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The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts > Vaudeville Nation

Ensembles and Jazz

Most vaudeville theaters provided a small ensemble of expert sight-readers usually a piano, percussion, and either a mandolin, guitar, banjo or ukulele. Larger theaters added a wind and/or brass section. The house band played for intervals and for performers, following their lead sheets and arrangements, and for silent films. Theater organs were featured in picture palaces and some of the larger vaudeville only houses built after World War I.

In the Prolog era, ensembles traveled with the units, and the bandleader often doubled as emcee. The largest picture palaces employed full orchestras to accompany films and performers. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Capitol Theater's orchestra, which was regularly featured on the live broadcasts of Major Bowes' radio shows.

Solo, duets and small ensembles of instrumentalists performed in vaudeville. They reflect changes in musical taste, from harpists in evening gowns to balalaika-players in costume. The growth in popularity for the banjo and ukulele can be traced to vaudeville. In the 1920s, the circuit managers included dance bands and jazz ensembles into bills. For most of the country, the ensembles were white, "college bands," such as Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, but the New York City and Chicago theaters put on such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake and arranger Ford Dabney. The Paramount Theater in New York featured a jazz band every week. The stage manager's notebook shows bandstand arrangements for each group, including the famous Dorsey engagements with Frank Sinatra that drove bobbysoxers into frenzy.




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