Category Archives: History

The Tour de France, 2015

Stage 19 of 21, The Tour de France in the Alps. A downhill stretch prior to the last ascent to 5,000 feet above sea level.

Stage 19 of 21, The Tour de France in the Alps. A downhill stretch prior to the last ascent to 5,000 feet above sea level.


Landscape near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, south east France. End of Stage 19, The Tour de France, 2015.

Landscape near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, south east France. End of Stage 19, The Tour de France, 2015.

An Alpine scene near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France.

An Alpine scene near Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France.

Every year beginning in early July, the great three week long bicycle race, the Tour de France is televised and I watch. Of course I marvel at the physical condition and endurance of the cyclists. They pedal continuously for hours a day at speeds ranging from 10 mph whilst ascending inclines of 10%  or more, to speeds of 50 miles an hour and above  as they soar downhill or sprint to the finish line. The incredible explosions towards the finish by the sprinters is breathtaking. As a dyed in the wine couch potato I simply cannot fathom how these young men do what they do. However, the real attraction for me is the scenery. The two fellows who have been broadcasting this event for years, have info about the various scenes appearing during the race, usually shown from a helicopter. They’ll tell the age of a church or cathedral, how long it was a building, the history of a castle, plenty of those in this year’s Pyrenees Mountain stage, and they’ll point out Château to whose owners they’ve spoken and who just might be the 15th generation occupants.


This year’s race covered a 1,464 mile circuit through various parts of France. The villages are delightful to see. As well, wineries, Château, farms, mountains, castles, canyons and the fields in impressionist colours, provide unforgettable scenes from this endlessly fascinating country. This year, the tour spent one day in the westen Ardeche, immediately beyond the Rhone River and its Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards among others. Below is a Chateau with eight cylindrical towers, one of the national treasures of France.


Every year the race ends in Paris on the Champs-Élysées route. The riders ride now a total of 8 laps (up towards the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, round les Tuileries and the Louvre and across the Place de la Concorde back to the Champs-Élysées.) This is a rather slippery spoke as a great part of the route is on cobblestones. Usually the leader of the race  is protected by his teammates and they are buried in the midst of the peleton, the majority of racers whose job it is to support and protect their star mountain climbers, sprinters, time trial specialists and road racers.  A disaster can occur if any cyclist in the peleton loses his concentration for just a moment and crashes, particularly in front of the  leader, thus making the efforts of three weeks come to naught.  Around and around they go. And finally, if all goes as the teams planned, there is a winner, sometimes by just a minute or two.

To watch the tour live, you’ll need to have cable and rise very early in the morning. If that’s beyond the pale, there is an 8 PM summary. Monday’s are rest days.





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Universal Health Care from a Northern Perspective

“Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson introduced the Medical Care Act in 1966 that allowed each province to establish a universal health care plan. In 1984, the Canada Health Act was passed prohibiting user fees and extra billing by doctors. In 1999 the Social Union Framework Agreement committed Canada to health care that has “comprehensiveness, universality, portability, public administration and accessibility.” excerpted and edited from Wikipedia

In my travels I meet people from the United States who want to know my thoughts on Obama care. I usually avoid discussing the plan, pleading ignorance. But if I had a chance I would explain healthcare in Canada, at least from my perspective.

I arrived in Canada in 1967. Lately some substantial health issues have helped me test the care and cost under present conditions.

In the last 15 years I’ve had  two full hip replacements using stainless steel and titanium prosthetics from Germany. I also had a hernia operation. The hip replacements were done in the Orthopedic and Arthritic Hospital in midtown Toronto. There are 10 orthopedic surgeons on staff and the techniques and quality of care are second to none. Toronto Western Hospital has a new ophthalmological wing where I had a macular hole closed in my left eye and cataracts removed with high frequency ultrasound. The costs of all  these procedures were covered by Canada’s universal health care system and Canadian tax payers.

