composer • educator

Celebrating the talents of Wilbur Hall (b. November 18, 1894 – d. June 30, 1983)

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.


I am so pleased to present this film footage of Wilbur Hall, vaudeville star and musician, most notably working with Paul Whiteman in the 1930s and later with Spike Jones on the Spike Jones Show. This clip, introduced to me by my dear friend, Trevor Bjorklund, is taken from the film King of Jazz in 1930. Here we see Mr. Hall playing a virtuosic version of Pop Goes the Weasel, in addition to other tidbits from the violin repertoire, all the while doing some ridiculous feats of extended techniques on violin, some fancy footwork in swim fins and eventually taking a solo on, of all things, a tire pump! I post Wilbur Hall today to celebrate his birth month, and because he was essential to my process in writing Caprice for violin, to be performed on my doctoral recital by Ellen McSweeney in March. I looked for a muse to help me capture the juxtaposition of all the virtuosic trappings of the Paganini caprices coupled with the types of pratfalls of Buster Keaton or perhaps more musically so, a blend of Paganini and Thelonious Monk. Once I found Wilbur (also known as Willie) I knew I had my man.

You can find the entire film, King of Jazz linked here on youtube. However, as much as I want to recommend it, and I do, please be warned that this is very much a film of its time, with all the appropriations, exoticism, and racism one will find in films of this era. It has some Warner Bros cartoons which exemplify that very thing, and vaudeville acts, too. Despite these 'of their time offenses,' so many of the numbers are wonderful. I cannot throw it all away. Instead, I watch consciously, as one would while reading Mark Twain, and both appreciate and shake my head at the acts in their historical context. My conscious confrontation of these kinds of historical appropriations is something I obsess about as I compose. What does it mean to be an American composer? When is my creative borrowing appropriate, and when am I outright stealing from another culture? And for that matter, what exactly IS my culture? I am always concerned about these issues, and I always, ALWAYS, give credit where credit is due. Paying homage is important, being grateful for my collaborators, both the living and the dead, and I will touch upon this in later posts.

I hope you enjoy Wilbur Hall and perhaps take a moment to also listen to my piece, Caprice, inspired by Wilbur Hall and performed by Ari Streisfeld in this live recording at New Music on the Point in Vermont in 2014. Also note that this wonderful photo of Renee and Wilbur Hall was taken from Mike Brubaker's blog post. This post has a great deal more information about Wilbur than other online sources I've found. Speaking of credit, if you are up for another diversion, Brubaker's blog is definitely worth a good long look! Enjoy!   –CO'B