Opinion | Jazz on the Edge of Change
Before 1919, the music was considered more novelty than art. Then a military band changed everything.
By David Sager
Mr. Sager is a research assistant at the Library of Congress and a jazz historian.
The 369th Infantry Regiment band led by James Reese Europe playing in the courtyard of a Paris hospital for wounded Americans.CreditLibrary of Congress
The 369th Infantry Regiment band led by James Reese Europe playing in the courtyard of a Paris hospital for wounded Americans.CreditCreditLibrary of Congress
The Armistice to end World War I brought elation and a sense of relief to millions of Americans, but also a jolt of reality. The country had only been in the conflict for 19 months, but it had already adjusted to the rhythms and strictures of a society on a total-war footing. When it ended so abruptly, the result was a sudden permissiveness in the culture, a weakening of social rules and an opening for new ideas, creating a fertile atmosphere for America’s new, unruly musical child: jazz.
What was jazz? It had no real definition; it referred to many things. The year 1919 is usually not considered an important marker on the jazz timeline, but that year subtle yet compelling forces took hold that would turn this invasive novelty into something with far more clarity and promise as an art form. It was the year jazz came into its own.
Feb. 17, 1919, was a cold, overcast New York day that threatened snow. Tens of thousands of people had come to the streets of Manhattan for a victory parade. At the corner of 60th Street, a crowd packed the sidewalks and clustered onto a grandstand, vying for a glimpse of the returning heroes parading northward.
Along the route marched the 369th Infantry, a highly decorated all-black regiment that had just returned from a year in France. The Germans, whom they flushed from their trenches, called them “blutdürstige schwarze Männer,” or “bloodthirsty black men” — or more respectfully, “Hellfighters.” The French government gave the unit the Croix de Guerre for its bravery.
On cue, the cheering crowd fell into an abrupt hush, as line upon line of soldiers appeared, proceeding in immaculate precision. “For a moment there was almost complete silence, as the throngs of men and women gazed upon the dark-skinned warriors who had beaten the best regiments of veterans the enemy could send them,” wrote The New York Tribune.
Nearly all accounts of the parade singled out the 369th’s band, under the direction of Lt. James Reese Europe, an immensely successful and well-known African-American musician. The press consistently referred to them as a “jazz band,” whose “jazz music” had become the sensation of France. Even Gen. Henri Gouraud, a staid and dignified French commander, was enthralled, and made his headquarters wherever the band was stationed. Lieutenant Europe was already known as the “Jazz King.”
Such praise marked the first time anything associated with jazz had received such glowing approval. In 1919, jazz, or “jass,” as some still called it, was a peculiar word with musical and sexual connotations. It could be noun, verb or adjective, indicating pep, liveliness and noise. Jazz was the new counterculture dance music replacing ragtime — but more dangerous, disorderly and discordant, consisting of random, wrong-sounding musical obstreperousness and percussive turmoil. The music had been considered a scourge on polite society, particularly by whites, even if many of them had no idea what the word meant. Now, thousands — both white and black — cheered Europe’s “jazz” band.
They kept the “jazz music” under wraps at first. Marching along, Europe kept his men reined in, playing dignified military music, matching the solemnity and discipline of the moment. But as they passed 60th Street, where the crowd became more and more densely populated with African-Americans, the band let loose with “That Moaning Trombone” and other syncopated numbers. Verve and enthusiasm stood in bold relief.
James Reese Europe was born in 1881 in Mobile, Ala., and raised in Washington, D.C., where he studied violin, piano and composition. In 1903, he relocated to New York, seeking work as a musical director and composer. There he associated with the black musical cognoscenti of Manhattan, including Bert Williams, J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole. He became New York society’s favorite band leader, charming the likes of the Vanderbilts, and was musical director for Vernon and Irene Castle, a popular pair of white dancers. Along the way he mentored a string of future musical stars, like Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
Although historians often associate Europe with ragtime and jazz, his focus was on neither. He wanted to create music that he believed reflected the artistic temperament and souls of African-Americans, whatever style it took, and to use it to promote the validity and viability of Negro musicians.