To combat my high blood pressure, my long-time family physician worked out what he called a very potent cocktail of drugs. I have no idea what the weekly cost of this cocktail would be in the United States, but I guess it would be too much for me to handle as a senior citizen. I pay one small fee a  year to the Canadian government, something just over $100, and a very small pharmacy fee for prescription refills. My drugs are effective and individual provinces negotiate best prices with drug manufactures from around the world.

I am always bewitched and bothered by Americans who fight against government programs designed to make their lives  more comfortable. Those objecting most strenuously are often the conomically poor and middle class, who could be bankrupted by long term care. By coercion, corruption and fear, pharmaceutical and insurance companies in collusion with their political minions, have convinced Americans of Obama Care’s anti-Americanism, even attaching and popularizing its derogatory name.

When Barack Obama ran for president of the United States, he espoused a single-payer health plan. What the American people ultimately got was an almost incomprehensible tome thousands of pages thick. Perhaps something simple and useful will eventually filter through this bureaucratic silt. I hope so.

When universal health care began to take hold in Canada, its population was 19 million. Today it’s 38 million, about 3 million fewer than the state of California. These facts beg the question, with a U.S. population of 319 million, why the problems with health care?

Keep well and have a good day.





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Armstrong and Bechet, a Precise Freedom.

My brother was an avid collector of early Dixieland Jazz recordings and I grew up with the sounds of great singers, the likes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Lizzy Miles and King Oliver’s band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and the Original Dixeland Jazz Band. [1.] With incomparable panache these artists wrote and recorded some of America’s most expressive  music. Today, much of this legacy is available in digital format, though pureists may insist on listening to the original 78s and LPs.

In the 1950s Armstrong (1901-71) assembled his All Stars. Recently, I revisited two of my favourite Armstrong recordings from those years, Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy  and Ambassador Satch. The players were the same on both albums and long time Armstrong collaborators.  The band was Barney Bigard, clarinet; Arvell Shaw, bass;  Billy Kyle, piano; Trummy Young, trombone; Armstrong, trumpet; Barrett Deems, drums; and Velma Middleton, vocals.  Edmond Hall, clarinet, replaced Bigard on Ambassador Satch. [2.]

Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy was recorded in a studio under the supervision of the composer William Christopher Handy(1873-1958). The tunes on Ambassador Satch were recorded live during a European tour, with Edmond Hall’s lush clarinet tones and incomparably mellifluous lines, Arvel Shaw’s rock solid bass, Kyle’s tasty piano rhythms and sweet solos, Trummy Young’s rip saw Gut Bucket trombone, and Deems, “the Fastest Drummer in the World” tasty back ups and roisterous solos.

These guys played with a joy European fans had been waiting for years to experience. They were not disappointed. Within Europe’s music community, Armstrong and his All Stars were post World War II’s most appreciated ambassadors.

Note: To access audio files, go to my web site

“Royal Garden Blues”, Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955. Columbia LP, CL840.

“Dardanella”, Edmond Hall, Clarinet on Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955.

“West End Blues”, Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955. Columbia LP, CL840.

In 1957, a high school teacher played me a recording of le Sacre du Printemps. Its fagotto castrato launched me into an adventure with Western Art Music that held my interest for Dixieland in abeyance for many years. I’ve since played le Sacre more than a few times and have about half a dozen LP and CD recordings by as many orchestras and conductors. During a conversation with Toru Takemitsu, I mentioned my love for early Dixieland. Toru replied, “Sidney Bechet”. Bechet (1897-1959) was familiar to me. Some years earlier I had purchased two recordings he’d made in France. [3.]  Unfortunately, their quality was very poor and I vowed to revisit his music.

Recently I purchased 115 Bechet recordings. As I made my way through this lode, I struck gold on almost every track. I was delighted by Bechet’s mastery of the soprano saxophone and his endlessly brilliant improvisations. There was one tune I had to include here. According to one aficionado, Shag is not only a prime example of Bechet’s art, it contains perhaps the greatest Jazz vocal, ever. That aside, this masterful example of Scat singing by Ernest Meyers offers an enlightening contrast to Louis Armstrong’s style. Shag was written by Bechet and this recording was made in New York City in 1932 with his band, New Orleans Feetwarmers. The Bechet Quintet performance of Summertime is ineffably beautiful.[4.]

