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Tooting a Horn for Fifty Years

B. A. (BENJAMIN ALBERT)  ROLFE, known to all his friends as “B. A.,” has played for years to millions of people, “over the air.” He is distinctly a self-made musician, in every sense of the word. Literally brought up from childhood in a circus band, his progress to Broadway, and his large variety of enterprises, make this one of the most colorful articles The Etude has ever presented. “B. A.” was born in Brasher Falls, St. Lawrence County, New York, and— but we had better let him tell his own “Horatio Alger” story.—Editor’s Note.
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The “First Person” Musician

“Of course you know the old saw about the man who bragged that he was a self-made man, and how his neighbors all said that it must be true, as no one else could have made such a bad job of it. I have been bumping through life for over fifty years, and I have come to the conclusion that the only men worth while (particularly in music) are self-made men; and that includes Wagner and Elgar, as well as dozens of fine folks who did not let the lack of opportunities bother them very much. If colleges and conservatories could make superlatively fine musicians in every case, there wouldn’t be room enough for them in life. Even if the student has had the advantage of the top notch instruction in the toniest schools with the so-called best teachers to be had, it just will not get him anywhere, unless he starts out to make himself according to his own individual pattern, in his own way, with his own hands, mind, heart and soul, count upon it, that he will turn out as a dud.

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“We have been hearing a lot of fun poked at the rugged individualist and his possible extinction. Take it from me, there is little room at the top in art for anything but the rugged individualist. Unless you are that, you are just a cog, and in music you are doomed to play second fiddle all your days. One of the things that appeals to me in modern ‘stream lined’ jazz, from the earliest Paul Whiteman period to this day, is that the players are not expected to spend their days tooting out umpahs on a horn or sawing out la la’s on a fiddle, but each fellow is expected to be himself and to play with individuality. My, what a difference there is between the ‘now’ and ‘then’ in music. Now thousands and thousands of students in public school bands and orchestras have study advantages that were almost unknown in conservatories when I was a lad; and these kids just take this as a matter of course. They have no idea of the value of the gems that are literally hung around their necks. And how is this all going to work out? I have an idea that the things we have to work our heads off to get mean a whole lot more to us. If every boy and girl could be made to see that it is only the ‘plus’ work that they do that matters, the situation would not affect them. But, if they accept what is laid before them without putting in their utmost efforts, they cannot expect to get very far in any endeavor.

And so “Excelsior!”

“NOW WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN? It means that the general average of musical ability among young people has rocketed up enormously. This, in turn, means that for every capable youngster of forty years ago, there now are probably a thousand. This feeling is but natural to me, because I was considered a prodigy at six years of age. Thus the median line of ability is vastly higher than it was forty years ago. But if all the students stay on the median line, we will have thousands who will be mediocre and nothing more. The successful student must rise above the level of all of his fellows, if he expects to amount to anything.

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“Both my father, who played the violin and the cornet, and my mother, who played the clarinet, were amateur musicians. Father was foreman in the saw mill of the Chippewa Lumber and Boon Company, at Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. There he organized Rolfe’s Independent Band. Remember, entertainment in those days was limited, and the town band was as important to the community as the soldiers’ monument and the iron deer on the lawn in front of the City Hall. There must have been a thousand such bands in America, in towns of five hundred to ten thousand people. They were often dignified with the name of “The Silver Cornet Band”; the word silver seeming to have connoted sweetness of tone, although the material out of which an instrument is made has little bearing upon the tone quality. The highly polished horns looked luxuriant, however; and, when the Silver Cornet Band marched down Main Street, the town was thrilled to a new sense of civic prosperity and importance comparable only to that when the Fire Company turned out. Many of the town’s leading lights took a great pride in belonging to the band. One such instance was President Warren G. Harding, who was always thrilled by his musical beginnings in the Marion (Ohio) Silver Cornet Band. The bands were usually supported by the members and by private contributions.

“It was about this period that a very unusual enterprise swept the country and that was roller skating. Every town of ten thousand or so suddenly found itself in possession of a humpbacked building which looked like a huge Saratoga trunk. The interior was bare, save for the polished floors and a mammoth cylindrical stove in each of the four corners.

“In the center of the building, hanging from the ceiling, was the bandstand. In order to get to it one had to climb a ladder, which was drawn up after him. The band played waltzes, which seemed to lend themselves to skating; and no one will ever know how much this regular support to players may have then contributed to the development of bands in the United States. The craze was just as widespread as the “jitterbug” madness of to-day. There was no mechanical music in those days, and, with the rumble of the skates, a band was the ideal music. It seemed as though the whole country was on wheels, and the rink proprietors discovered one important thing. Music was absolutely necessary. If there was no music, people would not skate. They liked the rhythm, and thousands forgot their inhibitions as they rolled around the rink to the tunes of Strauss and Waldteufel.

