Early Jazz – A Concise Introduction, From Its Beginnings Through 1929

Fumi Tomita's survey of early jazz recognises the musical significance of lesser-known players who didn't get the column inches or billboards


Even among some jazz devotees, Gunther Schuller is not so well known that one could refer to him by just his second name and guarantee that he’d be readily identified. Maybe Fumi Tomita does so in the opening acknowledgements of his new book in order that the diminutive will accord Schuller a stature worthy of a direct forerunner.

Tomita, associate professor of Jazz Pedagogy and Performance at the University of Massachusetts, bases his overview of jazz from its 19th-century roots “through” 1929 on Schuller’s classic 1968 text, Early Jazz: Its Roots And Early Development, which he mentions in the following introduction. Maybe acknowledgements and introduction became transposed when the book was being printed and bound.

Whatever. Tomita is right when he says that overviews of the whole of jazz history tend to result in a focus on the same significant musicians. His more telescopic treatment brings others forward, as do recent arguments that jazz or what would soon become jazz was a nascent rumbling in places other than New Orleans, a view that’s more reasonable assumption than blinding revelation.

Tomita places what is traditionally accepted as jazz in a wider commercial context. It’s the same with the history of anything: individuals and events are rendered significant in retrospect. Whether or not recognition of the insignificant is helpful in understanding why the main whoosh of historical process is valid remains debatable. All the familiar names are here – Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith, Buddy Bolden, the ODJB, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, James P Johnson, Armstrong, Ellington and others – but so are many less well-known ones. Widen a study area and its population increases, with the likelihood of everyone within it knowing of the existence of each other if not knowing each other personally or professionally.

For example, there’s a sense in which trumpeter Johnny Dunn (1897-1937) was eclipsed by Armstrong when the latter arrived in New York. Dunn, with Oliver, had been a formative influence on Bubber Miley when Miley replaced Arthur Whetsol in the Ellington band. Because Dunn is mentioned in such company, even as an influence, the need to analyse and evaluate his playing is paramount. Maybe this is the implication of Tomita’s approach: that raising musicians from obscurity or neglect might require early jazz history to be reconfigured. But that would mean searching for evidence that doesn’t necessarily exist. Where there is only conjecture there can be no meaningful revision.

Tomita is certainly on to something when he identifies touring musicians who disseminated jazz abroad. After all, its original spread in America was the result of a diaspora, albeit enforced. As well as the ODJB and Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Sam Wooding’s Orchestra, for instance, fulfilled an ambassadorial role. Wooding paved the way in Europe for Claude Hopkins, Noble Sissle, Armstrong and Ellington, among others. Cook’s band included Sidney Bechet, but played “primarily concert music with little jazz content” – in other words, music that was Whitemanesque. And there’s the rub: one needs to agree on a definition of jazz before one can decide whether or not any given musician is performing it – and contributing to Schuller’s “art”. On the other hand, spreading the word about jazz is part of its early history, whether new listeners were receiving the genuine article directly or encouraged to be curious about what precisely it was. Placing jazz in a wider commercial, or showbiz, context is also part of its story; the pervading culture threw up jazz as part of a mix that included music that sounded like jazz but wasn’t and music that didn’t sound like jazz at all.

Today, that’s reflected in the erroneous belief that among young black musicians jazz is all there is; the culture has moved on to a point from which jazz, very often, is perceived as what their dads or granddads listened to. Only in the swing era could jazz claim to have been the majority taste of the day. It’s mostly been a minority one, narrowed even further by Schuller’s insistence on jazz as an art that limited the number of musicians he believed had best contributed to it. Hence, Tomita’s foraging in acres beyond the strictly “artistic”, in areas where “art” was at best a highfalutin expression. But even those corralled by Schuller may not have been aware of the status he bestowed on them. What is art and what isn’t is subjective. In his chapter on stride piano, Tomita deals first with the transitional figure of Luckey Roberts before he gets to James P. Johnson, the style’s main man and, arguably, its inventor. Both “artists” or just the one?

The so-called “territory bands” were another case in point, swinging away and driving breakneck across the country to gigs while Schuller’s “artists” were claiming the column inches (though doing a fair amount of travelling themselves). They seemed to cover the map: Grant Moore and his New Orleans Black Devils in Milwaukee, The Black Birds of Paradise (Birmingham, Alabama), Slim Lamar and his Southerners (Memphis), Zach Whyte and his Band (Cincinnati). These were often apprentice bands for musicians who would later achieve fame, but Tomita gives many of them credit for sometimes rivalling Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. We just don’t pay them much attention. Those hinterlands of wild activity that have never made the history books include minstrelsy and novelty (hokum) performance and echo with sounds for which Tomita’s advocacy has turned up the volume. In the section on saxophone, Coleman Hawkins and others are given due credit, but not before talented altoist Loren McMurray (1897-1922), who ended up appearing on recordings by the Original Memphis Five. He died early from sepsis.

Tomita addresses the role of women in jazz, absent from earlier surveys partly because of an alpha-male culture that’s still present among mouldy club promoters who believe female performers are synonymous with singing and nothing else. But the subject is full of surprises. While popular white singer Ruth Etting (1896-1978) made one notable jazz performance – of Love Me Or Leave Me – the (at the time) lesser known Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985) had, according to Tomita, “a more consistent jazz aesthetic” and he explains why. As a vindication of the author’s trawl among the lesser- or little-known, neither Etting nor Hanshaw appears in the compendious musician index of Ken Vail’s 1993 Jazz Milestones, though it did cover a longer period (from 1900 to 1990); nor are they in John S. Davis’s 2012 Historical Dictionary Of Jazz. In fact, they aren’t mentioned anywhere of note.

One of the book’s interesting features is the Listening Guide analysis of selected recordings, including Snake Rag, by Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band; Singin’ The Blues, by the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra; Alabama Stomp, by Red and Miff’s Stompers (Red Nichols and Miff Mole); and Traveling Blues, by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders. Each section is timed and there are non-technical comments/explanations of what’s happening. It’s an indication of the author’s thorough and enthusiastic method in a book that includes full annotations and bibliography at the back, and a helpful index. This Early Jazz incorporates Schuller’s exploratory tract and adds more acreage that transforms the subject matter.

Early Jazz: A Concise Introduction, From Its Beginnings Through 1929, by Fumi Tomita. Suny Press, 232pp, hb, $99. ISBN: 978143846382