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As Long as They Can Blow: Interracial Jazz and Other Jive Before 1935

As Long as They Can Blow: Interracial Jazz and Other Jive Before 1935
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The mutual respect that black and white jazz musicians had for each other and their shared love of the music came together in the relative privacy of the recording studio and resulted in hundreds of early interracial jazz recordings.
—Stephen Provizer
The following is an excerpt from Stephen Provizer's As Long As They Can Blow. Interracial Jazz Recording And Other Jive Before 1935 (Self Published, 2023).

Preface Over the last 20 years, the trend has been to interpret jazz history through the lens of current critical thinking about race and gender—a necessary corrective to writing that elided or made short work of the racism and sexism prevalent in the history of American popular music. Because of racial and gender prejudice, a lot of music created and performed between 1890 and 1920 did not become a part of our recorded legacy.

However, the walls between vernacular musicians were more porous than the de facto and de jure walls of segregation. Love of ragtime, blues and jazz music provided a bond that transcended prevailing racial cultural mores. There is ample evidence-written, oral and recorded, of the amity and mutual respect that jazz musicians of all races and genders had for each other. Unable to play publicly on the same stage (with rare and complicated exceptions), musicians of different races met and interacted at after-hours jam sessions, rent parties and other unofficial spaces. Beginning in the 1920's, record companies realized the profits that lay untapped in this music. While just a small percentage of their releases, companies were booking more and more integrated recording sessions.

Should our perception of jazz history change when we learn that some proportion of the records that musicians of that era listened to were integrated sessions? I believe it should. These recordings were an important part of the normal listening repertory of both black and white musicians; generators of contemporaneous musical inspiration. Songs, instrumental techniques, and arrangements were passed back and forth, as each race became more familiar with the work of the other.

We take it for granted that black musicians were the source from which white musicians drew inspiration, but there's also ample testimony that some of the most well-known black jazz musicians credited white musicians with influencing their playing. To say that this detracts from the accomplishments of Armstrong, Bechet, Ellington, Henderson and so many others is ridiculous. Jazz is not a zero-sum game and acknowledging the contributions of Adrian Rollini, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Frankie Trumbauer and other white musicians simply opens us up to a wider field of vision.

Bear in mind that until the mid-1930's, there was almost no racial mixing in public performance venues. That has changed over time—slowly, but it has. It's important to know that there was a group of men and women who bonded around the music and reached out to the "other" to help tell their stories. The impact of the recordings may not have been as dramatic as that of, say, Armstrong's Hot Five recordings, but the musical threads were nonetheless woven into the fabric of jazz. Remove them and the evolution of the music would have been very different.

Prelude and Pathway

In the mid to late 19th century, scientists unlocked the secrets of chemistry and electromagnetism and created a new world of seemingly magical devices. Sound recording was one of them.

Three key figures arose to compete in the nascent recording industry: Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner, and Alexander Graham Bell. Edison created a system of sound recording and playback on cylinders in 1877 and founded the Edison Phonograph Company in 1888. In that same year, Berliner invented the system of the lateral cut flat disc record and the playback device for it called the Gramophone. Berliner established the American Gramophone Company in 1891, and the United States Gramophone Company in 1893, which became the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. In 1886, a group of businessmen established the American Graphophone Company, based on technology developed by Alexander Graham Bell and others at the Volta laboratory. In 1887, this became Columbia Records.

Sound recording, along with other new technologies-telegraphy, photography, x-rays, telephony, incandescent lighting and radio-had a global impact. But the dissemination and application of these inventions were subject to the pressures of the racist, eugenics-besotted, capitalist world in which they arose.

Claims of theft and patent battles were endemic and accelerated along with the potential financial rewards. Edison, Victor and Columbia held the recording patents and skirmished among themselves. In the 1910's, independent labels, like Emerson (founded by a former Chief Recording Engineer at Columbia Records), looked for small technical changes that could allow them to avoid copyright infringement. A court decision in 1921 was a game changer, as Victor's patents on flat records were defeated in court and immediately, many independent record companies began making records.

It's been estimated that about 800 commercial recordings were made by blacks prior to1920 i—a miniscule percentage of the 400,000 pre-1923 recordings that have been entered into the public domain. Almost none of these sessions were integrated and of those that were, it was because the record company used their own white staff musicians to back up black performers.

Uplift vs. Entertainment

It's somewhat mysterious that after the phenomenal success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, record companies remained fairly cautious about releasing jazz and blues recordings. One element at play was the question of finding a balance between "uplift" and "entertainment."

There was a burgeoning amount of bad press about jazz corrupting youth. Record companies knew that the substantial machinery used for playback would have pride of place in many living rooms and the question of respectability needed to be taken into consideration, as would a prevailing ethic of self-reliance. Many Americans would recoil at the idea that pianos—once the source of self-generated entertainment in the home—would be supplanted by machines that would now do the work.

