On the morning of their leaving Durham, Jonson and his companion were woken by the sound of waits and cornets. Whether it was the sweetest reveille or a cacophony of ill-played pipes, the account does not reveal, but the typical instruments of waits were shawms, also known as wait pipes, hautbois, and howboys, the ancestor of the oboe, as well as viols, curtals, and the cornetts [Many thanks for this information to Tom Hughes]
The morning alarm call was a ceremony that featured regularly in a town’s honouring of an important visitor, or indeed, a wealthy traveller might himself pay for the waits to waken him, and to advertise his presence.
‘Passing the gate, Wifflers [helped] make my way through the throng of the people, which pressed so mightily upon me: with great labour I got through that narrow press into the open market place. Where on the cross, ready prepared, stood the City Waits, which not a little refreshed my weariness with towling through so narrow a lane: such Waytes, few Cities in our Realm have the like, none better. Who besides their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning on the Viol, and Violin: their voices be admirable, every one of them able to serve in any Cathedral Church in Christendom for Choristers.” (William Kemp, Nine Daies Wonder, 1600)
Samuel Pepys wrote of his awakening at the Bear Inn at Cambridge on 15 October 1662: I ‘waked very early, and when it was time rose; and Music (with a Bandore for the Base) did give me a Levett, [a Reveille, or a Hunts-up] and so we got ready’
Jonson himself was to allude to these players in A Tale of a Tub in 1633:
Preamble to Hugh: You are my learned, and canonick neighbour: I would not have you stray; but the incorrigible Knot-headed beast, the Clowns, or Constables, Still let them graze; eat Salads; chew the Cud: All the town-musick will not move a log.
And an anonymous poem of 1680 described
The public waits who liveries do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn public meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’ Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
And weather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings, play them some fine Air
Or brisk new tune such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.
Town waits had originally been employed as watchmen in medieval times, but their function had evolved over the centuries to the town’s minstrels, paid and liveried by the borough council for official ceremonies. For instance in York in 1623, the council noted that
‘Edward Easton is commended to be A very skillful musician It is agreed by these present that he shall be one of the waits in this City And that Christopher Thompson and John Girdler waits their bonds shall be taken as sureties for him for the Chain & Scutcheon’
that is the badge of his office. In Durham’s case, in former times, the waits had been provided by the Bishop.
There is much more information on town waits on the International Guild of Town Pipers website; in particular on early music and historically informed performances in the music of Medieval and Renaissance Town Waits.
You can hear waits in action at the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, which is being held this year in Gloucester from September 6-8th.