Sometime around 1969, I was wandering around Mac’s Music in downtown St. Cloud, either checking out books of solos for trumpet or piano sheet music (if it was before the autumn of that year, it was horn music I was looking for, as I hadn’t yet resumed playing piano), and I came across a bin of odd little plastic thingies. I picked one up, white with a red sort-of speaker, and took a closer look.
It was called a Hum-A-Zoo, and it was basically a kazoo in altered form. Intrigued, I spent fifteen cents or so and began a period of (most likely) annoying my friends, my family and our neighbors by humming random tunes into the toy as I went about my mid-teen days. (It wasn’t the only odd instrument I had cluttering the knick-knack bin on my bedroom table; I also had a couple of Jew’s harps, a nose flute and a box of what were called – if my memory serves me well today – Swiss bird whistles that I bought from a vending machine at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.) But the joy of the Hum-A-Zoo faded, as it does for most gimmicks and gewgaws, and it eventually sat ignored in the bin, its pristine white in time turning an ugly shade of yellow.
I’m not sure if the Hum-A-Zoo is still with me in one of the boxes of miscellany I’ve ported around through the years. If it is, I’m not sure the little membrane would still be flexible enough to produce the buzz that a good kazoo provides. No matter. Up until last autumn, I would have put long odds on needing either a Hum-A-Zoo or its ancestor, a kazoo, for any of my musical needs or impulses.
That was when I was working with my friends Heather and Lucille to put together our show, Cabaret De Lune. And we decided that my tune “Twenty-First Century Blues” needed an instrumental break on kazoos. I didn’t even bother to look for the Hum-A-Zoo but went kazoo hunting instead. I called a couple of music stores and came up empty, but my third call, to an establishment called Bridge of Harmony, was a success: The store had two kazoos. Either Heather or Lucille stopped by and bought them, and they were then used to good effect for that small portion of our show. And I assume that Heather and Lucille took their kazoos home for whatever use they had for them.
And I now have a kazoo, a blue and gold one – just like in the picture – from the Trophy Music Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
Earlier today, I was practicing with two of my fellow musicians from our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, preparing for the next few Sundays. This week’s program is a presentation by one of our members on Scott Joplin and his times. Earlier this week, that member asked Jane and Tom if they’d perform “I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life,” a tune recorded in 1913 for the Zoophone label by G.H. Elliot. (Was that the original? I’d guess so, but I’m not certain.)
So I listened this morning as Jane and Tom worked through the chords – he with his banjo and she with her guitar – and took a go at the melody. And when they finished a couple of run-throughs, I idly said, “You know what might be kind of fun in there? A kazoo.”
Tom jumped on the idea: “Oh, yeah, that would be great!” Jane nodded her head, and one of the two asked if I had a kazoo.
Well, I didn’t, but I knew where I could get one. So I joined them on the vocal and then faked a humming part as they ran through the chords for the chorus. And on the way home from practice, I stopped by Bridge of Harmony and picked up my Trophy Music kazoo. It cost a little more than four bucks, far more than my red and white Hum-A-Zoo cost me nearly fifty years ago. (Yeah, I could check the actual values with an inflation calculation, but never mind.)
I may never use the kazoo after tomorrow; the demand for a kazoo solo tends to be pretty rare, I’m sure. But that’s okay. Maybe twice in a lifetime is enough.
In any case, “I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life” is a fun song to do. It’s hard to make out the words in the 1913 recording, so here’s a modern version by British singer Ian Whitcomb. It’s from his 1972 album Under The Ragtime Moon (an album I must find), and it’s today’s Saturday Single.