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The Black Swan: A History of Race Records

Karl Ackermann By

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"Race"

Race Music and Race Records—as designations—have a nebulous history. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003) takes the view these labels were, at a point in history, associated with constructive images. The book's author, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., is a Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, and a pianist and composer. He writes, ..."the word [race] at one time represented a kind of positive self- identification among Americans. The black press routinely used 'the Race,' for example, as a generic term for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, calling oneself or being referred to as a race man or race woman became a way to display pride in being an African American..." It would have been illogical for the white-owned labels, hoping to capitalize on black musicians and consumers, to promote their products with a phrase that those consumers found offensive. But as a source of pride, "race" lost its appeal. Ramsey cites Paul Oliver's Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions On Race Records (Cambridge University Press, 1984), explaining that by the end of World War II, Race Records had been replaced by "Rhythm and Blues" as a category, but with little difference in the styles of music.

The Black Swan

Harry Pace was an overachiever. An African American, the Georgia native earned a degree from Atlanta University at nineteen and was valedictorian of his class. A successful insurance, and banking executive, he received a second degree in 1903 and went into the printing business with the sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP. Two years later the pair published The Moon Illustrated Weekly, the first illustrated weekly magazine produced by, and for, African Americans. The magazine focused on African American issues and events in Africa and the Caribbean Islands. From late 1905 through the summer on 1906, The Moon Illustrated Weekly published thirty-four issues but the magazine was under-funded and under-staffed and closed after just one year.

Pace's acuity for the written word was easily converted to his newfound interest as a lyricist. Living in Memphis, Tennessee in 1912, he met W. C. Handy and the two became friends. After collaborating on some compositions, they formed the Pace and Handy Music Company and relocated to Times Square in 1918. Capitalizing on Pace's business savvy and Handy's musical acumen, the company's launch was a highly successful one. Within months they had developed a catalog that included "Beale Street Blues," "The St. Louis Blues" and other popular pieces. In 1920, Pace and Handy contracted composers William Grant Still (known as the "Dean of African- American Composers") and Fletcher Henderson. As the company grew, the principals were no longer aligned on business practices and Pace resigned. Renamed as The Handy Brothers Music Company, the reconstituted company is now the oldest family-run business in the U.S.

In his brief time working with Handy, Pace was upset by the practice of recording companies purchasing music written by black artists, and allowing only white artists to record the pieces. He was also inspired by African American bandleader James Reese Europe, who advocated for blacks to establish their own identities in music, and control their business interests. Remaining in New York, Pace formed the Pace Phonographic Corporation in 1921. It was a common practice for phonograph companies to have their own record label and cross-pollinate the home entertainment market. Pace established the Black Swan label concurrent with his phonograph business. Named for singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called "the Black Swan," it was the first major record company owned and operated by an African American. Black Swan was not a Race Record label; that distinction was reserved for the companies who segregated their product based on the color of the target market. Pace did not burn the bridge to Handy, naming him to the board of directors. Black Swan promptly signed Ethel Waters to a recording contract and her associations with Louis Armstrong and jazz trumpeter Joe Smith brought immediate recognition to the fledgling label. In 1922, Pace purchased a pressing plant, increased production, and reduced consumer prices through those volumes of product. He exploited his Handy connections, hiring Henderson as recording director and piano accompanist and Still as an arranger.

Pace aspired to provide the black audience with a broad mix of sophisticated styles and genres, including concert songs, sacred music, and vaudeville tunes, providing the artists themselves were black. Despite modest initial success Black Swan quickly realized that jazz and blues sales would be their only viable source of revenue. Within the first eighteen months of business, Pace signed Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, and Don Redman, the uncle of saxophonist Dewey Redman, and great-uncle of saxophonist Joshua Redman. Dozens of blues artists were brought on board including Lovie Austin, Charlie Dixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roosevelt Sykes.

Pace and Black Swan faced two insurmountable obstacles. White-owned record labels who had ignored the African American market noted Pace's success. Though some had recorded black artists, they now saw greater market demand. With larger advertising budgets, they signed blacked artists and promoted them in publications across color lines. Black Swan suffered a crisis in reputation as well. While promoting the label as one that employed and recorded only African Americans, it came to light that it was not always the case; the company had occasionally hired white musicians to support its headliners and had subcontracted Paramount Records' Midwest production facility to press discs when they couldn't keep up with demand. Black Swan filed for bankruptcy in December 1923, and the company was acquired by Paramount Records in early 1924, phasing out the label's brand a few months later. A limited series of jazz and blues reissues were released under a resuscitated Black Swan banner in the 1990s.

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