessened based on sound.  Specifically, low-pitched sounds heighten bitter flavors and high-pitched sounds heighten sweet flavors.

The article provides a link to Condiment Junkie where you can try it out for yourself.  You can play bitter - or sweet-enhancing sounds and see if you notice a change in the way your food tastes.  Companies are betting it does - so much so that Ben & Jerry's is considering ice cream flavors with QR codes that "will allow eaters to access complementary sounds via their phones."

This raises important questions.  Could high pitch sounds replace sugar?  What food does big band music compliment?  And, most importantly, if BBE were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Meet the Trumpet

The Trumpet? Oh, it’s terrific!

A while back we met the trombone, and today we’re going to meet another member of the brass
family, the trumpet. The trumpet is the smallest member of this family. Because of this, you
might expect the trumpet to feel badly about itself, but don’t worry: The trumpet is also the
highest member of the brass family, so it has that going for it.

The trumpet also gains a bit of clout by having been around for a long time—at least since 1500
BC. To put things into perspective, the earliest remains of domesticated ferrets have been dated
to 1500 BC. Wikipedia seems to think that’s important, so you should too. 

The earliest trumpets were used as signaling devices for military and religious purposes—
not for music. Which is to say, Jeff Carver better stick with the musician thing as the military and
religious signaling industry isn't exactly flourishing. 

Today’s trumpets usually have three valves; however, valves weren't added to the trumpet until
the 1800s. When a valve is pressed down, it lengthens the tubing, which, as we learned from our
lesson on the trombone, lowers the pitch of the instrument.

Speaking of the trombone, we lied a little when we said the trombone is the only instrument with
a slide. There is such a thing as a slide trumpet that guessed it, a slide instead of or in
addition to, valves.

Some other fun facts about the trumpet:
1. Two trumpets were found in King Tut’s tomb.
2. Famous trumpet players include Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie.
3. There’s about 148 cm of tubing in a B-flat trumpet. That’s almost 5 feet.

Photo credit: oddsock

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Back in the old days, long before # became part of the Twittersphere, it was actually part of the musical world. If you saw the # symbol in front of a musical note, you would know to play the note a half step higher in pitch. Now that # has united music with “hashtags,” we wondered: If the songs on “What’ll I Do” had a hashtag, what would they be?

Spiderman #IHeardHeSpendsALotOfTimeSurfingTheWeb 

One for My Baby #WhatExactlyIsTheLegalDrinkingAgeInThisState?


Devil’s in the Jukebox #ThatMustBeWhyItsLevitating

What’ll I Do

Brother Lee

Hallelujah #MondaysHaveBeenCancelled

Can I Steal a Little Love #IAmPoorAndDesperate

Birth of the Blues #ItWasAMelancholyDelivery

Oklahoma Wind #IPreferTheTermSoonerStateBreeze

Go Light Your World

My Girl Tonight #HowDelightful

I Need You by my Side #IAmClingy

What hashtags would you hand out?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Beats By Dre Giveaway: Official Rules

Three Steps to Win The Beats By Dre Bluetooth Speaker
1. Subscribe

2. Watch 
Watch for two new video uploads per week. Complete step 1 and you will receive an e-mail each time we upload a new video.

3. Tweet 
Once you see that we've uploaded a new video, tweet it from YouTube within 24 hours. For each video you tweet, you will receive one entry in the Beats By Dre Bluetooth Speaker drawing!

How to tweet from YouTube:

That's it, good luck!

Shaun says, "Good luck...and may the tweets be ever in your favor."

Extra Details for the Curious People 
The Beats By Dre Giveaway will run four weeks: April 7 - May 4, 2014. 
All you need is one entry to win, so you can enter at any time during the four weeks. Remember though, you can enter as many times as you want! One winner will be announced on May 5, 2014 on BBE's Facebook and Twitter pages. 

