As Long as They Can Blow: Interracial Jazz Recording and Other Jive Before 1935

The best-known examples of interracial jazz recordings are the 1935 and ’36 sides cut by the Benny Goodman Trio which included black pianist Teddy Wilson. Goodman’s subsequent quartet added black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

But in his new book, As Long as They Can Blow, author Steve Provizer meticulously documents that such interracial intermingling had been happening for decades in American recording studios.

Hot Jazz Jubile

After Goodman’s multi-colored combos successfully hit the scene, “there was a gradual increase in racial mixing on bandstands,” Provizer writes. However, that’s not his primary concern. No, the author wants readers to realize what led up to that mid-’30s epiphany.

“Interracial recording activity that had occurred during earlier important, formative periods of jazz remains relatively unknown and unrecognized,” he writes. “I wanted to put a spotlight on these.”

Of course, before mixed bands took to the studios, black and white musicians had been working together live onstage in various “complicated” settings, he asserts.

Evergreen

“Minstrel and vaudeville performances and companies were somewhat more racially mixed,” Provizer reports. Mixing was also common in more informal settings. “Musicians of different races met and interacted at after-hours jam sessions, rent parties and other unofficial spaces.”

One of the most important, yet almost entirely forgotten, black-and-white convergences aligned a famous dance team with New York’s most popular colored bandleader. Provizer points out that professional ballroom dancers Irene and Vernon Castle were well-aware of the pioneering musicianship of James Reese Europe. So the dancers hired Europe’s Society Orchestra in 1913 to back them onstage, compose tunes for them and record those compositions for Victor.

Europe and his musicians waxed more than a half-dozen numbers for the Castles, such as “Castle Walk,” “Castle Lame Duck” and “Castle’s Half and Half.” Although the studio sessions were manned solely by black musicians, the project itself—inspired by the white Castles—was clearly interracial.

“Theirs was the first appearance of African-American and white artists performing together for a predominantly white audience, and a national tour featuring an ethnically mixed touring company,” Provizer writes.

The centerpiece of Provizer’s book is its Interracial Discography, which is nearly 90 pages long and lists more than 250 mixed studio sessions,

Nauck

The earliest such session listed here is an 1894 pre-jazz recording by Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company which captured the Unique Quartette, a black New York City foursome in this case joined by white soprano Jessie Oliver.

In fact, many of the mixed sessions cited by Provizer involve vocalists of one color or the other performing in front of musicians from the opposite race. For instance, the Bahamian-born comedian Bert Williams recorded with all-white orchestras from 1900 to 1920.

Provizer lists dozens of sessions with black songbirds such as Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, and Ethel Waters individually recording songs backed by all-white combos. And of course, Billie Holiday made some of her earliest recordings with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, including tunes such as “Riffin’ the Scotch.”

Elvis

Black male vocalist Noble Sissle recorded a series of tunes with a white studio ensembles from 1917 to 1927. Sissle and Pathe’s white musicians, sometimes accompanied by black pianist Eubie Blake, cut songs such as “I’m Just Simply Full of Jazz” (1919) and “Jazz Babies’ Ball” (1920).

On the other hand, in April 1928 popular white crooner Gene Austin recorded “The Voice of the Southland” accompanied by a dozen white instrumentalists along with black tenor guitarist Little Mike McKendrick. Later in ’28, white vocalist Irving Mills waxed “Diga Diga Doo” and “Doin’ the New Lowdown” with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In 1929, white chanteuse Annette Hanshaw recorded two tunes with the Three Blue Streaks, who were black and one of which was composer Clarence Williams. That same year, white songwriter Hoagy Carmichael crooned his tune, “Rockin’ Chair,” with Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra.

Nauck

Armstrong crossed genres on July 16, 1930, when he and his then-wife, pianist Lil Hardin, waxed “Blue Yodel No. 9” in Los Angeles with its composer white country guitarist, Jimmie Rodgers. Armstrong and Hardin were not listed on this Victor session because it violated Armstrong’s contract with Okeh. Nevertheless, that all-star session is a memorable example of American musicians crossing the color line.

Provizer spotlights two pioneering black musicians featured in many mixed sessions, trumpeter Bill Moore and clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman.

A light-skinned black brassman from Manhattan, Moore played and recorded with the mostly white California Ramblers in the 1920s. He also recorded with Ben Bernie 1925-1927, Jack Pettis 1926-1929, Irving Mills 1929-1930, and the Dorsey Brothers 1930.

