For some reason I have no desire to know, January 28 has been designated National Kazoo Day.
While the kazoo may be associated with vaudeville and vaudeville music in the popular mind, when you try to nail it down, the subject proves surprisingly elusive. Then as now, I think, it was regarded as an amusing gimmick, an occasional flashy touch. But unlike some other faddish instruments, the ukulele for example, it’s not the sort of thing many musicians or performers took up seriously. If anything, the kazoo is too universally accessible — if anyone can play it, where is the prestige in mastering it? Any child who can hum can play it — it says so right on the box. And its aesthetic effect is somewhat limited. That said, who doesn’t love its zany, intoxicating sound?
Invented in the early 1880s upon ancient principles that had probably been experimented with since the time of the cavemen, and mass produced since 1916, the kazoo enjoyed a brief vogue during the first wave of jazz, classic blues and jug band music in the 1920s.
The Original Dixieland Jass Band includes one on “Crazy Blues” (1921).
Red McKenzie of the Mound City Blue Blowers was one of the few musicians to be professionally associated with it. The Memphis Jug Band employed its sound from the 1920s through the 1950s.
The Washboard Serenaders released a tune called “Kazoo Moan” in 1930.
As the ’30s rolled on, big band and swing became the popular sound, and the kazoo, associated with the rough and tumble of the early jazz years, would have been out of place with these more sophisticated sounds. But it was (and is) often revived to evoke those earlier years. It was just the kind of instrument Spike Jones and his City Slickers (1941-1965) would trot out on their humorous records. And many rock bands played with it during the experimental years of the sixties and afterwards. Examples of rock era songs that showcase kazoo prominently include Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (1967), the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “We’re Going to Bring it On Home” (1969), and Ringo Starr’s cover of “You’re Sixteen” (1973), with the kazoo solo being played by none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles used the instruments effect in a less obvious way on “Lovely Rita”(1967) as did Jimi Hendrix on “Crosstown Traffic” (1968) — just a couple of favorite examples.