In 1910 he formed the Clef Club, a union for New York’s black musicians, along with the enormous Clef Club Symphony Orchestra, which emphasized instruments that he felt were commonly used by black musicians: banjo, mandolin, bandora and harp guitar. In interviews, Europe avoided the word “ragtime,” simply calling it “Negro music.” The orchestra performed lavish concerts — several at Carnegie Hall — featuring works by black composers like Will Marion Cook, William H. Tyers and Europe himself. It played marches, concert pieces, tangos and waltzes, with a sprinkling of ragtime.
Europe’s reputation as a purveyor of ragtime and “proto jazz” is based on recordings made in 1913 and 1914. Of these, “Castle House Rag,” a Europe composition, captures our imagination today, offering a rare glimpse into black dance music, partly read and partly played by ear. Exciting and edgy, it has hints of “Shortenin’ Bread” and what might be described as “country ragtime.”
Few who heard Europe’s music were acquainted with the dance music then brewing in New Orleans, which some regarded as “ragtime played by ear.” Because it went largely unrecorded during the 1910s, it would be years before the rest of the country could hear the rhythmic drive and hot quality of its pioneers, like King Oliver, Freddie Keppard and Jelly Roll Morton. One exception was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who made a recording in 1917 that was listened to from California to New York. Many musicians tried to copy their seemingly discordant approach, and failed. Most couldn’t hear, beneath that mélange, the band’s harmonic and rhythmic order, spontaneous sounding counterpoint and interlocking parts. Musicians copied the effects — the musical veneer. Capturing musical essence was a far more complex task than aping the obvious.
And yet 1919 was the year when that began to change. In March, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band sailed for England, to tour British theaters. While there, they rerecorded a number of their old hits, along with two waltzes, unlikely choices for a New Orleans jazz band. Still, those recordings, “Alice Blue Gown” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” have the propulsion and lilt that characterized New Orleans. More and more people, far outside New Orleans, were suddenly hearing, and enjoying, jazz.
As they did, New York bands began to get the swing of the music. In March 1919, a group from Coney Island called the Original Memphis Five emerged with a streamlined version of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s style. They made hundreds of recordings between 1921 and 1929.
Nineteen-nineteen was also the year that a young cornetist named Louis Armstrong, who had been electrifying patrons of New Orleans saloons and honky-tonks with his distinctive sound, began to set his sights beyond his hometown. Armstrong possessed a rare gift for fusing disparate types of music that moved him — he had command over the passion of blues, excitement of ragtime, and the poignancy of operatic and classical melodies. His was the unnamed music of New Orleans: organic, confident and sincere. Playing on Mississippi riverboats, his horn was heard for the first time outside of New Orleans. Inevitably, young musicians like the trombonist Jack Teagarden and the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke heard Armstrong; within a few years, both of these young men would emerge as jazz originals in their own right.
Armstrong’s mentor, Joe Oliver, moved to Chicago in 1917. By 1919 he was one of the busiest musicians in town, giving Chicago a taste of the Crescent City’s hot music. In 1922 he sent for Armstrong to join his Creole Jazz Band as the second cornetist. The 1923 King Oliver recordings would spread New Orleans music — some called it “jazz” — throughout the land.
On the very day of the 369th’s parade, 2,900 miles to the west, a struggling dance orchestra leader named Paul Whiteman was recovering from a nervous breakdown. A violinist formerly with the San Francisco Symphony, Whiteman had become fascinated with the sensuous, unpolished sounds he heard from musicians in Barbary Coast saloons. He attempted to notate this strange music, orchestrate it and normalize it. Hiring the best “jazzers” in town, Whiteman formed a dance band to play at the Fairmont Hotel. Taxed by overworked and worry, he collapsed, and soon left music, and San Francisco, behind.
But he didn’t stay gone. Whiteman moved east, in 1920, and drew national attention when he signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Striving to “make a lady” of jazz led to his fabulous 1924 concert “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which premiered Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Whiteman became known as the “King of Jazz,” a moniker which — while he never took it literally — served him well. He went on to hire Frank Trumbauer, Beiderbecke and others, a dream team of young jazz musicians. By the mid-1920s, jazz was firmly in place as the reigning American popular music style.
