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Friday, November 18, 2022

JAZZ 101:1001 ~ An American History

Ask any number of authorities, and you will surely be told that "Livery Stable Blues" was the first jazz music put on record. That was in 1917, by a group of White musicians who called themselves the Original Dixieland Jass Band (soon to be the Original Dixieland Jazz Band). However, others will point out that Wilbur Sweatman, a successful African-American composer and musician, made a few jazz recordings several months earlier, near the end of 1916. Is this controversial?

You can hear two of Sweatman's 1916 recordings ("My Hawaiian Sunshine" and "Down Home Blues") as well as the Dixieland's 1917 recording of "Livery Stable Blues" near the top of my Spotify playlist, "JAZZ 101:1001 ~ An American History (1913/14, 1916-2022)."  That playlist is a newly created history of recorded American jazz. It contains 1,001 songs, ordered chronologically by year, and covering every year from 1916 to 2022. The whole thing is 101 hours long, and not a minute more. (Scroll down for the embedded playlist.)

Sweatman's 1916 recordings are loose and improvisational, and I think they are jazz. It would be unreasonable to insist otherwise. True, they don't share the traditional Dixieland band composition. On the contrary, they reflect an evolution of jazz beyond the New Orleans sound that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was after. In fact, Sweatman was recording in New York City, not anywhere near New Orleans. Sweatman had played music throughout the South, but by the time he put jazz to record in 1916, it had grown beyond its turn-of-the-century origins in New Orleans. It had begun to spread and evolve throughout the nation.

You will notice that Sweatman's songs aren't first on my playlist. Neither is the Dixieland band, of course. Instead, I chose to start with two songs by James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, recorded in New York City in 2013/14. The first one is a performance of Sweatman's "Down Home Blues." The second, "The Castles in Europe" (also known as "Castle House Rag") is an original Jim Europe composition. The name Castle comes from the famous husband-and-wife dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, who (with Europe's Society Orchestra) stylized and popularised the foxtrot.

In these two early recordings from Europe's Society Orchestra, we can hear African-American musicians combining ragtime with other influences and stretching the music beyond its breaking point. This music speaks of a whirling, ecstatic desire to create a new, swinging form of African-American music that draws on a range of traditions, including ragtime, blues, folk and more, and which embraces the spirit of spontaneity. That sounds a whole lot like jazz to me. These early recordings might not be jazz proper, but they seem to be celebrating jazz, or something very much near it, and in a way never before seen.

Unfortunately, we don't have recordings of the most innovative New Orleans jazz musicians prior to the 1920s. People like Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't produce any records until the 1920s. Despite the lack of recordings, I think we can safely say that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was not representative of the state of jazz in 1917. In fact, in 1917, Sidney Bechet and other New Orleans jazz originators were already performing in Chicago. 

You can hear Bechet's first recording, "Wild Cat Blues" (recorded in 1923 with Clarence Williams' Blue Five), on my playlist, too. Only the first 14 songs on my playlist are devoted to pre-1920s jazz. The decade with the most songs is actually the 1960s. You can see the breakdown by decade below.

Year

# of tracks

Specific tracks

1913-1919

14

1-14

1920s

60

15-74

1930s

59

75-133

1940s

80

134-213

1950s

160

214-373

1960s

264

374-637

1970s

139

638-776

1980s

46

777-822

1990s

41

823-863

2000s

59

864-922

2010s

62

923-984

2020-2022

17

985-1001


Here are some other stats that might be of interest:

Most Frequent Artist (leader)

Duke Ellington: 27

John Coltrane: 26

Miles Davis: 25

Herbie Hancock: 18

Charles Mingus: 12

Most Frequent Song

Summertime: 10

Softly As In A Morning Sunrise: 8

St. Louis Blues: 7

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child: 6

Caravan: 5

Most Frequent Vocalist

Billie Holiday: 13

Frank Sinatra: 9

Ella Fitzgerald: 8

Louis Armstrong: 8

Sarah Vaughan: 7


Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong each appear as leader 11 times on the playlist, and Fletcher Henderson has 10 showings.  As for vocalists, Billy Eckstine is barely behind Sarah Vaughan, with six recordings on the list. And for popular songs, both "Lullaby Of The Leaves" and "Take The 'A' Train" make four appearances on the list.

Why did I make such a list? It started off as a way for me to organise my own experience of jazz, and to fill in gaps in my knowledge. My aim was to rewire the way my brain processes music, ultimately to improve my own creative abilities. However, the playlist eventually took on a life of its own. In the end, the playlist has helped me contextualise and broaden my understanding and appreciation of American music and history. Perhaps it can do the same for other people, too.

I abided by strict guidelines.  The playlist had to be exactly 101 hours to the minute and exactly 1,001 songs. Also, I only included recordings with American musicians (though non-Americans occasionally appear as side-musicians and, in one case, as a co-leader). Finally, I only included recordings that are available in both Poland (where I live) and the USA, so I can share the music with my friends and family abroad. That last rule forced me to leave out a number of important recordings and even some artists (such as Naked City). Still, I am happy with the results.

I did not begin with any particular definition of "jazz." I wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Yet, I found myself often questioning what I could or could not reasonably include. 

Any definition of "jazz" is going to have very limited value, because the genre was not born with any clear boundaries. The music preceded the label, and has never been fully captured by it. So, for example, the line between early jazz and early blues is blurry, just as the lines between later jazz and R&B, soul and funk can be elusive. It's easy to embrace the fuzziness with words like "fusion" and phrases that indicate a mixing of genres, like "soul jazz" or "jazz funk." Those labels can be helpful, but they don't answer all the questions. Of course, these aren't questions that the musicians themselves often care much about, and you could say that the whole attempt to create a definitive history of jazz is futile. And yet, I think we can identify certain threads and trends in the history, and the pursuit of them can be infinitely rewarding.

I've tried to respect the musicians as much as possible. I've also tried to include enough variety to indicate the expansive, fluid and evolving nature of jazz as part of the American experience.  

Let me know what you think.