Interracial Jazz Recordings Before 1935: An Introduction
Over the last 20 years, the trend has been to interpret jazz history through the lens of current critical thinking about race and gender—a necessary corrective to writing that elided or made short work of the racism and sexism prevalent in the history of American popular music. It’s important to note that, because of racism and sexism, a lot of music performed between 1890 and 1920 did not become a part of our recorded legacy.
However, outside of recording studios, something else was going on. Racial walls between musicians were more porous than the de facto and de jure walls of segregation. There was always contact between musicians of color and white musicians, as love of the music provided a bond that transcended prevailing cultural mores—and this contact increased as time went on. There is ample evidence —written, oral, and recorded—of the amity and mutual respect that jazz musicians of all races and genders had for each other. Musicians of different races were unable to play publicly on the same stage (with rare and complicated exceptions), but after-hours jam sessions, rent parties, and other unofficial spaces provided a “color-blind” arena in which these musicians were able to perform together.
Beginning in the 1920s, record companies realized the profits that lay untapped and recorded more and more blues and jazz performances by black and white musicians. Although still a relatively small percentage, more and more of these sessions were integrated. These recordings were an important part of the normal listening repertory of both black and white musicians. Songs, instrumental techniques, and arrangements were passed back and forth, as each race became more familiar with the work of the other.
Should our perception of jazz history change when we learn that some proportion of the records that musicians of that era listened to were integrated sessions? I believe it should. These records, which reflected racial interplay, were also generators of contemporaneous musical inspiration. We take it for granted that black musicians were the source from which white musicians drew inspiration, but there’s also testimony that some of the most well-known black jazz musicians credited white musicians with influencing their playing. To say that this detracts from the accomplishments of Armstrong, Bechet, Ellington, Henderson, and so many others is ridiculous. Jazz is not a zero-sum game and acknowledging the contributions of Adrian Rollini, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Frank Trumbauer, and other white musicians simply opens us up to a wider field of vision.
I’ve compiled a list of over 300 pre-jazz and jazz interracial recordings from 1893 to 1935. Beneath each entry lurks a great deal of subtext; coded and cryptic, even to jazz cognoscenti. In some cases, we may know about friendships or casual contacts between musicians that led to their recording together. Sometimes, circumstantial evidence allows us to conclude that a recording company put people together for commercial reasons. Often, an educated guess is the best we can do.
Happily, in the case of Eddie Condon, we have a musician who was actively engaged in multiracial recording and was also a prolific writer who documents several important recording sessions in his autobiography We Called it Music. I’ve drawn from this and other sources to create the monologue in Condon’s voice below that gets us behind the scenes of these sessions.
As you read it, bear in mind that until the mid-1930s, there was almost no racial mixing on bandstands or performance venues. High profile integration of the Benny Goodman quartet in 1935 had a small ripple effect and there was increasing racial mixing, although jazz groups and venues remained almost entirely segregated. That has changed over time—slowly, but it has. It’s important to know that there was a group of men and women who bonded around the music and reached out to the “other” to help tell their stories. The impact of the recordings may not have been as dramatic as that of, say, Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings, but the musical threads were nonetheless woven into the fabric of jazz. Remove them and the evolution of the music would have been very different.
Integration in the Recording Studio: Eddie Condon’s Story
My nickname is “Slick.” Not that it bothers me too much one way or the other if a musician looks slick or shabby, Hell, when Louis Armstrong got to Chicago, his clothes looked like they came from a hock shop and Bix always looked like 10 unmade beds. Maybe I’d scuff my spats If I thought it would make me play like those guys, but I know it wouldn’t make any difference. My dad owned taverns and he thought a crisp apron and clean tie made it easier for him to control the rummies and amateurs who thought they bought extra privileges when they bought a beer. I know that the boys who run the clubs and the record labels don’t kiss me off so easily if l look like I already have dough and don’t need theirs. The women seem to be okay with it.
My family was musical and when I was a kid I heard a lot of records, but I half snored through them until my brother Jim started coming home with discs by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, Wilbur Sweatman, Ted Lewis and Art Hickman. We played them over and over and while America was singing Over There and A Long Way to Tipperary, I was beating out Avalon and Margie on my banjo, along with a few chums.
We managed to get some work locally, in Chicago Heights, but started to get jobs on the road, spending more and more time in Chicago. I even booked a job with Bix. When I met him, he was a kid in a cap with a broken brim. I said to myself ‘how did I get stuck with this clam digger for two months?’ I was always a great judge of character. When I heard him play that cornet, it sounded like a girl saying yes.
After working a while longer on the road and on the riverboats, I moved to Chicago and was on the scene there for a few years. My crowd was the white boys—Bix, Dave Tough, George Wettling, Mugsy Spanier, Benny Goodman, and the Austin High mob-Jimmy MacPartland, Bud Freeman, Frank Teschmaker and Jim Lannigan. Jazz and blues led us all around by the nose and when money was scarce, which it was for a long time, it led our noses into some real stinkholes.
During the day, we wrestled with our instruments and at night, we chased down the music. At the Friar’s Inn, a basement cabaret, we saw the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, or Ben Pollack groups, with white musicians like Adrian Rollini, Frank Trumbauer and Bix; especially Bix. For a while we were shut out of what they called “cafes” on Chicago’s Black South Side, where it was really happening. We’d stand in the doorway and listen and when someone opened the door we could actually hear. Then, when older white kids like clarinet player Volly de Faut were recruited to get the younger ones in, they couldn’t chase us away. okay
One time, there was a new guy on the door at the Lincoln Gardens, and the lunk said:
So, who’s this guy, then?
