recess radio program

01/028/05
Let's Here it For the Kazoo
    by John Cech

You're hearing one of the most maligned of instruments -- the kazoo -- being featured in that excerpt from Jim Queskin's classic "Jug Band Music." When I asked around, I learned that the kazoo is just as low on the instrument approval scale as the accordian, even though it has a much older lineage and is certainly being played by more people today. In fact, for many of us, the kazoo is the first instrument we learn to carry a tune on when we're kids. Just humm "do, do, do" into a kazoo and you've got something going already. Which may be why January 28th has been designated National Kazoo Day in appreciation of this piece of metal or plastic tubing that can make even the most unmusical among us sound like we know what we're doing.

The Kazoo has its roots in Africa, where it was made from a cow's horn with a thin, vibrating membrane from the egg shells of spiders covering the hole. It was used to disguise the human voice in storytelling and rituals, serving very much the same function as masks in the theater. After appearances in some Eurpoean orchestras in the 17th and 18th centuries, where it was known as the mirliton, the kazoo travelled to this country where it got its present name and shape from an African-American inventor, Alabama Vest, in and around Macon, Georgia, in the 1840s. And in 1852, the instrument was all the buzz at the Georgia State Fair. It took another 50- plus years for the kazoo to leave the south and reach a national audience, but by 1923, the familiar metal kazoo we all know and have probably played, was finally patented by Michael McIntyre and Harry Richardson, who started The Original American Kazoo Company, which is still in business.

The big breakthrough for the kazoo was being featured by the jazz combo, the Mound City Blue Blowers from St. Louis, who made the first recording of the kazoo in 1923. Since then, there have been dozens of kazoo virtuosos, including Robert Pete Williams and Tampa Red in the Thirties, right up to the unknown kazooists on Eric Clapton's cover of "San Francisco Bay Blues." And now that there are even a kazoo concerto and quartet, it sounds like it's gonna be a brand new day.

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Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."