“Shag”, Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers, Vic Dickenson, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano sax; Don Donaldson, piano;  Wilson Myers, Bass;  Wilbert Kirk , drums. New York, 1943.

“Summertime”, Sidney Bechet Quintet: Meade Lux Lewis, piano; Teddy Bunn, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid (Big Sid) Catlett, drums. New York, 1939.

“After You’ve Gone”, Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers, Vic Dickenson, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano sax; Don Donaldson, piano; Wilson Myers, bass; Wilbert Kirk, drums. New York, 1943.

I  wrote an article titled Music Appreciation 101. It’s a tribute to Janis Joplan and her album Pearl, one of the alltime great rock albums. Now, Armstrong and Bechet et al are providing me with further hours of pleasure. Their amazingly precise freedom gives me endless “What have I been missing” moments. After listening to a couple of cuts in this article, fellow drummer Rick Sacks said, “In this music you can hear all the voices.”  So true.  Next, I might check out Eddie Condon. Edmond Hall played with Condon as did drummers Cliff Leeman and George Wettling; trombonist Cutty Cutshall; and trumpet fireball Wild Bill Davidson, father of Toronto harpist Sarah Davidson.


[1.]  Ironically, an all white band and the first to make a commercial Dixieland recording.

The band recorded two sides for the Victor Talking Machine Company, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One Step”, on February 26, 1917, for the Victor label. These titles were released as the sides of a 78 record on March 7, the first issued jazz record. The band records, first marketed simply as a novelty, were a surprise hit, and gave many Americans their first taste of jazz. (from Wikipedia)

[2.] I recommend exploring the biographies of these great players. The band members dates: Barney Bigard, clarinet (1906-80); Emond Hall, clarinet (1901-67);  Arvell Shaw, bass (1923-2002); Billy Kyle, piano (1914-66); Trummy Young, trombone (1912-84); Louis Armstrong, trumpet (1901-71); Barrett (the world’s fastest drummer) Deems (1914-98); and Velma Middleton, vocalist (1917-61). Velma died in Sierra Leone of a stroke or heart attack while touring with Armstrong. She can be heard on Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy. Though some critics considered her voice average and suggested Armstrong replace her with someone better, Louis refused, stating “she was family”.  On this tour, the All Stars were official representatives of the U.S. government, hence the album title Ambassador Satch.

[3.] Bechet was a Creole. He was born in New Orleans and died in Garches, France, the country where he made more than half his recordings. Both his birth and death occured on May 14, reminding me of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who died on the same day, July 4, in the same year, 1826.

[4.] This reminds me of the late Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves on her CD Live at Blues Alley.


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Igor Stravinsky, a correspondence.

Scan 3


In the early days of May, 1958, as my first year in college was ending, I wrote Igor Stravinsky’s publishers  J. & W. Chester Ltd. to ask if I could arrange for percussion quartet, the three dances from Stravinsky’s L’ Histoire du Soldat. The letter I received in reply is copied below as well as further communications between myself, Stravinsky and his publishers.



May 9, 58. jpg

May 19, 1958.

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July 29, 58. jpg

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July 29, 59. jpg

And so, emboldened by the fearlessness of youth, I wrote Igor Stravinsky asking for his permission to transcribe the three dances from L’ Histoire du Soldat  for  a quartet of percussionists.  I had to deal with problems of my own making and a few copyright hurdles proffered by Stravinsky’s publishers. To my ears, their letters, written in quaint, but authoritative English, were at once humorous, revelatory and a bit intimidating. However, I continued writing my arrangements sure in the knowledge that one day I would receive the permission I sought. Voila, it came to be. I now have two dated Igor Stravinsky signatures. [1.]

Though I blush to inform you, Dear reader,  please note the absence of my signature on my letter to Mr. Stravinsky. Ooops!


