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Van Eps Quartet: Rose of Washington Square

April 5, 2010

Van Eps Quartet
Rose of Washington Square

Recorded in 1920

Fred Van Eps was one of the great banjo players of all time, a virtuoso who had an enormous influence on practically everyone who came after him. And that’s enough about him, because, even though this is nominally his quartet, Van Eps is pretty much inaudible in this recording. It might as well be a trio of saxophone, xylophone, and (distant) piano.

Xylophones and marimbas, and marimba-xylophones, were more popular in the years just after World War I than ever before or since. (A marimba is a species of xylophone that plays an octave lower than standard xylophones and has a mellower tone; a marimba-xylophone is an instrument with the pitch of a marimba but the tone of a xylophone. But the term “xylophone” was often loosely used for all three instruments.)

As an incorrigible marimba player myself, I can’t help wondering what caused the sudden burst of popularity and the equally sudden decline. The imperfectly omniscient Wikipedia is no help; the articles on “xylophone” and “marimba” are both awful messes. The evidence we’re left with is a whole pile of acoustical xylophone recordings from around 1920 by bands like the Yerkes Jazzarimba Orchestra, and then a deep silence. Most jazz players who still played xylophone or marimba switched to vibraphone in the 1930s, but that’s a very short list.

At any rate, here we have a sort of jazz chamber music that was quite common in 1920, though it’s completely forgotten today. The alto sax and xylophone take turns: one plays the melody and the other a countermelody, while the piano and presumably banjo stay in the background with an indistinct accompaniment. It’s hard to say how much is improvised; my guess is very little.  But it’s a pleasant performance of a good song, and a chance to hear a style of music you may well never have heard before.

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From → Hot Dance

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