By Angus Loten (Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2015)
BALTIMORE—Side-by-side on folding chairs, Rick and Sonia Samuel pursed their lips and blew. With his face turning red, Mr. Samuel managed to produce a low-frequency buzzing. His wife’s mouth emitted noises several octaves higher.
“Sometimes people think that if they just blow, they’re going to produce music,” their instructor, Victoria Vox, explained to the group of about 20 people, gathered in a turn-of-the-century townhouse.
The Samuels, both in their 40s, were here to learn basic “mouth trumpet”—a vocal technique using the lips to imitate the sound of a trumpet, but without a trumpet. “It takes practice to get the tone and pitch,” said Ms. Vox, a professional singer-songwriter who led the group in a mouth-trumpet version of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” “You have to sing, and you have to know what note to hit, too.”
Ms. Vox, who also plays ukulele and piano, is among a group of performers who are leading an unlikely revival of the mouth trumpet—also known as “vocal” or “lip” trumpet—even as they seek respect as serious musicians.
The 36-year-old, whose given name was Victoria Davitt, has held similar workshops across the country while touring to promote her eighth album, “Key,” which was nominated in March for an Independent Music Award. She wrote or co-wrote all of the songs in the album, many of which feature a real trumpet that Ms. Vox mimics onstage.
“It is singing and it is my voice,” she says. “It’s not just a joke.”
Certainly, mouth trumpet has a rich heritage in popular music, much of it linked to the ukulele craze of the 1920s. Some of the earliest known mouth-trumpet recordings were by Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, whose signature high-pitched vocal solos are a cross between a muted trumpet and the kind of improvised scat singing popularized by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Mouth-trumpet solos figure prominently in his biggest hits, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” which topped the U.S. pop charts for three weeks in 1929.
Another early mouth trumpeter was Harry Mills, the second youngest of the four Piqua, Ohio, Mills Brothers, who is said to have lost his kazoo at a talent show and played mouth trumpet on stage instead. By 1930, the Mills Brothers were stars on CBS radio, appearing regularly on the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour with singer Rudy Vallee. Performers as varied as Dean Martin and the Bee Gees have cited Harry Mills as a musical influence.
But as the Jazz Age faded in the Depression, mouth trumpet lost its appeal in mainstream music; it could still be heard in folk, blues and other traditional songs.
Its current revival comes amid a broader rediscovery of early jazz, and the renewed popularity of the ukulele in recent years, says Vince Giordano, whose New York jazz band The Nighthawks recorded the Grammy-winning soundtrack for the 1920s-era HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” He says good mouth trumpet, like good scat singing, is something of a lost art: “Not everyone can do it. You’ve got to be musical and have good pitch,” he says.
“There’s nothing worse than bad scatting, except maybe bad mouth trumpet,” says Bria Skonberg, co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival, and a 2014 winner for Best Trumpet and Best Female Vocalist by Hot House Jazz Magazine. “Mouth trumpet may sound like a trumpet, but it’s really more like playing a kazoo,” Ms. Skonberg says, adding that she’s glad performers are learning to do it well again.
Continue reading “Mouth Trumpet Lets You Toot Your Own Horn” at www.wsj.com.
Victoria Vox Official Site (www.victoriavox.com)
Victoria Vox performs Europe’s “Final Countdown” on Jay Leno (sorry for poor quality!)