Author Fumi Tomita Delves into Early Jazz

Fumi Tomita is Associate Professor of Jazz Pedagogy and Performance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of The Jazz Rhythm Section: A Manual for Band Directors. He was active as a bass player in the New York jazz scene for over fifteen years. His recordings include The Elephant Vanishes: Jazz Interpretations of the Short Stories of Haruki Murakami, and on tenor saxophonist David Detweiler’s recordings, Celebrating Bird: The Music of Charlie Parker and There Used To Be Rain. I conducted the interview by email.

SP: What was your general goal in writing the book? Who was your intended audience?

Red Wood Coast

FT: The intended audience is for those familiar with jazz but wanting to know more about early jazz. I felt that there weren’t any good introductory-type books on the topic and was surprised to find out that no one had really written anything like it since Schuller’s book. Court Carney came pretty close [Cuttin’ Up: How Early Jazz Got America’s Ear] and there are some good New Orleans material out there, but no overview.

I guess a big goal I had was to write a complete history of jazz over several volumes or books. When I studied for comprehensive exams I had to learn the whole history of Western classical music and came across Richard Taruskin’s History of Western Music which is five or so volumes. It was amazingly detailed and I remember thinking that jazz needed something like that. Sometimes when I read a jazz history book it is like 500-700 pages long and of course things are going to be missed; there’s so much nuance in jazz history. I wanted to write something similar to Taruskin’s work. I got to UMASS and was teaching three jazz history classes, so fate delivered me an outlet to get this idea together. Though I did not have time until the pandemic hit. Whether or not I continue is up for debate at this point, but it’s not out of the question. Thing is, most people don’t really care about the history only the playing. Maybe my book can stir up some interest and demand.

In the Acknowledgments, you say that your book is an updated version of Gunther Schuller’s book. Can you expand on this? Also, were there things that you wanted to avoid in Schuller’s approach or in what he specifically wrote? One thing I’d mention is that you talk about women jazz musicians, a rarity with Schuller.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Updated in the sense that I presented material in a very different manner so that perhaps the non-specialist could more easily digest the material. I also wanted to update some artist’s resumes with current research. For example, my chapter on Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Sevens is based off of Brian Harker’s book [Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings]. We all know those records are great but he gives them shape and the line from Armstrong’s earliest solos with King Oliver through West End blues is clearly outlined.

Bassist, professor, and author Fumi Tomita (courtesy

Gunther Schuller includes a lot of transcription and I wanted to avoid that. I also wanted to present early jazz as a combination of art and entertainment music. For me, that’s what jazz really issometimes it’s more art and other times it’s more entertainment and the jazz musician is capable of playing both. I wanted to present a broader view of the music and that includes women, also novelty performers, those who travelled as well as some of the lesser known musicians by instrument—jazz history is not only male heavy, but also trumpet-saxophone-piano heavy!

One of the interesting elements you bring out is the fact that early ideas of squeals, honks, laughing sounds, using mutes, etc., in order to stand out, eventually became the central jazz ethic of expression one’s individuality. Can you expand on that?

Ha ha! Schuller absolutely detested that stuff and since he doesn’t talk about it, it has disappeared a little from history. I cringed when I listened to Red McKenzie’s comb but when I heard Fess Williams on the clarinet or saxophone he made me laugh and I came to accept and better understand those novelty sounds. Now it doesn’t faze me at all and I hear the beauty (and humor) behind the music. Something about humor that has disappeared from the music, though, interestingly, not from the musicians.

Jazz definitely favors the individual and I think the notion of individuality comes out of a culture of being self-taught musicians. It is a dominant trope in African American music genres from blues to hip hop. In jazz, novelty sounds went from squeaks and honks in early jazz to later generations of bebop musicians like Monk or Horace Silver who maintained a unique sound despite unorthodox methods of playing their instruments—fingers stiff when playing etc. Hampton Hawes outlines this methodology/philosophy in the liner notes to his album Hampton Hawes at the Piano.


An associated element is the (unrecognized) degree to which entertainment was a part of jazz performance-comedy skits, knockabout, cross dressing, preaching parodies. That’s not something people think about, is it?

Nope! But jazz developed out of the entertainment world of the late 19thearly 20th c. which includes minstrelsy, circuses, carnivals, and vaudeville. There were no jazz clubs, it was just dance halls and you played for dancers. Sometimes there were dance contests, raffles, guest singers, sing-a-longs, floorshows etc. and the band had to accompany that. What is lost to posterity are live recordings which would have given us a well-rounded picture of musicians of the era. Relying on recordings only presents a skewed picture of the music and what the musicians lives were actually like.

