Tuesday, April 19, 2016

CLOWN BAND: Ringling Bros. Circus (1897)

    A Symphony in Q Flat

    Being an Attempt to Describe a Subject That Baffles Description.

    Josh Billings wrote more wisely than he knew when he paraphrased an old saying thus: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage, to rend a rock, or split a cabbage.” But “Josh” never heard the Ringling Brothers’ Clown Band, consequently must have taken his “cue” from some wandering son of “Sunny Italy,” whose inspired afflations emanated from the bellows of a barrel organ and breathed out upon defenseless Nature the soul-soothing melody of “Silver threads amongst the gold,” while concomitantly “de monk ” danced the variations.

Clown Band
The Clown Band
But the “Real Thing” really never happened until the year of grace, 1897, when Spader Johnson and his musical coadjutors established that now famous musical organization known as the “Clown Band.” When its organization was completed Euterpe smiled, for the sweet-faced muse knew that the divine art of music, over which she had presided so many centuries, was to rise to heights hitherto unattained, and that the soul of Spader and his symphonious swallows — or, in other words, Johnson and his jabbers of wind would scale the very peaks of the mountains of melody, and from the dizzy heights roll down upon a breathless and expectant world an avalanche of melody and engulf all mankind in an ocean of music. Did the glorious muse divine aright? Well, rather, and why not? Was not this collateral company composed of the very crem de la crem of the musical world? and had they not as director and cornet virtuoso that greatest of all living leaders, Spaderowski Johnsonicola, whom the vulgar once called Spader Johnson? Was the baton ever held in a hand that could so direct the impulses of his players and sway the multitude? When he waved his magic wand with the majesty of an emperor, were not the hearts of his musicians touched like when the winds of a tropical evening awaken into life the responsive chords of an aeolian?

But Johnsonicola was not only great as a director. He had but to breathe into the small end of his cornet, and lo, from the large end canaries seemed to flutter, filling the air with melody so sweet the thousands listened in mute wonder, for the sounds were such as had never been heard on this prosaic earth before, and a poet, who one day heard them, with beautiful sentiment, called them “unearthly.” But the great Johnsonicola could not only soothe his hearers with the sweetness of his playing; he could play so as to make their hearts as light and gay as a May morning, and then again he could touch the hidden depths of human passions and parade before the listener the more somber hues of melody. A man of deep feeling, he could display among the lighter tints the shadows of sadness and make the audience melancholy, so that many of them shed tears, and all agreed that it was very painful indeed. Such was Johnsonicola.

Those whose souls breathed through their various instruments at his supreme command were equally eminent in the musical world. Great among these great ones was Signer Spaghetti Natalie. A native of Greece, he learned as a child to worship art. Beneath that soft southern sky he listened to the native musicians, and on many a moonlit night drank in the melody of the boatmen’s songs that floated o’er the waters to his island home.

The musical nature thus fostered in the land of art was intensified by a residence in later years on Halstead street, Chicago. His instrument was the flageolet. Upon it he was never known to play a tune, but someone — I forget who — said he was h— on after-beats. An ardent worshiper of Nature, Signer Spaghetti Natalie found his greatest pleasure, musically, in reproducing her sounds. Patti could sing like a canary, Jenny Lind acquired the title of the Swedish Nightingale, but no one yet had learned to warble like the great American hog. But Natalie did it with the help of his yellow flageolet and thereby won the name of — but why bestow titles which the great musician’s inborn modesty would cause him to disclaim? Besides the memory of that euphonious squeek will always live with those who heard it. How can it be explained? Imagine a grand symphony played at twilight at the entrance of the stock yards and the porcine plaudits of the inmates blending with the music. Such were Natalie’s after-beats as they marched out in solid columns and vanished in the ozone, gone but not forgotten.

