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Although today it is more commonly applied to the anti-tank weapon widely used during World War II, or to a product of Topps Chewing Gum, the name “bazooka” was originally given to a novelty wind instrument created by native Arkansan radio and film personality Bob Burns. Spanning the musical gap between a trombone and a slide whistle, the bazooka produces a narrow range of notes with a tone that is more comical than dulcet.
Burns developed the bazooka one evening, as early as 1905, during band practice at Hayman’s Plumbing Shop in Van Buren (Crawford County). Burns blew into a gas pipe that made a noise described as sounding like a “wounded moose.” Inspired by this, he developed a new instrument from two interconnecting pipes, a slide handle, a whiskey funnel, an inset trombone-like mouthpiece, and possibly other obscure internal parts. He called it a “bazooka,” a word he later copyrighted in 1920. The name was most likely formed from “bazoo,” a slang term meaning “a windy fellow.”
Like the trombone, the bazooka is played with variably tense buzzing lips blowing air into a mouthpiece and a slide moving to change the overall tube length. The slide is manipulated to produce vibrato and harmonic shifts.
Burns practiced his new instrument constantly, becoming good enough to play it in the Silver Cornet Band. During World War I, Burns became a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, going overseas with the Eleventh Regiment, U.S. Marines, American Expeditionary Force. Later, he became the leader of the U.S. Marine Corps jazz band in Europe and introduced the bazooka to the troops there, making it part of the band’s performances by 1918. As Bob “Bazooka” Burns, he began a long career in radio in 1931, playing his bazooka in between jokes and tales about fictitious hillbilly relatives back home in Arkansas.
During World War II, U.S. soldiers dubbed a commonly used portable rocket launcher a “bazooka” due to physical similarities the launcher had with the instrument. After World War II, Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., produced a popular patriotic bubblegum called “Bazooka” that the company claimed was named directly after Burns’s instrument—not the weapon.
Although the instrument has been taken up by few musicians, Burns has not been the only bazooka performer to date. Sanford Kendrick, a member of the western swing band Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets, was known for playing the instrument, as well as mid-twentieth-century New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz musician Noon Johnson, who played a bazooka he constructed from parts of an old brass bed.
Few of the original Burns bazookas remain today. This is mostly due to Burns’s comedic habit of destroying them on stage at the end of his performances as part of the entertainment. One remains on display at the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).
For additional information:“Bob ‘Bazooka’ Burns, the Arkansas Traveler, 1890–1956.” Van Buren, Arkansas. http://www.vanburen.org/bob_burns.php (accessed February 14, 2013).
Aaron MillerHarding University
Last Updated 7/25/2013
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