Vibraphone - History


The first musical instrument called "vibraphone" was marketed by the Leedy Manufacturing Company in the United States in 1921. However, this instrument differed in significant details from the instrument now called the vibraphone. The Leedy vibraphone achieved a degree of popularity after it was used in the novelty recordings of "Aloha 'Oe" and "Gypsy Love Song" by vaudeville performer Louis Frank Chiha ("Signor Frisco").

This popularity led J. C. Deagan, Inc. in 1927 to ask its Chief Tuner, Henry Schluter, to develop a similar instrument. However, Schluter didn't just copy the Leedy design, he introduced several significant improvements: making the bars from aluminum instead of steel for a more "mellow" basic tone; adjustments to the dimensions and tuning of the bars to eliminate the dissonant harmonics in the Leedy design (further mellowing the tone); and the introduction of a damper bar controlled by a foot pedal, enabling it to be played with more expression. Schluter's design was more popular than the Leedy design, and has become the template for all instruments called vibraphone today.

However, when Deagan began marketing Schluter's instrument in 1928, they called it the vibraharp. The name derived from similar aluminum bars that were mounted vertically and operated from the "harp" stop on a theatre organ. Since Deagan trademarked the name, others were obliged to use the earlier "vibraphone" for their instruments incorporating the newer design. As its popularity grew, other manufacturers began producing instruments based on Schluter's design, marketed under a variety of names, including Leedy, who marketed their new instrument as the vibraphone and abandoned their old design.

The name confusion continues, even to the present, but over time vibraphone became significantly more popular than vibraharp. By 1974, the Directory of the D.C. Federation of Musicians listed 39 vibraphone players and 3 vibraharp players. As of 2008, the term vibraharp had disappeared except for anachronistic uses. Often, vibraphone is shortened to "vibes", and the two terms are used interchangeably.

The initial purpose of the vibraphone was to add to the large arsenal of percussion sounds used by vaudeville orchestras for novelty effects. This use was quickly overwhelmed in the 1930s by its development as a jazz instrument. As of 2008, it remained primarily, although not exclusively, a jazz instrument.

The use of the vibraphone in jazz was pioneered by Paul Barbarin, the drummer with Luis Russell's band. His playing can be heard on recordings by Henry "Red" Allen from July 1929 ("Biff'ly Blues" and "Feeling Drowsy"), and Barbarin played on the first recordings by Louis Armstrong to feature the instrument – "Rockin' Chair" (December 1929) and "Song of the Islands" (January 1930).

However, the popularity of the vibraphone as a jazz instrument can primarily be credited to one man, Lionel Hampton. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that "Hamp", a drummer at the time, was playing at the NBC Radio studios, where he discovered a vibraharp that was kept on hand to play the musical motif identifying the NBC network, the "NBC Chimes". After the gig, he spent a considerable amount of time exploring the instrument, and fell in love with it.

Later (October 16, 1930), Hampton was recording with Louis Armstrong & His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra, and the studio they were working in happened to have a Deagan model 145 vibraharp. Hampton showed Armstrong what he could do, and they decided to add vibes to one of the tunes they were scheduled to play, "Memories of You", creating the first well-known jazz recording using the vibes.

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