Signer Bickeloni was a fiery musician, if the term may be used. In fact, he was regarded as a warm member — of the band. He could make his cornet talk a language all its own. Signer Bickeloni played with that style and grace characteristic of great musicians. He never had to hunt through the whole scale for a tone, but took the most convenient of the register offered and made the most of it. He was always noted for going right after a tone and hitting it hard. If the tone “sassed back,” which was very seldom, he hit it again and sent it “bing-bang” until lost in the bale ring. His methods seemed to differ somewhat from Ole Bull’s. The latter rather coaxed his tones from his instrument. Bickeloni “never coaxed nothin’,” but, with uncompromising majesty and musical pre-eminence, went at a tone in a manner to make it wail. His methods were best adapted to the somewhat vigorous Wagnerian school. The glory of Bickeloni’s playing was in his trill. Who that ever heard that trill can forget it? It was most conspicuous in the andante passage of Watsonalli’s trombone solo, “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” in Q minor. The following bars exemplify the beautiful effect:

Watsonalli — Da rah de rah r-r-r rah da d’ deep,
Bickeloni — Un-tilly-lilly-lilly-tilly-lilly leap.
Watsonalli — De re ruh r-r-row de de duh week,
Bickeloni — Um-tilly-lilly-tilly-lilly tr-r-r-r-r-reap.

The beautiful blending of these two parts can only be imagined by the “way-up-uns” among musical critics. If you are not one of us don’t try; it’s too deep for you. Signer Watsonalli, the world-famous trombone soloist, to whose soul-stirring, omnium-moving genius Bickeloni’s obligate was played, is as original as he is effective. He could make the painful and tearful effects in music even more painful and more tearful than the author intended. In fact, he could depict misery to such perfection that the audience were always miserable during his “effort.” He had that masterful power of reaching out with his music and getting close to everyone within the big tent and compelling attention. No one could escape his magic power. His breath no sooner passed through his trombone than everyone knew it. It was a kind of knowing, too, that left no doubts. Whether the tones were split out in great sheets, stamped out in big chunks, or rolled out in rafts, there was always that positive quality about his music that removed all doubt as to his being all there and getting there too. He was, compared to all other trombone players, like a ripe pumpkin to “yaller” cucumbers.

Signor Lewis Sunlinasco is the name of the famous bass of all basses. Few are aware of the fact that when the Signor arrayed himself under the baton of Johnsonicola a dispute relative to certain technical points in music arose between the two. Sunlinasco believes in the motto, “ Be sure you’re right then go ahead.” He had struck a note on his tuba which he judged was right and refused to vary it, and “ on this line,” said he, “ I propose to fight it out if it takes all summer.” Johnsonicola was forced at last to acknowledge that Sunlinasco could get as great a variety of effects with that one tone as many another could on the whole register.

Signor Zammerti was another famous musician. His performances were remarkable for the great range of his playing. His range was unparalleled. It extended from pedal C to high E and from the bell of his tenor horn to almost anywhere within the confines of creation. Heiser used to listen for it in the stand ahead to know whether the show had started on time or not. The canvasmen claimed that it tore holes in the side wall of the big top as, like a bird uncaged, it burst from confinement and made its unfettered way over the prairies. So much for Zammerti and his range.

This account would be incomplete without a brief mention of the drummers of this wonderful band. Signor Tenori Drumanzi Jonezie was the great solo tenor drummer of the organization. He had, as few know, a most deliciously delicate touch in handling the ebony sticks. Of course no one would dare to criticise such a great artist, but if a suggestion were in order here, it might perhaps be said that his playing was just a shade too classical for the imperfect musical standard of most audiences. He avoided all pyrotechnical displays, which are the usual stock in trade of snare drummers, and confined himself to the music as it was “wrote.”

Signor Jimminie Westo Hitterhardo needs no mention here. His beating of the big bass drum is without a parallel in the history of this most tuneful instrument. He always struck out from the shoulder, and while he was on the strike all season he never once seemed displeased with his job. His crescendos were beautiful, his andantes perfection, and his diminuendos a revelation to musicians and a source of never-ending delight to all who heard him.

Signor Majorbatoni Turnouri, the marvelous manipulator of the drum major’s baton, added to the musically perfect organization a certain degree of finish and imposing grandeur that could not otherwise have been attained. He dropped his baton during the entire season only 12,047,963 times, a most remarkable record. Such was the Clown Band. Will its like ever be heard in this land again? The chances are it may, but hope whispers maybe “ nit.”

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