The success of vernacular music in the early 1920's largely overwhelmed concerns about respectability. However, through the 1920's, at least, the legacy companies, Victor, Columbia and Edison were aware of their image, watching to see which way the wind was blowing and whether having their company associated with "jazz" would negatively affect their overall sales.vi

The Question of Race

The American recording industry was as segregated as the rest of the American entertainment industry. Black instrumentalists simply did not appear in symphonic ensembles, large concert bands (except James Reese Europe's) or as staff musicians for record companies. This is the reason that in so many pre-1920 cases, black musicians were accompanied on record by white musicians chosen by record companies. Burt Williams and Noble Sissle had many sessions with white backing groups. Minstrel and vaudeville performances and companies were somewhat more racially mixed. For example, black singer George W. Johnson performed with white tenor Billy Murray and Bert Williams with Leon Errol. Wilbur Sweatman is an interesting example.

Sweatman, born in 1882, was a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, able to play multiple clarinets at the same time. He started his career in circus bands and medicine shows and moved into minstrelsy and vaudeville. His talent was such that he organized his own band in 1902, made cylinder recordings as early as 1903 and became the leader of the orchestra at Chicago's Grand Theatre in 1908. Sweatman was one of the few black acts that performed in the white vaudeville circuit. He wrote a number of rags, including the popular Down Home Rag, recorded by many other bands as early as 1913. He finally recorded it himself for Emerson, a new indie record company in 1916. They did two recordings: My Hawaiian Sunshine and Down Home Rag. However, rather than use the musicians that Sweatman normally worked with in vaudeville, Emerson teamed him up with the "Emerson Symphony Orchestra" for the first and the "Emerson String Trio" for the second. It was probably less expensive to use the house band, but I conjecture that Emerson was hedging its bets, trying to find that elusive balance between uplift ("Symphony Orchestra" and "String Trio") and Sweatman's brand of popular ragtime/proto-jazz music. In the end, one might say that Sweatman and Emerson existed at the same time and place, but race set them worlds apart.

Black New Orleans cornet player Freddie Keppard was actually approached in 1915 by Victor, well before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, to make a record that we would now call jazz but he declined. Various explanations are used to explain why. Possibly he balked at being asked to make a test recording at no pay. It's also speculated that Keppard refused because he was afraid that others would 'steal his stuff.' Whether or not this is true, it's reasonable to think that black musicians and recording companies had no shared language to negotiate. If neither Keppard nor the record company thought they had much to gain, there was little motivation to come to terms. In hindsight, this turns out to have historical significance which at the time could not have been anticipated, as the ODJB is credited as the first jazz group on record.

Race Records

The words "jazz" and "blues" were not seen then as they are now. Anything with a peppy tempo, a less obvious musical structure, sounding more modern than Ragtime, might be called jazz. Blues was viewed as a music of interest only to the black community. Even though "Coon Shouters" like Sophie Tucker, May Irwin, and other white women had been recorded all through the 19-teens, record companies showed little interest in recording blues. It was considered a novelty that would only appeal to a niche market, without crossover appeal to a white audience. Also, companies were reluctant to be associated with music that had been denigrated as disreputable in both the white and black press.

Okeh did have an entire division of "foreign" records catering to ethnic urban markets in languages like Norwegian, Polish and Yiddish. Research conducted by record companies showed there was a demand building for music designed to sell to black communities. These began to be known as "race" records.

The initial sales approach of record companies was based on the idea that consumers had broad musical tastes and record catalogues put everything together. Market segmentation-Race Records-was a new approach. The term first appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, within an OKeh advertisement in 1922(most of these ads using racist minstrel imagery). What gave Race Records a boost was the smash hit by Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh in 1920. Perry Bradford was a black man who took advantage of this opening. The persistent Bradford (nicknamed "Mule") was a performer, songwriter, pianist and entrepreneur. He approached Fred Hager, recording director at Okeh records and said there were fourteen million Negroes who would be likely to buy records made by Negro musicians playing in their indigenous styles. If the records were good enough, many southern whites could be expected to buy them too. Perry Bradford convinced the label to take a chance on recording Smith.

On February 14, 1920, Mamie Smith made her recording debut on Bradford's "That Thing Called Love" and You "Can't Keep a Good Man Down," backed by the white studio musicians in Okeh's house band (c.f. Wilbur Sweatman). Next session was It's "Right Here For You" and "Harlem Blues," retitled Crazy Blues. This time, black musicians accompanied Smith. Crazy Blues was a runaway hit, selling 75,000 copies during its first two months of release. The stage was set for the recording industry to pay closer attention to newer styles of non-minstrel, non-coon, non-ragtime black music. Because a link had already been forged between black composers of those earlier styles of music (including Perry Bradford) and publishing companies, there was a pool of experienced songwriters available for race records.

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