Shaun Johnson BBE's YouTube channel will upload two videos per week. These videos will feature BBE's performances on PBS television. 
In addition to the two video uploads per week, three bonus videos will be uploaded at separate, unannounced times during the four weeks. If you tweet a bonus video within 24 hours of it's upload, you will receive three additional entries. 

Subscribing to the BBE YouTube channel will give you the best chance to submit as many entries as possible. Follow BBE on twitter and like the BBE Facebook page for hints as to when videos will be uploaded! 

Click here to watch the contest launch video that was posted on April 7! Please comment on this blog if you have any questions.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014


In Wilson Meredith’s Broadway hit, The Music Man, it took “76 trombones to lead the big parade.” Why did it take so many? Nobody knows. Except, probably, Wilson Meredith. It’s amazing that 76 trombones were required for this parade when you consider the Big Band Experience needs only one—played by Steve Pikal.

Brass instruments make up a large part of a big band’s sound. And today we’re going to meet one of those instruments. Have you guessed which one? That’s right: the slide trombone.

The trombone is the only instrument with a slide. This makes it the trombone’s key feature (and the reason why the trombone stands out at brass family reunions). The trombone player (trombonist, if you will) slides the slide to change the pitch. The longer the slide is extended, the lower the pitch.

The trombone is also the only wind instrument that, in theory, can achieve perfect pitch at all times. Why? The slide, of course! Because the slide is continuous, a trombonist can play an infinite number of pitches. This is different from other instruments where the musician can only press down certain keys or valves.

So the trombone slide is remarkable, but what else is cool about the trombone? The most common types of trombone are the tenor and bass trombone, although there are several different kinds, including the alto and the soprano. Okay, so that’s not so much “cool” as it is a “fact.” Back to cool things about the trombone:

- It contains approximately nine feet of tubing.
- The precursor to the trombone is called the sackbut, which, let’s face it, is just fun to say.
“Trombone” is the French word for paperclip (though maybe that’s a cool thing about paperclips and not trombones. Hard to say).

*Wondering about the title? Tommy Dorsey, the great bandleader and master trombonist of the Big Band era wrote “Trombonology” in 1947. Take a listen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

March On Up to the Microphone, Ladies

March is Women’s History Month. While you can probably rattle off several of the male players of the big band era, how many female vocalists can you name? If you’re not sure of any, a good stab in the dark would be “Helen.” Helen Forrest, Helen Humes, Helen O’Connell, and Helen Ward were among the top vocalists of the day, which means your name pretty much had to be Helen to make it big. Well that’s not quite true, your name could also have been Martha (Tilton), Ella (Fitzgerald), Kitty (Kallen), or…the list goes on. 

Read up on the three female vocalists (or “girl singers” as they were called) highlighted below who sang with the best the big band era had to offer, and keep in mind there were many more.

Ivie Anderson
Anderson joined Duke Ellington’s band in February 1931 and stayed until 1942. The night she joined Duke Ellington in 1931, the band broke all attendance records. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington calls her his good luck charm, and she was one of the best—if not the best—vocalists with the band. It is Ivie Anderson who recorded “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” with Ellington in 1932.

Helen Forrest
Forrest was nicknamed “the voice of the name bands.” Why? Because she was the female vocalist for three of the biggest big bands of the time—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. Forrest sang with Shaw’s band from 1938 until the band dismantled in November 1939. In December of that same year, she started working with Benny Goodman, making 55 studio recordings with him. She stayed with Goodman until 1941, when she joined Harry James, with whom she stayed until 1943. In 1942 and 1943, she was voted the best female vocalist in the United States in the Down Beat magazine’s poll. 

Billie Holiday
Early in her singing career, “Lady Day” worked as a big band singer. She started out with Count Bassie in 1937, recording hits like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” In early 1938 she left (err, actually was asked to leave) the band. No worries, though, she soon found a gig with Artie Shaw, a job that made her one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. After a little less than a year, Holiday left the band and was replaced by Helen Forrest (maybe there really is something to that “Helen” thing).