Monday, February 2, 2015

Racism and Jazz Mythology



Wilbur Sweatman's career exemplifies the path a black musician had to take in order to make a career in the pervasive racism of late 19th c. and early 20th c. America. It's a fascinating and sobering story and Mark Berresford's well-researched biography Wilbur Sweatman, That's Got 'Em tells the story well. Highly recommended.

Sweatman grew up in a town not far from ragtime hotbed Sedalia, MO and the Mississippi river, with its flow of itinerant musicians. He started, in the 1890's, in the trenches of showbiz as a member of a "pick" (pickaninny)
band and transitioned into minstrelsy, brass bands, circus bands and vaudeville, where he spent most of his career. His musical skills put him in leadership positions early on and he associated with important figures in African-American music, many of whom are little known today: Nathaniel Clark Smith, P.G. Lowery, Harry T. Burleigh, Ford T. Dabney and others, whose names are slightly more familiar: Will Vodery, Perry Bradford, Shelton Brooks, Bob Cole, Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, Ernest Hogan, James Weldon Johnson among others.

It may be all too easy to think-especially given the hardscrabble quality of this itinerant musical life-that these musicians were uneducated, "natural" musicians. Natural they may have been, but what this biography makes clear is that in order to make a living in music, a musician had to have a solid musical background, be able to read music and if not write, then contribute to arrangements and play in any style of music. 
Norris and Rowe Circus Band, Montana 1908
This runs counter to the pervasive mythology about the beginnings of jazz. 

Berresford's position, espoused by Sweatman, is that jazz was happening in a lot more places than just New Orleans; that the story is a lot more complicated than "jazz was born in New Orleans and travelled up the river to Chicago." I've long believed this too. Not that there wasn't something special about the New Orleans brew, but this mythology strikes me as a "great city" theory, analogous to the "great man" theory, where the charisma of one person throws into shadow other very important elements in the creation story. Berresford makes a strong case for Sweatman as an under-appreciated bridge figure between ragtime and jazz and his success and the story of his milieu, with figures like Lowery, Smith, Cook, Europe and others, runs in contradiction to this myth of the natural musician, 
Buddy Bolden
especially as personified by Buddy Bolden, often cited as the first real jazz musician. The fact that Bolden left no recorded legacy somehow fits into the romantic mythology in which early jazz history has become embedded. In fact, as this book shows, schooled black musicians were laying the foundation for 20th century music in cities across America.

Will Marion Cook


Racism helped to fuel the "natural" musician idea and black musicians were forced to hide their education. For example, black musicians playing for white audiences had to quickly memorize the latest songs, as they could not be seen to use sheet music on the bandstand. lest they be seen as putting themselves on the same level as their audience. And, of course, black musicians had to give up any idea of becoming involved in the world of classical music. 

Berresford's book leaves one wondering how both popular music and "classical" music would have sounded had America not truncated the creative aspirations of so many black musicians. 

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