And Then to the West

“During this craze my family moved to the West, and one of my first recollections in life is that of having a piccolo placed in my little hands and being told by my parents how to play it. This, to a six year old boy, was a great thrill; and before I realized it I was actually playing in the band. The next summer I was put in possession of an alto trombone, which delighted me still more. Readers of The Etude will certainly find a picture of this band interesting. The uniform consisted of ordinary clothes, plus a ‘plug’ hat. That was all that was necessary. The plug hat gave a touch of municipal dignity and social éclat to the group. The plug hat on a bandsman gave him much the same distinction that it conferred upon a cannibal king. The one outstanding uniform, however, was the drum major, who may be seen at the extreme left of the picture. No Balkan potentate was ever more resplendent. In the picture you will also discover a very small boy with a horn, and I was that boy. The band was my life. It had among its members many interesting characters, particularly Chick Phillips, who played the circular alto (Helicon) horn. In the first place, he had to put on the horn like a kind of sash, which was always a fascinating operation; and then Chick had one gift which distinguished him among artists. He could wiggle his ears up and down in time with the music. Sometimes I got so interested in him that I could hardly look at the music.

An Insatiable Paterfamilias

“Father, having tasted the joys of art, and having the trouper’s arrogant outlook upon trade and work in general, decided to devote himself to music. He was a character that could have been created only by his age. Like Micawber, he was an unrelenting optimist. Hard luck and failure were merely the overtures to great triumphs which were at all times awaiting us, and might come at any time. In appearance he resembled W. C. Fields (minus the vermillion proboscis), but with Field’s (sic) long cloak and inevitable top hat worn at a rakish angle. He wanted to be conspicuous, because he knew that in those days the public looked upon show people with a kind of awe and mystery which are a part of the showman’s stock in trade. Therefore he took a pride in his bombastic self-assurance and his charlatanlike flair. It meant business for us.

“After playing in the band for three years, father returned to our home in New York, where he joined a traveling wagon show (Lewis and Wardrobe). It was a very poor affair, with a few acrobats, a clown and some monkeys, performing bears, ponies and dogs. We aimed for the head waters of the Ottawa, in the French speaking section in far northern Canada. The band was as much of a sensation as the circus. Our trip was through a wild country and one very intriguing to a growing boy. The season finally closed, the circus broke up and, as usual, we were likewise broke. But nothing daunted father; and we were merely released from an in-appreciative and unremunerative public to go on to greater heights.

“Our next expedition was with a Concert Company, so-called. It was really a kind of traveling vaudeville show, with a comedian whose daughter was the ingenue. Her mother played straight parts. My father played the violin and the cornet, and my mother the melodeon and the clarinet. As a ‘boy wonder,’ I played the cornet. These, together with a string bass, a trapeze performer, and an Indian club swinger, made up our company. But it was ‘art music and drama’; and father was happy. Forty dollars at the box office was tops, and really very fine for eight people in those days. When we landed in town and made our way to the ‘op’ry’ house, we were objects of great curiosity to the town folks, who looked upon us as a people from the outside world, much as we would regard a man from Mars. Father reveled in this and made the most of its publicity value.

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The Picturesque Circus Period

“In 1888, when I was ten, father signed as bandmaster of the John H. Sparke’s Show. We were coming up in the world. The first year we ‘Tommed’ it. That is, we played ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ under canvas. The next year we became real circus folks. The show wintered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and started out with eight full sized railroad cars. Count ‘em! Those were the days! Many a ‘Hey, rube’ fight have I witnessed from a vantage point underneath a band wagon seat. In a mining town, for instance, the miners would come down with lamps in their hats and announce that they had no idea of paying for seats. Someone would cry, ‘Hey, rube,’ and thereupon the circus performers automatically tied handkerchiefs on their left arms, for identification purposes, and started battle. They laid hold of tent stakes which, from much hammering, were mushroomed on top and made deadly weapons. Father seemed to rejoice in these fights and earned many a black eye. The circus folk were organized, trained and armed warriors; and the townsmen had little chance with such a crew.

“What the circus did for me was to furnish a chance to play an instrument four hours every day of the week; and somehow I got the idea that, by playing very well at every performance, I would go ahead. My ambition was to become another famous cornet soloist, like Jules Levy, Pat Gilmore or Arbuckle. I heard the great Levy once, and I learned his much played polka, Leviathan, which in its day was a famous ‘war horse’ for cornetists.