[1.] I have received a few letters asking about this arrangement,which turned out to be only one, the Devil’s Dance. I did finish it, it was recorded by the Ithaca College percussion ensemble conducted by Warren Benson on Golden Pressed Records. I have three recordings dating from the late 1950s, but the surface noise makes it almost impossible to listen to them. I still have the score and I’m not sure about the parts. At any rate I’m not really interested in hearing a performance today.  The arrangement has some merit, but not enough I think to justify a modern audience or me.  I don’t even know if Golden crest records exists and if it does, if it would have a master of the album called Warren Benson Conducts.


Posted by on February 28, 2015 in Articles, Composers, History


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NEXUS WORLD TOUR – 1984 – A DIARY, Part 10. Government spies and an adieu to Kwang Chao.

May 15 – 8:05 AM

I have been thinking about styles of speaking – choice words – and my mind goes back to the speech at our first banquet in Beijing given by Charles LeBlanc. His reference to May 4 was quite interesting. The comment was directed to us in Nexus. To me, he was letting us know that politics is a sensitive issue to the Chinese and, more subtly, they had the capacity for reference – love – human qualities that deserve our attention and respect. By saying this to us in front of the Chinese he let them know he was giving us a command, a guide for our behavior. He was displaying his authority not only to us but the Chinese. The choice of example was historically distant enough to be safe. (The 1919 revolt will never be purged). But, more importantly it was a revolt by young people bringing new ideas to an old system. Even more, the student demonstration was more symbolic then climatic. It had the aura of martyrdom. A beginning.  A compliment to us, a possible definition of us for the Chinese. I sensed a moment of importance – a guide for ourselves and our hosts. His presentation was perfectly balanced. There was nothing in his manner which distracted from his message.

A very relaxed morning. It is good to listen to music and drink tea. The Minorities Orchestra plays of piece for drum solo an orchestra. Five Tom Tom’s – 2 Toms – small crash cymbals – suspended cymbal – two large Toms and cloud gongs. Terrific piece. The variety of instrument sounds is immense. We go to the Conservatory – good arrangements for xylophone, timpani,snare drum and piano of “Sabre Dance” and the entire “March to the Scaffold” from “Symphonie Fantastique” for piano, timpani and snare drum. Many performances of traditional music. The most impressive and expressive, is a young girl who plays Pipa – a great artist. A string quartet plays the same piece we have been playing on marimba and xylophone. I think they must have prepared it for us. The atmosphere at the Conservatory is somewhat strained – I think partly because of our host. The piano player who came to our second concert here. A very defensive fellow. Also, since our arrival in Shanghai we have been accompanied by three or four people on many of our excursions. Kwang Chao did not come this morning. Mrs. Chong seems as usual vaguely uncomfortable in her job. She probably wants to be someplace else – maybe with her husband. It throws a blanket on everything.

Guy says there is no Chinese word for Yes. My reasoning behind this interesting fact is that Yes is a commitment to the future. No is shorter lived. A popular salesman’s technique is to get the prospective buyer to say yes to an innocuous question and once that is established (the yes) it becomes increasingly difficult for a person to say no. The Chinese do have a word for no.

May 16
The banquet is at a restaurant in town – really good and different dishes. I am seated amongst various officials whose names I wrote down phonetically, but forty years layer, are no longer pertinent. Guy and John set on either side of Mrs. Ma. The usual speeches – dear friends from Canada – ( by now they must know we are all from the United States) – we learned so much – inspiring – your successful concerts – come back soon we hope – you do etc. etc. etc. At first, the speeches were interesting in their stiltedness. They become boring and are now embarrassingly obsequious.

We got drunk with Guy in the hotel bar. He informs us that Kwang Chao came to his room just as he was getting ready for bed and told him she wanted to come to Canada and she would marry someone from Nexus in order to facilitate the move. He explained that she could only apply for permission to study in Canada and then make the move. She answers Guy that there has been no trouble with her being on our floor and she is thankful that she has met us. She enjoyed traveling with us very much.