You talk about a “double consciousness” of urban and rural identities that stayed in jazz. What do you mean by that?


In the early 20th century as modernization was taking place, there was a real divide between urban and rural identities. A famous example in jazz being the reception of country boy Louis Armstrong amongst the “sophisticated,” well- traveled musicians in the big city of New York and how he was laughed at for what he wore and all that. James P. Johnson talks about playing music that he heard as a young boy for southern dancers in the “Jungles” casino in New York. In this case, his music became the basis for stride, an urban-based music.

Schuller uses a lot of musical notation to illustrate his points, but you use something you call a “Listening guide.” Tell us what these are and why you decided to use them.

Schuller’s book was very important in helping establish jazz as music worth studying—after all here was a textbook one could use in the college classroom. I didn’t need to prove that in my book, but some description of the music is certainly useful. Listening guides are an outline of the song and can be helpful for the musically uninformed or even informed listener. In these guides, I outline the main sections but also some subtleties of the music. The idea was for the book to be a textbook of sorts, hence the listening guides and number of chapters.


You say an important network of Chicago dance bands are overshadowed by its great small jazz groups. Why should we care about these groups?

To show that there were a lot of great pre-big bands (like Erskine Tate’s) coming out of Chicago, and not just New York. The importance of this is the culture of these larger dance bands and many great musicians came up in those dance bands which means that they were not strictly ear players, but could also sightread music, blend into a section, follow a conductor, were aware of different styles like classical, march, ragtime, jigs, blues, etc. Many of those Chicago dance bandleaders were college educated musicians (meaning they had classical lessons, learned solfege, theory, ear training and composition), and they were mentors to many musicians, teaching them about being professional—just like Fate Marable on the steamboats, but it was in a big city. The dance band was school for upcoming musicians, hence the term “university of the streets.”


You talk about the fluidity of the term “white” back in the day. Also, about the complicated racial situation in New Orleans. Has a lack of recognition of this by jazz scholars led to misconceptions about the formation of the music? Along with that, I believe and have written about the idea that early interracial recordings constitute an important and again, unrecognized part of jazz history. Do you agree?

Samuel Charters talks about immigrant populations in New Orleans and I found it fascinating. Jazz is an African American music, but the notion of who was playing it is lost.

I agree that interracial recordings are important, but I think the core idea behind that is the social interaction between whites and blacks. It means they played together and learned from each other—not just musically but socially as well. That tends to de-emphasized. Young white Chicagoans watching King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band is well-known but they must have talked and asked questions. Frank Guarente talks about befriending King Oliver.

Are there any early jazz musicians that you were especially interested in bringing to people’s attention?

I tried to spotlight some other lesser-known names like Garvin Bushell, Omer Simeon, Loren McMurray, and Sam Wooding, but honestly, the big problem is that few have ventured to really listen to the music and to check out the repertoires of artists. It’s the same with the big names. Bennie Moten’s recording from 1923 through 1932 is a fascinating listen as you can really hear the growth and development of his music. But the same can be said for Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, or Bix Beiderbecke. That to me was really interesting because early jazz was so fluid in that sense.

I find the relationship between the fact that almost all early jazz musicians were well trained and the mythology that they were “natural” and unschooled very complex. In some cases, black musicians had to memorize music and not have music onstage to reinforce this idea with white audiences. White musicians who wanted to be considered “real” also propagated this idea. What are your ideas about this?

Great question. I guess that’s part of the glamorization of the jazz musician as artist: all these rumors about musicians, especially black ones, who could not read etc. I guess too it’s part of the branding and image of jazz and blues, as record companies could sell the music that way.

If you take the other side of the coin, black classical musicians, they were routinely shunned by that industry and most were unable to sustain careers—Ron Carter was a classical cellist, Eddie South was an aspiring classical violinist, Nina Simone was a classical pianist and the list goes on. It’s the powers that be—music industry executives—that force musicians of color into boxes that have long been in place for them; those musicians I mentioned when against the status quo.

Fumi Tomita’s book Early Jazz is now available at, with a paperback edition to be released in August 2024. Visit Fumi Tomita online at

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Steve Provizer is a brass player, arranger and writer. He has written about jazz for a number of print and online publications and has blogged for a number of years at: He is also a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

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