All that was in the future as Europe and the 369th wrapped up their parade through Manhattan. Soon afterward they were mustered out of the service. For most, there was no question what they would do next: Reforming the band as civilians, they set out to tour the East Coast and Midwest. According to a review of their show in Philadelphia, The Evening Bulletin wrote: “Many ragtime, jazz time and popular air tunes were played with a swing, a swerve and a tempo that lifted the soul as well as the feet of the listener and carried him away to the Land of Shuffling Feet.”
Though they were praised for their jazz, Europe and his band ranged widely. He typically programmed light classical overtures, specialties like “Evolution of Dixie,” some ragtime, and medleys of syncopated hits under the rubric “A Potpourri of Jazz.” A recording of a medley they often played on the road, “Plantation Echoes,” contains not a speck of jazz, or ragtime, by anyone’s definition. But the crowds demanded jazz, and Europe gave it to them — not only on the stage, but in interviews, where he tried to explain this new form. As he told The Newark Evening Ledger, “Lots of people think jazz is easy. It’s as hard as anything. The French bandmasters thought we had trick instruments. They’d ask to examine our instruments and then cry in surprise ‘Meme que les autres’ — ‘The same as the others.’ You see we get those special effects with a roll of the tongue and blowing the instrument about twice as hard as usual.”
Europe’s comments reflected commonly held beliefs about jazz: It was about effects, such as distorting the embouchure to produce fluttering effects. Europe was a master tactician, and provided good copy.
The band’s recording of “Memphis Blues” illustrates their approach to jazz. The final minute displays many of the effects Europe described: crying clarinets, flutter-tongued cornets, trombone glissandos and a “shave and a haircut” ending. There is one exception: a surprise solo “break” by a trombonist who tosses off an insouciant, swinging phrase.
That break, only two measures long, speaks volumes: a rarity on such an early recording, signifying the exciting nature of jazz as it was still maturing.
On May 9, 1919, the band arrived in Boston, to perform at Mechanic’s Hall. Europe, suffering from a cold and exhaustion, courageously pushed himself through the concert’s first half. During intermission, an altercation erupted when a disgruntled musician entered Europe’s dressing room and attacked him with a penknife. The injury, which seemed at first superficial, was anything but. Europe died a few hours later.
In a flash, James Reese Europe was gone, the band broke up, and postwar excitement and acceptance for jazz were temporarily forgotten. Nevertheless, Europe’s final testament had a lasting legacy. During that final tour, a wide range of Americans had begun to realize that jazz was something of which they could be proud. Photos from the parade, with jazz-playing musicians surrounded by returning soldiers, made it clear that this was a homegrown, even patriotic, art form. The old notion about “jazzing” suddenly seemed quaint. “Jazz” had become a noun.
Europe’s dream, to see African-Americans accepted as serious and respected performers, lived on through his two closest associates, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Their 1921 Broadway hit “Shuffle Along” was in a sense, a tribute to their mentor and friend.
Looking at 1919 from both sides of a timeline clarifies how pivotal this year was for jazz. On one side there was the diligent, focused work of James Reese Europe, which brought dignity to both African-American musicians and jazz. On the other, Paul Whiteman continued his work legitimizing jazz in the public’s mind. In the middle were the pioneers of the art: Louis Armstrong, his mentors and disciples.
Encompassing a span of a decade in a single year, 1919 was the fulcrum of momentous musical activity when jazz — in many forms and many definitions — was nurtured, whether by Europe, Whiteman or the growing number of jazz musicians who understood it.
David Sager is a research assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center at the Library of Congress and a Grammy-nominated jazz historian and jazz trombonist.
Further Reading (and listening): Louis Armstrong, “Louis Armstrong in his own Words,” ed. by Thomas Brothers; Reid Badger, “A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe;” Tim Brooks, “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919;” H.O. Brunn, “The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band;” “James Reese Europe with his 369th U.S. Infantry “Hellfighters” Band: The Complete Recordings,” Memphis Archive, MA7020 (compact disc); “Original Dixieland Jazz Band: The First Jazz Recordings, 1917-192,”. Timeless CBC1-009 (compact disc); Don Rayno, “Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music;” David Sager, “King Oliver Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings,” Off the Record — ARCH-OTR — MM6-C2 (liner notes for compact disc).
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.