4:35 PM
Narita airport. Our departure from China was handled expeditiously and a two hour flight brings us to 55°F temperature and rain. My dreams of a long sushi bar lunch is put to rest with immigration hassles and check-in time. I’ll have to wait for our meal on the flight to Seoul or something at the hotel. I passed up the lunch on our China Airlines flight. At the end of our dinner in Shanghai we were served two soups. A piquant soup with a huge 4 inch crown of egg white with an edible flower on top and a warm fruit soup with egg white ducks with vegetable beaks and eyes floating on top. Mr. Li Ming Quang is warming up a bit  and relaxing. Guy later suggests he may have been hit hard during the Cultural Revolution. He probably had a large library of Western literature and music confiscated and have spent a few years shoveling shit in the country. He will participate in the Toronto International Festival concert on June 3. I want to go and hear him play.

I invite Mrs. Ma to a corn roast at our house and explain how we prepare our corn. She is delighted. Mr. Long, the choral conductor, and I have a real nice buzz going and warmly embrace as we are leaving the room. He is coming to Toronto in three weeks to visit his brother, mother and father whom he is not seen in 40 years!

Well, that part of the trip is over and out and without being mean or unappreciative, it was rather like any other gig. A chemical engineer from Copenhagen asked what I had learned about Chinese music. I told him that people all of the world play, some better than others, some enjoy it more and the sound of Chinese music is interesting, some not. He understood. What can one learn from another’s music unless you are a composer and can borrow certain modes or rhythms for your own music. As a performer, I am content that the Chinese have great players who are striving to express themselves just as we are.

Northwest Orient flight 9 to Seoul “Shawn lay Bah!”

PS – Unbidden, the Danish chemical engineer told me about the endless speeches at their banquets – “how much we have learned” – “friendship between Denmark and China”– the lack of spontaneity and creativity in what they say. I almost fell over laughing, while explaining our series of banquets and the same speeches.  All of them so safe and troublefree and meaningless. You would think that after two of those speeches their guests would get the message. Perhaps they don’t care (beyond sounding diplomatic).

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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Articles, History


NEXUS WORLD TOUR – 1984 – A DIARY, Part 9. Shanghai, Friendship and coincidence


Nexus World  1984, Part 9

Shanghai, May 14 – 7:45 AM

I tried to call Eleanor yesterday morning at 10 PM Toronto time but the line was busy. This morning is cool and I put on one of the cotton tops for the first time. I cleaned off a few of our cats’ hairs and on the shoulder is a long strand of Eleanor’s hair.

Last night in the bar we all drank a toast to Earle Birney (Canadian poet) and his 80th birthday. I thought of calling, but staying out until 2 AM after two concerts was impossible. Wailan (his wife) was giving him  a party from 2 o’clock to 5 o’clock that afternoon.

Joe Clark, Canadian Minister of External Affairs for the Mulroney government, is coming over on a peace mission. There will not be much for him to do. The Chinese policy on armament is summed up by them repeatedly  in one paragraph.  He will have a couple of meetings and spend  the rest of his time at the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tomb, the Forbidden City and perhaps, with the panda. At least Joe does not smoke cigars.

The laundry situation in China is fantastic. For a dollar you can get a pair of pants, some underwear and a couple of shirts cleaned in one day. Fresh clean and soft. Until recently, arts groups’ laundry was done free of charge but since the Chinese groups must pay for laundry in the West, the Chinese make us pay. What they fail to mention is that Chinese get a fee for performances when they come to Canada.

After our concert last night, three of the stage crew are measuring the ratchet and making notes as to its construction. They also check out my lions roar. We conclude that within a week of our leaving they will be production and within a month they will be for sale in North America at half the price.

We’ve had some conversations about return engagements to China. The definitive word today issued at the bar last night by the Nexus Central committee is that we will travel with five Winnebagos if the Chinese want us to visit the Western frontier. Our drivers can stay in the available hotels. Jean says that way they can have some company and time to themselves.

