The Crack-Up: Jazz Arrives, Loudly, in 1919, with David Sager

Feb 22, 2019

In this fascinating podcast, Ted Widmer talks to jazz historian David Sager about his "New York Times" essay on the genre's breakthrough in 1919, its popularity in France during World War I, and the tragic story of legendary African American bandleader James Reese Europe.

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer, you're listening to another episode of The Crack Up, a podcast series in which we talk to authors of essays about the year 1919 running in The New York Times throughout the year 2019.

Today, I'm really happy to welcome jazz historian David Sager.

David, thank you so much for being here.

DAVID SAGER: My pleasure.

TED WIDMER: So David, you wrote a wonderful piece on how jazz is breaking through to Americans on all these different levels in 1919, different places, different times of the year. What does that funny word jazz mean to most people at the beginning of 1919?

DAVID SAGER: I think most people regarded it as a type of music by 1919. It signified noise to the best of my understanding. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, who were very popular and made the first jazz records in 1917, played in a rather noisy and chaotic way. It was not evident to many, including many musicians who tried to copy them, that they really had a very specific, harmonic, and rhythmic scheme in mind. But there were a lot of effects.

I think it was those effects that got skimmed off the top and used by dance bands and was also what the general population understood to be jazz at that time. It was something like ragtime, which was also not very well defined. It was dance music of a noisy and counterculture nature.

TED WIDMER: So what are those specific effects that create jazz?

DAVID SAGER: There were distortions of the instruments. For instance, the cornet or trumpet players would "flutter tongue," making this sort of growling sound. They would imitate barnyard animals. Clarinet players manipulating the reed with their lips would make a crying effect.

TED WIDMER: Fantastic.

DAVID SAGER: Trombones could make all sorts of noise.

TED WIDMER: They're probably acting unlike an uptight band on stage while they're making those noises.

DAVID SAGER: Being visual.

TED WIDMER: Yes, being visual, physical, moving around.

DAVID SAGER: Yes, just laying on your back, playing. Or a trombone player playing with one foot manipulating the slide, etc.

Jazz also was beginning to mean anything that had a saxophone. Sometimes a saxophone and accordion, for some reason, some people thought of as jazz, or had a trap drum set.

TED WIDMER: So it's loud, especially with the drums. It's a loud, percussive, barnyard animal-like music. It's braying and bleeding.

DAVID SAGER: It was a novelty.

TED WIDMER: Yes. And it's funny a lot of the time, too, wouldn't you say?

DAVID SAGER: I think by the end of 1919 and the beginning of 1920, there were more polite renditions. In 1920, Paul Whiteman is starting to record and he's playing something that is very much based on various definitions of jazz but greatly smoothed out.

TED WIDMER: One great thing about your piece is how many interpreters of jazz there are simultaneously. Paul Whiteman is fascinating on the West Coast and then you have a couple of really interesting paragraphs on Louis Armstrong beginning to leave New Orleans, go up and down the Mississippi River, and influence a lot of black and white young players.

James Reese Europe, who was really the star of your piece—he's so interesting but instead of coming out of nightclubs, he's coming out of the U.S. military and the World War I effort. Can you tell us who he is?

DAVID SAGER: James Reese Europe was probably the most famous African American musician at that time. His fame was really centered in New York, like so many others were. New York was the center of everything. James Reese Europe had begun a union, essentially, for black musicians at around 1910, called the Cleft Club. It was an actual physical location. They had a building and musicians would go there. It would be a meeting place and a place to get jobs, get gigs, be hired, and to be heard and to rehearse.

Europe's primary interest was to elevate the Negro musician and to provide dignified, working conditions and to be able to arrive at a job and use the front door, for instance. Europe largely succeeded, especially for himself. He became a darling of the white elite in New York: the Vanderbilts and the Astors, etc.; the Goulds would hire him to play for their functions.

TED WIDMER: He isn't doing those crazy jazz effects for them at that time.

DAVID SAGER: He was playing more sedate dance music. I think it was largely syncopated. I don't think that they were necessarily identifying it as ragtime. A lot of Europe's own compositions—he was a very prolific composer—they played a lot of tangos, waltzes, and some dances that Vernon and Irene Castle were featuring. Europe had become their musical director. So they had "The Lame Duck" and the "The Half and Half." Europe composed a lot of the music for their specific dances.

TED WIDMER: So how does Europe go from the society set of New York into the worst war that has ever been fought?

DAVID SAGER: He was a very smart man and knew how to grab an opportunity. His desire to elevate black musicians became a—he used that to put on concerts of what he considered to be genuine Negro music, like the one he did at Carnegie Hall. He did a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall between 1912 and 1914. It kind of grew.

At the onset of the war, Europe decided to abandon his position and enter the service. He wanted to fight. He did not want to be considered a musician and he enlisted into New York's old 15th Infantry, which is an all-black reserve. They were eventually mustered into full service and sent overseas. Europe was put in charge of the military band. He had unwittingly became the bandleader.

TED WIDMER: They figured out who he was and they figured out what his special talent was?

DAVID SAGER: Oh yeah. It was well known. I can't think of the commanding officer's name who pushed him into that.

