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Century Sunday: 1917 Part 1: Sweatman, OJDB, Kreisler, and Heifitz

Sweatman

Son of a barber in Brunswick, Missouri, Wilbur Coleman Sweatman learned piano as a child from his older sister and soon started playing the violin, perhaps having taught himself on the instrument.  Later he also learned clarinet and made this his primary instrument touring with circus bands, eventually leading dance and jazz bands, and developing the unusual skill of playing two, and then later, three clarinets at once.

He recorded several cylinders and records as bandleader, one of the being possibly the very first recording of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.  In 1911, he published “Down Home Rag” a work in 4/4 time (as opposed to the usual 2/4 time of ragtime works) that shares elements of the contemporary fox trots and turkey trots of the time.

In  December 1916, in a New York recording studio, Sweatman recorded two takes of “Down Home Rag”, each with notable melodic variations, arguably establishing him as the first band leader to have recorded jazz and these recordings as the very first recorded jazz records.  This was two months earlier than the Original Dixie Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixeland Jass Band One Step”, the latter based on Joe Jordon’s “That Teasin’ Rag” and being the first record to ever contain the word “jass”.  Later in 1917, Wilbur Sweatman would record additional tracks, several of which contained the word “jass” or “jazz” in their titles.  For additional information on Wilbur Sweatman, please refer to the excellent and well-researched biography, “That’s Got ’em: The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman” By Mark Berresford

Though Wilbur Sweatman recorded the first jazz record, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) recorded the first record with the work “jass” or “jazz” in the title, when they recorded “Dixeland Jass Band One Step” in February 1917. More importantly, their record label, Victor, effectively promoted their material, even if as novelty, providing the sound of something akin to jazz to record buyers all over the country.  Already successful as a dance band, first in Chicago, then in New York, the fame brought by these recordings, and their next set on Columbia, further increased not only the popularity of the ODJB, but was a catalyst for jazz in general. Soon bands all over the country included the word “jazz” in their name or the titles of the records and soon true improvisational jazz music was available live and through records to a diverse audience across the United States.

Though jazz predates the recordings of Wilbur Sweatman and the Original Dixieland Jazz band by several years, records and the phonograph were the primary reason for the rapid spread and adoption of jazz as not only trendy, but popular and indispensable music.

Composer, and the greatest violinist of his generation (born in 1875, died in 1962). Fritz Kreisler recorded several times in 1917 for the Victor label. Taken with earlier recordings on Victor, going back to 1910, we are left with a diverse set of miniatures, some of which are Kreisler’s own compositions, some of which were even credited to other composers, long dead, until Kreisler revealed they were his own compositions in the style of those composers.

These are acoustic recordings, as were all recordings in 1917 and up until about 1925, which means that instead of using microphones to capture sound, large horns were used that generated vibrations to etch the groves in the mastering cylinder (very early on) or platter. In addition, the rotation of the platter was mechanical and not electrical. The performer or performers had to position themselves near the horn and the resulting recording had a limited frequency range between 250 to 2500 Hz (Hertz or cycles per second: vibrations per seconds, known as the frequency, determining musical pitch and the nature of the sound since a given instrument produces a set of vibrations for any given note.)  The human hearing range is around 20 Hz to 2000 Hz and the notes on the piano range from 27.5 Hz to 4186 Hz.  250 Hz is not very low: for example, the highest of the four open strings on the cello sounds at 220 Hz and middle C on the piano is around 262 Hz. The B natural, only a semitone below, is around 247 Hz, meaning that the left hand accompaniment of a piano piece like “Maple Leaf Rag”, disregarding “overtones” or the additional upper frequencies that the piano or any instrument produces for each given note, is almost entirely below the lower limit of the range available to recordings in 1917.  Thus, while one could record piano pieces on this technology, or in the case of many of the Kreisler recordings, violin with piano accompaniment, it sounds very thin and strange.  The amazing thing, psychologically, is how the listener adjusts and soon gets comfortable with the recorded sound, as unfaithful as it is to the original performance.

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Shortly after his Carnegie Hall debut on November 7, 1917 RCA started recording Jascha Heifitz, only a couple of months away from his 17th birthday.  Just as Kreisler was the most notable and celebrated  violinist of his generation, Heifitz (1901-1987) was the most prominent and acclaimed violinist of his generation.

These 1917 recordings of Heifitz available on CD are compelling and vital.  The transfers are good, and once one puts in some time listening to recordings of this era, the significant sonic limitations of the acoustic recording process don’t pose any serious barrier to enjoying the music. We are very fortunate that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, allowing it to develop, although slowly from a 21st Century person’s perspective. so that by 1917 we start having some real treasures of music captured forever on these ten and twelve inch shellac disks.

 

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