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American Music Month 2016

Klaxons, Screamers and Rolling Thunder: The Unconventional Henry Fillmore
November 1 – December 3, 2016
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, School of Music, University Library, and Sousa Archives and Center for American Music
University of Illinois
Urbana, Illinois
Events Calendar

James Henry Fillmore (1881-1956) was an unconventional trombonist, composer, bandmaster, teacher and publisher who loved circus music, American football, fast cars, and Mike, his music-loving dog. He shared his father’s first name, but he preferred to be called Henry, and his frequent childhood exploits often challenged his loving parents’ patience. Henry grew up as a creative and energetic boy living in the bustling river city of Cincinnati as the only son of a deeply religious family. His parents dreamed that he might eventually become a minister or at the very least a composer of church music. Henry’s father and uncle owned and operated the Fillmore Brothers Company, which was one of the country’s leading publishers of church music and hymnals during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The hustle of Cincinnati’s river wharfs and his intrigue with the circuses that passed through town often distracted him from the drudgeries of school work, piano lessons, and the weekly trips to church. The young Henry was a practical joker whose restless energy frequently sought out new excitement at the good-natured expense of his friends, family, and the occasional minister who came for dinner. While he showed little interest in learning the piano, he had a very good ear and taught himself to play the guitar, flute and violin. However, the instrument that fascinated him the most was the trombone, which often played the lead role in circus bands, but his father felt instruments of the brass family were not something respectable musicians should play. Needless to say, Henry’s mother recognized the trombone’s potential to keep him out of mischief and she bought a second-hand instrument that he quickly taught himself to play. When his father discovered Henry’s new talents as a trombonist he eventually agreed to arrange “proper” music lessons for him so that he could accompany Sunday school singing while at church.

Henry’s formal music lessons on the trombone were short-lived, but he continued to fine-tune his playing with regular practice and many informal performances given to anyone who agreed to listen to him. However, his sense of humor and adventure as a teenager continued to embarrass his family, and after one very difficult circumstance he ran away from home to join John Robinson’s 10 Big Shows Circus as a laborer. During his three-week tenure with Robinson he acquired an insider’s understanding of the not-so-glamorous life of circus laborers and performers, and his one opportunity to play trombone in the circus band showed him that he needed much more music experience. After returning to his parents, homesick from this youthful exploit, Henry’s father agreed to send him to the Miami Military Institute to complete his college education, which began in 1898. This educational experience became the turning point for Henry because the school provided him a strict military regime to focus his studies, and plenty of opportunities to practice his trombone, compose music, and play football.

After graduating from junior college Henry was given a position in his father’s music company, which didn’t seem to provide him with the types of composition and management opportunities that he thought he was best suited for. His short tenure as a student of the College of Music of Cincinnati in 1902 also confirmed that a classical music career was not for him. By 1905 he had only published ten original music compositions through his father’s Fillmore Brothers Company. However, his skills as a trombonist had improved significantly and earned him many more paid professional performance opportunities.

In the summer of 1904 Henry fell in love with the beautiful blue-eyed Mabel May Jones, an exotic “hoochie-coochie” dancer who performed in a vaudeville act that was part of the St. Louis World Exposition that Henry visited often during the Fillmore family’s vacation. The love affair eventually became quite serious and he married Mabel on April 10, 1905 much to his parents’ disdain. Unwilling to submit to his family’s distaste for his new bride, Henry and Mabel joined the Lemon Brothers Circus in Argentine, Kansas on April 29, with Henry responsible for playing the trombone and calliope in the circus band and Mabel as the caretaker of the four children of Anna and Teresa Cook who were the circus’ equestrian riders. They remained with the circus until September when the Lemon brothers’ operation was closed down because of illegal gambling.

After returning to Cincinnati, Henry rejoined his father’s company and became more involved with its operations, which included the addition of a new music instrument store and the company’s publication of new music for wind bands. Henry’s primary interest at this time was the publication of new pieces that he had written, and performing them with various bands throughout Cincinnati. Mabel spent her time making their spare living accommodations as welcoming as possible and ingratiating herself with Henry’s family. As Henry’s reputation as a band leader, trombonist, and composer continued to grow over the next thirty years, his love of the music, colorful spectacles, and ringmaster attention of the circus were continually reflected in many of his new compositions for brass band and trombone. Above all else his sense of humor and desire to make people laugh through exceptional musical performance were always on display whenever he conducted the Shrine Temple Band for circus performances and concerts between 1921 and 1926, and his own Fillmore Band for WLW radio broadcasts between 1927 and 1932 which featured his four-legged friend, Mike, the “radio hound.”

To commemorate Henry Fillmore’s contributions to America’s band movement and trombone repertoire, this November’s programming will include a half-time football game field show highlighting the Marching Illini’s trombone section, a lecture on the music and performance legacy of Henry Fillmore, a special performance demonstration of early trombone and low brass instrument designs, a trombone masterclass by Doug Yeo, and three new exhibits: Stage Center Slides! Stories of Sousa’s Spectacular Trombonists, From Nickeline to Electric Oil: Early Marketing and Design Revelations for America’s Trombone, and Fillmore the Man Behind the Name. In addition, the Sousa Archives will again be sponsoring the children’s programming for the 2016 Folk and Roots Festival.

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
School of Music
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music
Yamaha Artist Services

Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music
University Bands
University of Illinois Library

We invite you to join our musical exploration of the life, music, and humor of America’s Henry Fillmore and the early developments of trombone technology and performance techniques through new concerts, lectures, and exhibitions for the coming year..