Image courtesy of shibainu's Flickr stream
The kazoo is an under-appreciated instrument. To remedy that fact, fans from across America have united to celebrate National Kazoo Day (today!), a day when the lowly humming instrument can finally receive the credit it deserves. Here are a few fascinating points in the history of the great musical equalizer.
The history of the kazoo is a bit convoluted, as the actual date of its creation is up for debate. African tribes had used similar vibrating, voice-altering instruments for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years before the instrument was introduced in America. But these animal-hide-covered instruments still don’t quite qualify as a kazoo.
The most popular origin story says that these African instruments served for the inspiration for the kazoo, which was introduced by an African-American named Alabama Vest in 1840. The original prototype was created for him by German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg. Vest then exhibited the kazoo at the 1852 Georgia State Fair, calling it the “Down-South Submarine.” At the fair, Emil Sorg spotted the kazoo and worked with Vest to put together a mass-production version that wasn’t released for another half a century.
The problem with this story is that there is no actual documentation associating either Vest or Sorg with the invention of the instrument. That doesn’t mean it’s not at least partially true, but if it is, it’s impossible to say which parts are fact or fiction. It certainly seems weird that something so simple would take over fifty years to get in mass production.
The first documented invention of the kazoo occurred when Warren Herbert Frost applied for a patent in 1883. But this version was not the simple boat-shaped creation we all know and love (that's it above). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1902 before this more classic version was patented by Mr. George D. Smith.
Within a few decades of Smith’s patent, a number of new factories were in operation, pumping out metal kazoos for the masses. One of those factories is even still in business today, creating the instruments (almost) the exact same way they did when the factory opened in 1916. Kazoo fans can even visit the factory, now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum.
The kazoo quickly became popular in America, dubbed the “most democratic” instrument in the world as just about anyone can pick one up and play it right away. A number of blues, jazz, vaudeville and bluegrass acts worked the instrument into their repertoire, and a kazoo can be heard on a record for the first time on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording of “Crazy Blues,” taped in 1921. While it's more low pitch than we're used to hearing the instrument played, you can hear the kazoo solo around the 2:00 mark.
The Mound City Blue Blowers were one of the most famous bands to incorporate kazoo into their music, achieving quite a few hits in the 1920s. Non-kazoo operating members of their band played a wax-paper-covered comb, a banjo, a suitcase played with whiskbrooms and a guitar.
The Mills Brothers, a vocal group who later went on to record over 2000 songs and release three gold records, even started out as a vaudeville act playing kazoo together. They might not have made it big with the kazoo, but they may not have made it anywhere if they didn’t start out playing the instrument together.
After a short time, though, the instrument lost its popularity among professional musicians, who recognized its serious limitations. A few decades after it achieved mainstream success, the instrument was largely restricted to amateurs and comedy acts.
Even so, it has still found its place in the fine arts community here and there. For example, Frank Loesser incorporated the instrument into the orchestra score for his 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The kazoo is played during a scene in an executive washroom, where it's supposed to sound like an electric razor that happens to shave in time to the music. If you don't want to watch the whole clip above, just skip to 3:39 to hear the kazoo.
A decade later, kazoos made their biggest mark thanks to David Bedford’s avant-garde piece With 100 Kazoos. In this 1971 performance, the audience members were provided kazoos, which allowed them to play along with the professional instrumental ensemble.
More famously, The Beatles use kazoos in their song “Lovely Rita” and Jimi Hendrix used the instrument in his song “Crosstown Traffic” to help accentuate the blown-out speaker sound he was looking for. Frank Zappa was also a fan, incorporating the sound whenever he wanted to add a comedic touch to his songs.
Barbara Stewart was one of the most famous kazooists of the last hundred years. She started out as a classically trained singer and then moved on to form a quartet called “Kazoophony.” Ms. Stewart may be the only person on earth to be considered a “kazoo virtuoso,” and appeared at such venues as the Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show. In fact, if you want to improve your kazooing, you might want to check out Stewart’s books, The Complete How to Kazoo and How to Kazoo.
Ms. Stewart passed away in September of last year, but before she died, she did make one last contribution to the art of kazoo playing. On March 14, 2011, she led the audience of Royal Albert Hall in a performance that broke the Guinness World Record for Largest Kazoo Ensemble, with an amazing 3,910 participants. It's not the most harmonious song you'll ever hear, but for having almost 4,000 musicians, it's still pretty impressive.
While the instrument may never get the recognition of the guitar, the tuba or the violin, the kazoo is still the only instrument just about anyone can learn right off the bat.
One final note, for those who just can’t get enough kazoo history, The Kazoo Museum in Beaufort, South Carolina is a great place to visit as it features one of the largest kazoo collections in the world, along with a variety of information on the instrument’s fascinating history.