Sweatman, a Missouri-born “mulatto” who became a popular vaudeville act by simultaneously playing multiple clarinets, recorded a pre-jazz tune called “Down Home Rag” in 1916 with a white Emerson Records studio orchestra.

As Long as They Can Blow also delivers a brief history of the early recording industry, with an emphasis on how the industry dealt with the question of race, as well as a list of formal and informal interactivity between black and white jazz musicians outside the recording studio.

Provizer understands that Jim Crow racism and growing anti-immigrant sentiments proliferated throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Those widespread attitudes effectively blocked integration everywhere, including show business.

The author quotes two noteworthy newsmakers of the day, federal investigator J. Edgar Hoover and automobile magnate Henry Ford, both of whom maintained that America’s perceived immorality was caused by music created by Jews and Blacks. In 1921 Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, blamed the nation’s “de-evolution” on “racial collusion between whites and blacks. “Jazz, after all is a Jewish creation,” the Independent proclaimed. “The mush, the slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”

Hoover later testified to Congress that Jews had “done a vast amount of evil damage carrying doctrines of race revolt and the poison of Bolshevism to the negroes.” Unsurprisingly America’s Ku Klux Klan, Germany’s Nazi Party, and Italy’s fascist government also opposed jazz on such specious grounds.

Occasionally musicians themselves also indulged in such racism. Provizer documents a 1929 recording session organized by white vocalist Gene Austin and featuring keyboardist Fats Waller. When Austin arrived with his special guest performer, the 11 white studio musicians refused to work with the black pianist until he was separated from them in the studio, which he was. Then they recorded “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.”

Provizer’s work increases our understanding of the process of integration and how it affected the music. His intentions are undeniably laudable, but the book’s odd structure may put off many readers. Dominant sections of the book are the session lists, broken up by related essays such as “Episodes of Intermingling,” in which Provizer argues that “the comity which existed among musicians of different races, namely mutual identification as ‘outsiders’ brought together members of ethnic groups such as Jews and Italians with blacks.”

Finally, there are two pieces written in the voices of two white proponents of musical miscegenation, Mezz Mezzrow and Eddie Condon. (Both were previously published in The Syncopated Times.) The facts are duly presented, but the author uses techniques of creative non-fiction to put them into story form.

That was a clever device, one which heralded those two progressive jazzers. Both Mezzrow and Condon were active in interracial sessions and both played parts in the career of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who also did his part.

In fact both Bix, known as a golden-toned brassman, and Louis Armstrong, the era’s foremost hot horn player, enthusiastically embraced the concept of mixed music-making. Bix played jobs with black bassist Pops Foster in 1922 and ’25, and recorded two Hoagy Carmichael sessions in 1930 along with Ellington’s inventive trumpeter Bubber Miley.

Banjo player Eddie Condon recorded six sides with Fats Waller in 1929, as did Mezzrow five years later. Condon’s octet made records in 1933 along with black pianist Alex Hill and black drummer Sid Catlett. Mezz also played sessions with Louis Armstrong and Chick Webb in ’32, while Condon was the sole white player recording “Mahogany Hall Stop” with Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom Five in ’29. Provizer’s choice to adopt the Mezz and Condon voices was an inspired idea, but his writing falls short of capturing either Mezz’s legendary jive talk or Condon’s ever-cynical sense of humor.

And while wisdom famously advises that you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cartoonish cover image of As Long as They Can Blow may be colorful and eye-catching, but it trivializes the book’s serious subject matter. Wouldn’t black-and-white photographs of musicians from the 1920s have better illustrated Provizer’s historical overview?

Author Stephen Provizer is a Massachusetts-based brass musician who has been writing about jazz since the 1990s. His work can be found in publications such as The Syncopated Times, AllAboutJazz.com, Coda, Downbeat, Forward, Artsfuse.org, and at his Brilliant Corners blog.

More information, including photos and video, can be found at interracialjazz.com.

As Long as They Can Blow:
Interracial Jazz Recording and Other Jive Before 1935
by Stephen Provizer
Re-Balance Publishing, Gloucester, Mass.
ISBN:‎ 979-8892923729
172 pages; paperback $23.23; kindle ed. $5

 | Website

Russ Tarby is based in Syracuse NY and has written about jazz for The Syncopated Times, The Syracuse New Times, The Jazz Appreciation Society of Syracuse (JASS) JazzFax Newsletter, and several other publications.

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