Spiller, Isabele Taliferro, 1888-1974.

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William Spiller (1876-1945) was a vaudeville musician. Isabele Spiller (1888-1974), his wife, was a member of his vaudeville troupe, a teacher, and musical director.

From the description of William N. and Isabele T. Spiller papers, 1906-1958. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122626540

Born in Goodson, Virginia, May 4, 1876, William Newmeyer Spiller was the son of Dr. Richard Spiller, clergyman and educator, and Mary Still Spiller of Philadelphia, whose relatives had been active in the Underground Railroad.

William Spiller began his musical education in Hampton, Virginia at the Spiller Academy, a school founded by his father. He attended Hampton Institute and later studied under the noted organist, Dr. Melville Charlton, with whom he concentrated on theory, harmony, piano and instrumentation. Spiller is also known to have studied in Europe.

In 1899 Spiller joined William A. Mahara's Colored Minstrels, on of the largest white-owned and managed minstrel companies in the United States. Starting with the company as a singer, he later played tenor saxophone and alto horn with this group, which at the time was under the direction of William C. Handy. Handy noted in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, that Spiller's involvement with the tenor saxophone during his tenure with Mahara's Minstrels was a catalyst for the formation of the Musical Spillers vaudeville act.

In 1903, Spiller moved to Chicago where he concertized locally as a singer with Nathaniel Clark Smith. Smith organized Chicago's first black symphony orchestra with Spiller as one of the featured artists at its March 1903 debut.

While in Chicago Spiller organized a vaudeville act - the Musical Spillers - with two other musicians, later augmented to thirteen. His specialty was a trombone dance. In The Tom Fletcher Story; 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business!, published in 1954, Fletcher wrote, “Newmeyer Spiller [is] the only person I ever saw who did a dance while playing a slide trombone.” He also played the xylophone and other brass and woodwind instruments. A pioneer in the theatrical profession, Spiller performed throughout the world for more than forty years.

William Spiller married Isabele Taliaferro, who was a member of his troupe for many years. In 1926 they opened a music school in Harlem, specializing in band and orchestral instruments. Many former students of the Spiller School of Music ultimately organized their own bands. One of their more renowned pupils was jazz pianist, Hazel Scott.

After a five year illness, William Spiller died on September 3, 1944 in New York City. On April 1, 1945 the Negro Actors Guild of America held a special memorial service for him and several other musicians. The Guild passed a special resolution placing the papers of this founding member in its archives.

Isabele Taliaferro Spiller, also the daughter of a minister, was born on March 18, 1888 in Abington, Virginia. Isabele's early years were spent in Philadelphia, where she regularly attended concerts at Wanamaker's Department Store, the Academy of Music, St. Peter Claver's Church and Willow Grove Park. Her first music instruction was provided by her mother, Josephine Benjamin Outlaw Taliaferro. Isabele attended Philadelphia public schools, and later graduated from the New England Conservatory (1909) and the Juilliard School of Music. Isabele continued her musical training with Madam Azalia Hackley (voice) and Melville Charlton (theory).

In her youth Mrs. Spiller played the organ, piano and mandolin in the family orchestra. Accompanying her were her mother on guitar and two family friends on harp and violin. She also played piano at her father's church. In 1912 Isabele joined the Musical Spillers. Her primary instrument was the tenor saxophone, but she also doubled on alto and baritone saxophone, and occasionally trumpet and piano. Sid Hawkins of the Chicago Defender wrote, “Mrs. Spiller tickles a mean set of ivories and toots a mean moaning saxophone, too.” Additionally, Mrs. Spiller served as co-director of the group. Her sister, Bessie Taliaferro, also played with the Musical Spillers and was secretary of the group.

Although Mrs. Spiller no longer performed with the Musical Spillers after she and her husband established the Spiller School, she remained active in band work. She played with Della Sutton's All Girls' Band, and in 1935 the Monarch Symphonic Band had Isabele Spiller at the keyboard.

From the late 1920's until her death, Mrs. Spiller's major musical impact was as a teacher and musical director. Among her many positions, she served as Director of Music of the Young Women's Christian Association in Brooklyn from 1928 to 1930. She also organized and directed the music department of the Columbus Hill Center (later the Harlem Boy's Club) from 1929 to 1933, when the Depression forced it to close. While at the Columbus Hill Center she received a scholarship to Teachers College, Columbia University for a Boys' Clubs of America course. Mrs. Spiller was the only woman in the graduating class.

From 1934 to 1940 Isabele Spiller supervised the Woodwind, Brass and Percussion Institute of New York City's Federal Music Project (Work Projects Administration), and supervised the instrumental program at Bellevue Hospital. For the next twelve years she was orchestral supervisor of Wadleigh Senior High School, the only evening school orchestra in New York City. In addition to her various school and Federal Project instrumental groups, Mrs. Spiller directed the Women's Excelsior Temple Band. Finally, Mrs. Spiller was the author of many articles on the supervision of public school music.

The 1958 Fall issue of the Juilliard Review announced Isabele Spiller's retirement from public school orchestra work. She conducted her final concert for the Harlem Evening High School on June 26, 1958 at their commencement exercises.

Mrs. Spiller died on May 14, 1974 at her brownstone residence, which she shared with her sister Bessie, in New York City.

The Musical Spillers vaudeville troupe headlined in vaudeville all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa, and made a silent film with Alice Brady. The act was unique for its repertory using both jazz and classical works, and for the fact that it was one of the largest black acts in the early 1900s. In the act, William Spiller used a family of saxophones, trumpets, fluegel horns, trombones, clarinets, drums, and singers and dancers. Many musicians who later became successful had their first professional training and experience with the Musical Spillers act, including Cricket Smith, who was a fellow member of Mahara's Minstrels, Sam Patterson, Rex Stewart (solo trumpeter with Duke Ellington's Orchestra), Russell Smith, Noble Sissle, Willie Lewis, Walter (Jack) Bennett (who later played with Fletcher Henderson's band), Laurence Henderson, and Peek-a-Boo Jimmie. Rex Stewart and Willie Lewis went on to form their own bands.

On the distaff side, the following saxophonists played with the Musical Spillers: Alice Calloway, Mildred Creed, Helen Murphy, May Yorke, Mayday Yorke, and Leora Meoux Henderson (Mrs. Fletcher Henderson), who later went on to organize an all-women's combo called the Vampires.

The Musical Spillers are credited with the phrase, “You ain't heard nothing yet,” which they claimed Al Jolsen stole from their act after appearing on the same bill with them.

From the guide to the William N. and Isabele T. Spiller papers, 1906-1958, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf William N. and Isabele T. Spiller papers, 1906-1958 The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
creatorOf Spiller, Isabele Taliferro, 1888-1974. William N. and Isabele T. Spiller papers, 1906-1958. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Federal Music Project (N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Federal Music Project (N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Spiller School of Music (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Spiller, William, 1876-1945. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
United States
New York (State)--New York
Conservatories of music--New York (State)--New York
Music--Instruction and study
Music and state
African American entertainers--Europe
African American entertainers
African Americans--Music
Conservatories of music
Music and state--United States
Vaudeville--United States
African Americans--Songs and music
African American musicians
African American women teachers


Birth 1888

Death 1974

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