“The foregoing is a fair sample of most of my life up to my twentieth year. The shows were on the road in the summer, and this permitted me to get a schooling in the winter. We played with Indian Wild West melodramas and other artistic organizations. Back at home again, I ‘picked up’ the organ and soon found myself conducting a Catholic choir. I was not afraid to tackle anything, and there was no one to stop me. My great ambition, however, was to become another John Philip Sousa, a real bandmaster. In order to progress, I felt that my next objective should be Broadway, the heaven of all show interests. I was conscious of my own shortcomings and realized that, at the age of twenty-one, everyone thought that I knew more than I actually did. Furthermore, it was clear that I needed more study and experience.

“It took four years to make my way to the Great White Way. In this time I was a band conductor and then a theater conductor ‘on my own,’ and in such callings I just had to learn things. For a time I was at the head of the wind instrument department of Louis Lombard’s famous conservatory in Utica, New York; and there it was discovered that one of the best ways to learn a thing is to teach it. Finally I went to New York and formed a partnership with Jesse L. Laskey. Our idea was to improve the musical acts in vaudeville, then at its height, by making these acts musically better, dressing them in smart costumes and securing handsome and efficient young women and young men to play in them. The scheme made an immense hit. We had as many as six acts a season continuously booked. The acts would bring from eight hundred to fifteen hundred dollars a week, and the profits were excellent.

And Other Worlds We Conquer

“In 1913 I BEGAN TO LOOK AROUND for different fields and decided to go into the production of motion pictures with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. We produced one hundred and ten features, five to seven reels in length. In 1918 I became an independent producer, under the name of B. A. Rolfe and Columbia Pictures Corporation. After producing thirty-six pictures the venture failed, and in 1920 I found myself broke. That is, all but my cornet and my ability to play it. Always, when on the rocks, I have gone back to my cornet. There was little trouble in getting engagements; but soon it was realized that a great change had come over popular music. This was largely due to the genius of Paul Whiteman, who gathered around him a group of players of astonishing ability; and also to the talent of composers and arrangers
of great skill, such as Ferde Grofé, and George Gershwin. Whiteman’s style ‘caught on’ immediately, and he had many followers. Here was a kind of music I did not know, and which must be learned. Consequently a job was accepted in the band of Vincent Lopez, at the Hotel Pennsylvania of New York City. By 1927 I had my own band and secured a fine engagement at the Palais d’Or in New York. This was a great advantage, because the café had a radio wire seven times a week, and we played to millions. Commercial broadcasting was just coming into vogue, and we were engaged for the ‘Lucky Strike’ hour. This obliged me to create a fine, strong organization. There were fifty-five men in the band, but that was only part of the group.

The public has a very scant appreciation of the amount of labor, in the way of preparation and rehearsals, required for radio hours. We played several times a week and, in order to secure enough of the right kind of music, it was necessary to have twenty-three arrangers and copyists. We played on an average of sixty-seven numbers a week—many entirely new and very ‘tricky.’ In order to get material, I had to ransack the files for fine old tunes of other days and to dress them up in new clothes. The tremendous value of advertising in connection with the promotion of sales, may be demonstrated by the fact that the dividends of the cigarettes sponsoring our program rose from twenty-six million dollars in 1928, to sixty-four million dollars in 1931, and much of this was due to radio advertising.

“Modern musical tendencies in popular music are, in a large measure, due to the change in the general attitude toward dancing; and this in turn is due to youth, insatiable youth, in its fling for vivacious and hilarious expression. The old traditional dances have been discarded, temporarily at least. The beautiful waltz, in its proper form, is almost as archaic as the minuet. Our present day dances are not founded upon tradition but upon unrestrained bodily expression, let the chips fall where they may. Hence, the ‘jitterbug.’ The uncontrolled rush and urge of the age has kidnapped youth; and the musical result is like a cork popping out of a bottle. I am not railing against it, as it would do little good if I did. I am merely chronicling the situation, as everyone with sense must see it.

“The main ideas of the modern radio band are orchestral tone color and rhythm, with always rhythm predominating. For this reason the composition of the band has changed very materially. The instruments I now employ for a representative group are two oboes, four clarinets, a bass clarinet, two horns, two flutes, two bassoons, two pianos, two string basses, two banjos (for marking rhythm), four trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, six saxophones, and percussions. Such a band is not designed to play the classics. It is a dominating, effective and direct group, designed to command and hold attention every second. It must present a great variety of tone color, and must be exceptionally flexible at all times. The modern radio band is by no means a fixed organization. It will keep changing until the public determines just what it wants, if that point ever arrives.”

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Plans for a Sousa Memorial Monument in Washington, D. C., are under way• This picture shows, left to right and seated, B. A. Rolfe, Mrs. John Philip Sousa, and Arthur Pryor; standing, Priscilla and Helen, daughters of Commander and Mrs. Sousa; as they discuss the Memorial.

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