Isabele Taliaferro Spiller

Biographical information:

Isabele Taliaferro Spiller (1888-1974), 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. She attended New England Conservatory in 1908-1909, earning a certificate in Public School Music. 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.  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.

This collection consists of 2 large scrapbooks in three ring binders.

Physical description: 

This collection consists of 2 large scrapbooks in three ring binders.


This collection was donated by Isabele T. Spiller to the NEC library in 1970.


Access to the Isabele Taliaferro Spiller Papers is granted by the Archivist. Appointments must be scheduled in advance. There are no restrictions pertaining to this collection.


All copyrights to this collection belong to the New England Conservatory. Permission to publish materials from this collection is granted by the Archivist. This collection should be cited as NECA 18.28. Isabele Taliaferro Spiller Papers, New England Conservatory Archives, Boston, MA.

Scope and Content:

This collection consists of two scrapbooks. The first scrapbook, spanning the years 1909-1945 (Bulk, 1909-1933) consists of narrative entries interspersed with related materials such as programs, flyers, photographs, correspondence etc. Isabele tells about her family background including her father, Dr. G. L. P. Taliaferro; her mother, Josephine Outlaw Taliaferro, and her sister Bessie Taliaferro. There is a section in which Spiller discusses her time at NEC. In this context, Spiller mentions Mr. Ralph Flanders, George Chadwick, Samuel Cole and Miss Snow. Other topics covered include: Brooklyn Colored Orphan School; Madam Hachley; her husband, William N. Spillers, The Musical Spillers (including their travels, contracts, other NEC members, Haidee York and Willie Lewis, etc); the Spillers School of Music and musicians who lived there (Will Marion Cook, Louis Douglas, Marion Douglas, Alston Burleigh, Mercer Cook); Columbus Hill Center (M. E. Wilson, director and Maurice Arnold, composer/conductor, and Thelonious Monk); a list of winners of the Music Education League contests; a list of published articles on Instrumental Music Education by Isabele Spiller; and Mrs. Roosevelt’s Camp TERA.  Subjects of photographs include: Willie Lewis, Laurence Hudson, Henry G. Walton, Percival France, William Bennet, Albert Davis, Donald Hage, John Rhone, Philip Hollister, Harold Rodgers, Bessie Taliaferro, Louise Holder and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Like the first scrapbook, the second, spanning the years 1942-1958, consists of narrative entries interspersed with related materials such as programs, flyers, photographs, correspondence etc. Topics include Spiller’s position as Air Warden, the Chairman of the Harlem Riverside branch(part of a Juilliard scholarship program); the Federal Music Project – the Drum and Bugle Corps. performance for Mayor LaGuardia; the 1939 World’s Fair; the Woodwind, Brass and Percussion Institute; a Toys in Instrumental Education course; the Shepherd’s Pipes; Christodora House; the Dolly Club; Bronx House; Piper’s Guild of America; World’s Fair,1940; Polish Orchestra; Wadleigh Senior High School; and Harlem Evening High School. Subjects of photographs include: YMCA First Drum and Bugle Corps. on the Federal Music Project; first orchestra of the Federal Music Project; Jonathan’s Rhythm Stars; Mayor LaGuardia with Yvonne Crosby; Woodwind, Brass and Percussion Institute staff; Roderick Hudson(son of Lawrence Hudson); Bronx House; Christodora House (Harry Hopkins, Head worker); the Dolly Club; Piper’s Guild of America (World’s Fair booth, 1940); Polish Orchestra; Wadleigh High School; Olivia E. Abbott Perkins; Gloria Bell; Barbara Cohn; Dorothy Peterson; Leigh Whipper; Mary Graham; Bessie Taliaferro; Noble Sissle; Shepherd’s Pipe demonstration and Henry Garrick, leader; Louise Holder; Leroy Dennis; Walter Schneider; Jeane Lippman; Mrs.Tynes; Evelyn Patterson; Harvey Knight; Harlem Evening High School Orchestra; Leonard Hylton; Music Spillers School graduation party,1958; and of course several photos of Isabele Taliaferro Spiller herself.