Jazz Oracle: Portal to Antiquity

Nathan Holaway By

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"Life would be no better than candlelight tinsel and daylight rubbish if our spirits were not touched by what has been."—George Eliot

The world will never be able to hear exactly how Beethoven or Bach played their instruments, but it can hear how artists such as clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman and clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Fud Livingston played and improvised on their horns: at least for now. A recent study on sound (mandated by the US Congress in a 2000 preservation law), conducted by Rob Bamberger, said that many of American radio's first broadcasts, as well as sports broadcasts, have been lost or can't be accessed by the public. The study calls for legal reforms to enable more preservation. History in sound is important and one company which is actively fighting the good fight, and making comprehensive collections available for all-but-forgotten artists, is Jazz Oracle.

Jazz Oracle goes well beyond reproducing CDs of jazz artists who are already established in history. In fact, one glance at their catalog may have you asking yourself who most of these artists are. In a sense, consider Jazz Oracle the Indiana Jones or Ben Gates of the jazz world (and yes, the label is after a National Treasure). Jazz Oracle is committed to every aspect of early jazz recordings, and so you get much more than a disc of an artist with a couple of nice black and white photos: the liner notes to the discs are handled with such care and research that the listener gets more than a mere bio on the artist. Instead, the full perspective is offered of the artist's upbringing, influences, sidemen and recording conditions, along with quotes from friends, family and the musicians he or she influenced.

While the details in Jazz Oracle liner notes surpass most jazz history books, the auditory parts of their projects take no back seat. Each record is transferred and remastered with care and with the best sound quality in mind. It should also be said that this high standard was, in large part, set by John R. T. Davies and the deep attention he gave to his work. The music will speak for itself, so below are some descriptions of a few highlights from the label.

Wilbur Sweatman

Wilbur Sweatman

Wilbur Sweatman was a clarinetist who most people have never heard of, yet if it wasn't for him, Duke Ellington may have never made it to New York or learned of the importance of stage presence. He gave Ellington and Sonny Greer their starts in 1923. Sweatman came from the vaudeville era, when musicians' entertaining skills were as paramount as their musicality. He was mainly known for his ability to play three clarinets at once. But besides being the Rahsaan Roland Kirk of his day, Sweatman is usually overlooked by jazz historians because he generally played "gas-pipe" clarinet. Gas-pipe is a term used for the various effects musicians of the day used on their clarinet (laughing, crying, slap-tonguing, etc). For the time, it's really the equivalent to an electric guitarist using a multi-effects pedal (can you imagine music historians totally discrediting Tom Morello for his effects on the guitar 100 years from now?).

Sweatman broke a lot of barriers in that he was the first African-American to become nationally known through his vaudeville acts, records and work in syncopated musical groups alongside white musicians. He was also the first African-American to work on vaudeville in dress clothes while never having to appear in blackface.

Sweatman's clarinet style was deeply rooted in the 19th century style and he had as much influence over his generation as Johnny Dodds or Benny Goodman did theirs. His musical career started in 1895, and by the turn of the century he was playing with one of the top minstrel shows led by W.C. Handy. Sweatman was called in to record "Boogie Rag" on February 28th, 1917 in the same studio that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had used to record the very first jazz records.

There are lots of other stories, such as Sweatman living in Scott Joplin's wife, Lottie's, boarding house along with Perry Bradford and Jelly Roll Morton arguing nightly about the origins of jazz music. Or the fact that Sweatman's final recordings are still incognito.


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