10:45 PM
A day spent shopping. The concert was very good. “Shanghai Fantasy” was extraordinary. After the concert, Kwang Chao asks how the “Shanghai Fantasy” was arranged. I explained that it was an improvisation and no one knew what was going to happen when we went out on stage. She said that the cooperation among the group was so good and asked how we achieve that. I replied “friendship”. She paused for a moment and said that was too abstract. Hate, love and envy were not abstract but friendship was. I asked her to explain to me why friendship was abstract. Mrs. Chong, our Shanghai translator was obviously interested in and disturbed by this conversation. She and Kwang Chao began an animated conversation in Chinese but could not answer the question. Mrs. Chong has been an object of our suspicions since we arrived here. There have been numerous occasions when we have felt she is concerned about Kwang Chao. She seems to represent a more formal and conservative opine about foreigners and pollution of the Chinese spirit.

Because of this I turned to her as we are leaving the theatre and say that the subject is very interesting. I hope that my seriousness and interest in her will help to defuse any confusion or animosity she may have for me and the group. In the bus, Kwang Chao pursues the issue. Bill says that he wants to sit in the seat behind us so that he can hear the conversation.

I sense that everyone is listening and choose my words carefully. “There are things that one knows that go beyond questioning”. Wisdom and knowledge supplant questioning. Kwang Chao asks how this is achieved. I answer, “Through experience”. Bill injects that we did not decide this relationship, it just happened. Kwang Chao says it is then coincidence. I explained that the English word coincidence implies chance and that chance was not involved.+  I tell her that she is still trying to define reality and reality just is. She then says in a somewhat humorous tone “Then I can say that your group experience is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I do not smile but say, looking her directly in the eye, “Yes, and perhaps the first of those Seven”. She holds my eyes but is the first to look away. Mrs. Chong remains silent.

We all go to our floor and meet in John’s room where we present Kwang Chao with some gifts of appreciation for the wonderful work she has done for us. We give her a round of heartfelt applause.

As we leave for dinner, Kwang Chao is questioned by the hall porters. They want to know what she is and why she is on our floor. Guy stops for a few moments to ascertain the general drift of the conversation and he joins us on the waiting elevator.

We go down to dinner and it is approximately 10 minutes before Kwang Chao appears and makes her way to the Chinese table. Guy explains that the hall porters are spies. I asked if he means that literally and he is quite firm in his affirmation. “Those people are not there to help us but to keep an eye on who comes and goes and report”. We wonder if Kwang Chao is in any trouble and Guy suggests that she is not. She has our gifts and was only in the room for a couple of minutes. Nevertheless, he arranges a meeting with her tomorrow is some neutral place where they can discuss the shipment of our instruments.

We turn our discussion to the concert and another incident which took place tonight. At one point someone dropped something or as Guy suggested “Bolted out of their seat” much to the amusement of the audience. I suggested the cause to be Peking Duck fart.

Bill came up with a long vocal farting sound ending on a duck quack – hilarious – and John suggested it would be towards the end of the European tour before Bill would tire of this new addition to his repertoire.

With a peculiar feeling of worldly invincibility and no small amount of self righteousness which comes from giving a good performance, I say good night to our hall porters when we reach our floor. They respond with a good night and Bob says “Yeah, good night spies”. By this time we are walking away from them and all of us are not doing a very good job of hiding our somewhat astounded chuckles.

As we left the hall, with the abstract friendship question silently hovering over us, the stagehands began to applaud us and continued the applause until we reached the back of the hall – some were waving to us we waved back. A very warm and moving experience.

During this morning’s set up one of the Chinese men looking at our instruments explains that he is an amateur musician and works at the number one music store. We began talking and he says he will bring me some bridges for my Chang and a small five note flute made of bamboo.