TED WIDMER: You say the French really began to appreciate him. That probably helped Americans after the war to feel like it was safe to like this very exciting jazz-like music. How do the French begin to figure it out?

DAVID SAGER: They were stationed in France for several months and they were in the trenches and were fighting. Then they had long rests—that's when they were performing. The French were very open to the black performers. It was not the sense of a racial divide like there was here. Their music seemed very fresh and very exciting.

TED WIDMER: And they're probably also distinguishing themselves in a military way also so they're that much more acceptable to the French.

DAVID SAGER: Right. And they were playing this very peppy, lively music with some title that the Oiginal Dixieland Jass Band had recorded and were featuring some W. C. Handy blues. They were playing them in a manner that was not unlike the noisy jazz that was being perpetrated and lots of instrumental effects like I described before: flutter tongue and squealing noises, etc.

TED WIDMER: It's funny. It feels so unlike the U.S. military to have all those jazz effects but it was really smart of him to figure that out.

DAVID SAGER: Absolutely. Like I said, he knew how to take advantage of an opportunity for everything it was worth. They were a huge success.

He had begun his career with one thing in mind. As other things came along, he was able to exploit them in a very positive way. Like I had said, he had unwittingly become the leader of this band.

TED WIDMER: He's out there performing for the public in France in parades, I would imagine, which is not a—

DAVID SAGER: Parades, I think they were playing for dancing, and then concerts. They did a lot of concerts. There was one in particular I had written about in the article but there wasn't room to include it, where they played Tuileries Garden. It was a mass band concert with the Guard Republican, the French national military band, and some others, and then there was Europe's band. The audience pretty much yawned and fidgeted through the European military bands and then when Europe's 369th Infantry Hellfighters, as they were known, started to play, the crowd went wild.

It's interesting to note the piece that the newspaper cited the crowd going wild over was a medley of plantation songs—

TED WIDMER: Oh, no. Wow.

DAVID SAGER: —something that they actually recorded later after they returned to the States. When you hear the recording today, there's not a speck of jazz by anybody's definition, effects or not. It's a very nice piece but again, they played in a very lively accented manner.

TED WIDMER: They are musicians, they're in the military, but they're also figuring out they're in a pretty tight band. People love them, so they're thinking about their return home to the U.S. after the armistice.

How does that happen? They come back to America, and how does their music begin to reach the American people?

DAVID SAGER: They were sent back to the States shortly after the armistice was signed and they're back here by early January of 1919. They are given this huge reception and they plan this parade on February 17, where they marched up 5th Avenue, starting way downtown, and marching up to Harlem. There were thousands of people packing the sidewalks and the reviewing stands. At first it was largely a white crowd, and then as they got closer to Harlem, there were more and more black spectators.

TED WIDMER: Fantastic.

DAVID SAGER: It was at that point the band started to let go of the more strict military music, the marches, etc., and they started to play some of the jazzier, ragtime-influenced things.

TED WIDMER: That must've been exciting.

DAVID SAGER: From all the newspaper accounts, and there are many, it sounds like it was absolutely thrilling mayhem.

TED WIDMER: The reporters, even from the mainstream papers, are following them up into Harlem to describe this.

DAVID SAGER: Yes. They are praising the soldiers, all of the soldiers. There wasn't just the band that was parading, it was the entire infantry, the entire battalion.

TED WIDMER: Because they had fought very valiantly and they had inflicted a lot of harm on the Germans, right?

DAVID SAGER: Yes. They were quite heroic. They were well-decorated. But the newspapers never failed to mentioned Jim Europe and talk about people in the crowd who were shouting, "Oh, you, Jim Europe," which I guess was the typical way of expressing yourself in those days: "Oh, you, whomever."

TED WIDMER: Is the word jazz appearing in these accounts the next day of the parade?

DAVID SAGER: Yes. They're always a jazz band and they're jazz music, and that is something that follows them into their subsequent tour right after they were mustered out of the service. Europe collects most of his band and hires a few others to replace whomever he could not get and they embark on a tour of major U.S. cities.

The newspapers are just universal in their praise and also referring to [the fact that] they're playing jazz. If you look at the surviving programs that were handed out at the performances, it was really not an inordinate amount of what was called jazz being played. Perhaps they were playing things in a jazzier manner but there was a lot of marches and orchestral transcriptions—I think things to show their versatility and to show how good these musicians were. But, always, I think to illustrate how much spirit they played with.

TED WIDMER: It's almost more of a jazz-like attitude than what we would recognize as jazz music.

DAVID SAGER: I would say that. That's a fair assessment. Sure.

TED WIDMER: Word of jazz is spreading and as you describe so well, there are pockets of jazz in other parts of the country that have nothing to do with James Reese Europe.

DAVID SAGER: Yeah, absolutely. Anywhere that there were phonograph records and Victrolas phonographs, you had records by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, by Ted Lewis, by Wilbur Sweatman, a black clarinetist who was very popular in vaudeville, who had what he called his jazz band. These recordings were very popular.

TED WIDMER: Unfortunately, James Reese Europe could not ride that wave of popularity for a very long time.