Before the concert we go back to our dressing room and he plays the flute for me accompanied by a friend who plays sho. A really incredible sound this flute. It requires a piccolo embouchure and I promise to practice. He also plays some of the hundred birds on Chinese oboe. He can rotary breathe and he is a marvelos player. First rate musicianship and really “cooking”. I am reluctant to play my bombard(e) (reed instrument) on the concert. A really great experience.

Our waitress from the hotel bar was in the audience tonight. Tomorrow morning the Minorities Orchestra – the Conservatory – afternoon off and then a farewell banquet by our Shanghai hosts.

+ Coincidence – a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection:

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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in History


Swiss and Basel Drumming.

 Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.3 Parchment · 472 ff. · 38 x 27.5–28 cm · Bern 1478-1483, Diebold Schilling, Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol. 3. Swiss Halberdiers and Pikemen approaching the Battle of Morat (Murten),1476. photo courtesy Markus Estermann, STPV. Click on photo to enlarge.

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.3
Parchment · 472 ff. · 38 x 27.5–28 cm · Bern 1478-1483,
Diebold Schilling, Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol. 3. Swiss Halberdiers and Pikemen approaching the Battle of Morat (Murten),1476. photo courtesy Markus Estermann, STPV.
Click on photo to enlarge.


Until recently I was unaware of the existence of more than one side drumming tradition in Switzerland. I had believed Dr. Fritz Berger to be the preerminent Swiss drummer who during the 1930’s consolidated disparate Swiss styles into one. The presence of his solo Rudimenter Good Luck (Basel-America Mixpickles), in the National Association of Rudimental Drummers book, America’s N.A.R.D. Drum Solos, a.k.a. The Green Book,  precipitated this belief. Later, the fame of Basel , Switzerland’s Fastnacht Festival and its drummers became well known to me and many other North American drummers.

Alfons Grieder of Basel, Switzerland was reputed to be Dr. Berger’s best student and disciple.  His early visits to North America and stunning performance with the American Basel ensemble Americlique during the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 2002, further enforced my belief that Alfons’ drumming was the drumming of Switzerland.  I may have subconsciously wanted its unsettling bar line hesitations to be a national trait, uniquely Swiss as Scots drumming to Scotland and our straight forward anglo style of military drumming to North America.

And then in July of 2014, an e-mail arrived from Mr. Markus Estermann of the Swiss Fife and Drum Association intended to convince me that Swiss and Basel drumming were different entities. Below I reprint a few pertinent correspondences between Mr. Estermann and myself, all edited for clarity and continuity. As well as providing a context for this article, they contain information that may well be of interest to the general public and drummers in particular.

Finally I enclose an e-mail sent to me by Mark Reilly after he read this article.

26 August, 2014

Hello Robin

I studied your homepage. Under the chapter “snare drum notation” you wrote about Swiss notation. It is the hieroglyphs are used only in a few Basel drum and fife groups. The Swiss notation has nothing to do with hieroglyphs. You got from me all known Swiss military music scores actually known.
Alphons (sic) Grieder is unknown in the Swiss drum and fife association. (Italics by R.E.)

I hope we stay in contact.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann

26 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Estermann,

Thank you for your e-mail and notation downloads. I believe you refer to my postings titled “Examples of Snare Drum Notation” from 1589 to 1869 arranged chronologically. The example is the early Swiss drum notation you mention in your mail.

1860 ca.- Swiss,with modern notation below.

1860 ca.- Swiss,with modern notation below.

This score appears in your downloads as well as the booklet I referenced for my article, a booklet accompanying the three CD collection titled Trommeln und Pfeifen in Basel.

This collection, as well as the LP recording 100 Joor VKB were presented to me by Alfons after his appearance in the 2002 Drummers Heritage Concert in Columbus, Ohio, USA.

I have not been able to find an article of mine that uses the word hieroglyphs in connection with Swiss drumming notation.

Kind regards,

Robin Engelman

Dear Mr. Engelman

Thank you very much for your e-mail.

Unfortunately Alfons Grieder is not known in Switzerland and he has no influence to the Swiss drumming.

He was talking in the USA about Basel drumming not Swiss drumming.
Basel drumming is an element of Swiss drumming. So he put a lot of mythos in his publication. Georg Duthaler was historian and he has a correct view of the matter.

Swiss drummers used more than 200 years music scores and not hieroglyphs. Dr. Fritz Berger adapted the Swiss drummers music scores to the Basel-/French style. All typical Basel rudiments came from France.

I hope to give you some input and we can stay in contact.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann

Comment: Alfons passed away in 2003 and I don’t know the publication to which Mr. Esstermann referred. Nevertheless, it was now clear that Swiss Drumming, in a nutshell, is an altogether different discipline from Basel Drumming and had been long before Dr. Berger’s work.

While preparing this article I contacted some of my North American drumming colleagues and found they too had assumed Basel drumming to be Switzerland’s only military style of Drumming.

27 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Estermann,

I am sorry to hear Alfons is unknown in Switzerland and among Swiss drummers. He was a gentleman of great dignity and an exceptionally gifted musician and performer.

Thank you for making the very important distinction between Basel and Swiss drumming, a distinction I was unaware of and misrepresented because of personal ignorance.

I appreciate you taking time to write me and I have begun searching my articles in order to correct any faults relating to this issue.

My sincere best wishes,

Robin Engelman

27 August, 2014
Dear Mr. Engelman

Thank you for your e-mail. I am sure that we have a lot to exchange.

Kind regards
Markus Estermann


Mark Reilly’s clear and informative response to this article is reprinted below with his permission and my sincere gratitude.

Hey Robin,

Thank you for the email. I hope you had a wonderful holiday and a fantastic New Year. It is an honor for me to read through this. Markus is a good friend. We met a few years ago and spent time together here in DC this summer. I will see him again next month in Basel for Fasnacht.
As for the article, I believe this to be a beautiful write up delineating the two divided but connected drumming worlds present in Switzerland. There was one spelling error (Nark instead of Mark). I am also not sure if you would like to include some of the realities of this event regarding the Swiss trip this summer. The STV, now called the STPV only brought 60 members over for their US tour. I am not sure what the entire reason was for the smaller numbers.

When it comes to the differences between the Basel style and the “Swiss” style there are many differences that may seem subtle to our “American” ears but to those immersed within these cultures the differences are not only found within the music but also their customs.

The Basel style certainly became extremely popular around the world when Dr. Berger connected with the NARD in the 1930s and even more so when Alfons came to the States. The Basel style as it stands today certainly contains several localized dialects that vary from clique to clique, similarly to that of the Ancient fife and drum corps in the Northeastern portion of the United States.

The Swiss style that Markus refers to is also new to me as well. The research that Markus has shared focuses on the other fife and drum traditions prevalent in cities like Zürich, and the Wallis (Swiss Alps region), and Geneva. The Wallis fife and drum tradition is a very old tradition and still uses 6 hole wooden fifes with rope tension drums unlike the piccolos used in Basel.

I am not sure how far you would like to dive into this topic. It is expansive due to the depth of the cultural divide between Basel and the “other” parts of Switzerland. To compare it to American sports… The Basel / Zürich rivalry is similar to New York / Boston. A great example of this is Ivan Kym who is a Swiss national champion that lives outside of Basel and has begun to really push the envelope when it comes to technical demand of Rudimental drumming in Switzerland. He blends Basel drumming techniques with a myriad of other influences to include snare drum ensemble pieces that include several layered parts, comparable to the feel of a percussion ensemble.

It is my opinion that the shear number of drummers in Basel and the size of the Basel Fasnacht is a large reason why most of us have only heard of Basel when it come(s) to Switzerland’s drumming history.

I hope that this helps… Please let me know if there is anything else I can help with.

Cheers and best regards

SFC J. Mark Reilly

Snare Drum Section Leader

3d U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard”
Fife & Drum Corps

Official Ceremonial Unit and
Escort to the President of the United States

Comment: Mr. Estermann kindly provided me with  a recent example of Swiss drumming: Click on link to view:



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