DAVID SAGER: No. It's just a tragic story and every time I read about that story, I'm always hoping that it's going to turn out differently. And of course it never does.

He was murdered by an angry musician, who I think did not intend to kill Europe, but was upset, brooding over the fact that Europe upbraided him, and attacked him with a penknife. Then Europe went to the hospital and bled to death. This was in May. They had returned in, I think, January.

TED WIDMER: So the boom was just taking off and who knows how far it would've gone.

DAVID SAGER: Europe was, I think, fully intent upon returning to his mission of elevating and maintaining this elevation of black musicians and also his love of musical theater really pushed the basis of it all.

In his place, his two closest colleagues were Noble Sissle, who was a lieutenant in the Hellfighters and vocalist, and Eubie Blake, who was Noble Sissle's partner in writing songs. The two of them went into vaudeville and they were two of the most elegantly dressed black performers of the day. They were very careful about their appearance, about how the music sounded and they ultimately, as is well known, produced a full musical show on Broadway that was called Shuffle Along. That was a smash hit and featured, among other things, the first unabashed love song to be sung by a black performer and not in a way that wasn't a lampoon.

TED WIDMER: Do you think Europe would've been involved in Broadway in the 1920s or would he have kept evolving musically?

DAVID SAGER: I think so. I think that was were his heart was. And very much, Shuffle Along was a tribute—

TED WIDMER: Interesting.

DAVID SAGER: —to Europe. A lot of the material that Sissle and Blake used were things that they had had for years in were recycling. It doesn't seem out of line to think that there was material that they had written with James Reese Europe— and there was—that would've been recycled and used in Shuffle Along and perhaps there was. I have not researched that.

TED WIDMER: Are you going to stay with James Reese Europe for a while longer? You're thinking a longer project maybe?

DAVID SAGER: I haven't figured that out yet.

TED WIDMER: It's so poignant. It's a beautiful story. It's so sad. He's there, he's the midwife to this incredibly important art form and then he doesn't live to enjoy his success.

DAVID SAGER: Yes. It's such a frustrating ending and it makes us want to delve, I think, into what he did accomplish and hear his music. He composed a lot during his professional years in New York between 1903 and when he entered the service. He was a good composer. I wouldn't say his songs, his pieces were head and shoulders above others, but they were good and they were solid and some were really excellent.

There was some other legacy, too. There were some other bands that cropped up. One of Europe's right hand men was Ford Dabney, who was a composer and pianist and led a military style band for a little while and also made some recordings from that late 1910s period.

TED WIDMER: How is the manuscript trail? Are there Europe compositions or journals out there that you could consult?

DAVID SAGER: There is a lot of published sheet music and orchestrations, published arrangements for dance orchestras and also for military band. The published music was very prominent. That was the backbone of the popular music industry in those days. There was no radio. Bookstores were considered a way to sell sheet music and also to sell phonographs.

I don't know about Europe's manuscript, if they’re extant or not. I’d leave that to somebody who has studied him more in depth.

TED WIDMER: It's a great story about an individual who made a really big difference and then didn't to get to live long enough to see how big that difference was. But right as these racial attitudes are changing very quickly as a result of the war, here comes this guy who's really leading in the creation of what will be one of the—it's a great American form, it's a great black American form.

It shows how wars have surprising consequences. So this war over ancient dynasties and competition in Europe turns into a real liberation of African Americans and their ability and their freedom to express themselves honestly before the whole country.

DAVID SAGER: Yes, absolutely.

TED WIDMER: I didn't say how you and I know each other. We've both been librarians and we've both done a lot of music history in different ways but David works at the Library of Congress where he's got the good fortune to be near early recordings all day long.

Do you have other stories you intend to write about from this period coming out anytime soon?

DAVID SAGER: I have a few ideas. I did quite a bit of work on King Oliver some years ago, which I'm thinking about revising, dealing with his early period in Chicago just before he recorded in 1923 and just after.

TED WIDMER: Is he active in 1919?

DAVID SAGER: Yes. He was in Chicago and playing numerous jobs around town—sometimes in the same night he would go from one to another. He was a very active musician at that time.

TED WIDMER: But Armstrong is not yet with him. He's still on the riverboats.

DAVID SAGER: Armstrong is on the riverboats. He's still in New Orleans and starting to branch out and he and Oliver were very close and of course Oliver fends for Armstrong to be part of his band in 1922.

TED WIDMER: I'm so grateful to you for the piece and for talking about it. We're going to have in the series later in the year some essays about racial rioting that happened in 1919, so it wasn't like a seamless change to a color-blind society to put it mildly.

DAVID SAGER: Absolutely not, which makes the praise that Europe's jazz got just all the more remarkable.

TED WIDMER: Exactly.

I'm so grateful to you for your writing it and your speaking about it and just the quality of the research, the detailed research that you're doing to help us deeply understand. We hear the word jazz all the time, but you really help us to know what it means very precisely. So thank you, David.

DAVID SAGER: Well you’re welcome and thank you Ted for pulling me on to all of this.

TED WIDMER: Absolutely. My huge pleasure.

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