That’s okay, mac, you can talk to my face. There’s worse lookin’ mugs around here than me.
Alright wise guy, who are you?
The name’s Eddie Condon.
Joe Glaser, who ran the joint, and later managed Armstrong, came over. He looked at us white boys, then over to King Oliver, sitting onstage with his band. Oliver saw us and flashed the high sign. Glaser let us in for nothing and we sat down in front of the band. It was hypnosis. We were immobilized and the music poured into us like daylight running down a dark hole. We studied with professors Louis Armstrong, King Joe Oliver, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds and other black musicians making the language of jazz. We sat there stiff with education, joy and a licorice-tasting gin purchased from the waiters for two dollars a pint.
Jazz felt like it was up for grabs back then. The white guys were forging a style of playing that intersected but veered away from what OIiver, Armstrong and the others were doing. It was different, but when it worked, it worked. All I knew and still know is that there are good and bad roads through a tune. The good ones run through improvisation you make up on the spot that comes from your gut. The bad ones are studded with clichés—ruts that you don’t have the skill and creativity to climb out of. I’m in the rhythm section, on banjo and guitar and I get work because I know chords, I’m a good listener and I’m not stupid enough to try and solo. Those ruts would suck me right in.
The boys also kept me around because I hustled jobs and recording sessions. In fact, the reason I’m scribbling this is to tell you about a few sessions I was involved in. The first was finagled by Red MacKenzie. Later on, in Chicago, I drummed up a session for a black group led by the great Jimmie Noone and then I convinced Victor records to record a session in New York that was pretty much the first real mixed-race recording in jazz, with my gang and some guys from Charlie Johnson’s band. After that, I had a hand in a mixed Fats Waller session. Then, I was the guy behind a session that brought Louis Armstrong together with Jack Teagarden and a few other worthies, black and white.
The first session, which was also the first recording I made, happened in 1927. I’d been in Chicago three years and was 22 years old. As I said, it was Red McKenzie who finagled the session, but it was a good chance for me to glad hand some record company guys and see how the whole thing worked.
McKenzie was an ex-jockey from St. Louis who used to jam with a shoeshine boy and decided that playing music was easier than falling off a horse. I thought he looked like a mad bartender, especially when he blew through newspaper strips and a comb and made something some people thought was close to music. Anyway, starting in 1924, the group he called the Mound City Blue Blowers fooled enough people to sell a lot of records.
McKenzie was in town scouting talent for the Blowers. He’d heard I’d been beefing about another red head who played the cornet and said:
So boy, you’re running down some pretty good guys—Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. Do you pop off for exercise, or does it help you to breathe?
We’re talking about music, I said, not about guys. We don’t care who the player is; it’s what he plays.
What’s the matter with Nichols’ records?
The music is planned, and jazz can’t be scored.
You talk big. What do you do?
I play the banjo and mind my own business. Why don’t you try it?
So, you don’t like Nichols’ music. Do you know anybody who can play half as good?
I know a dozen guys who can play twice as good.
McKenzie agreed to come to my room at the Lincoln Park West Hotel the next day. I rounded up the guys and we punched out a couple of tunes. McKenzie listened and said:
You win. I’m gonna get you a record date with Tommy Rockwell of Okeh. He’s in town for two weeks. I’ll see him tomorrow. This band is as hot as a cheap sidewalk on August 15th.
You know Rockwell?
Who do you suppose pulled Bix and Trumbauer out of Goldkette’s band in New York to make those Okeh records?
McKenzie. I’ll call you tomorrow. Try to learn English in case you meet Rockwell.
What he told Rockwell, I don’t know, but it worked. The band had no name, and we had to call it something, so we landed on the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans. The cast was all white—Jimmy McPartland, cornet, Frank Teschemacher, clarinet, Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone, Joe Sullivan, piano, me on banjo, Jim Lannigan, bass and Gene Krupa, drums. We recorded Sugar and China Boy and they have a nice swing. No one takes any big chances, but everyone is at least competent and Teschemacher and Sullivan a little more than that. The records made enough noise to land us some gigs and more recording sessions.
At the start of 1928, McKenzie and I dragged Jack Kapp, who was working for Brunswick records to the Apex Club to see Jimmie Noone and Earl Hines. It must have looked like a waterfront clip joint to Kapp, but after a few drinks and a dozen choruses of Jimmy’s Four or Five Times he was reassured and said:
We’ve got to have some of this.
But Noone demurred:
How can I play music at ten o’clock in the morning. That’s my bedtime.
We managed to convince him that he ought to stay up another few hours for the sake of art. He did, and on the morning of August 23, 1928, it was Kapp who got cold feet. Now, he was stone sober and when he heard the boys break into I Know That You Know he said:
What are they doing? Where’s the melody?
Anybody can play the melody, I said. These boys are doing better than that.
They were and the public got it and bought the record. You don’t say “I told you so” to the guy writing the checks, so I didn’t. They called it Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, with Noone on clarinet and vocal, Joe Poston, clarinet and alto sax, Earl Hines, piano, Bud Scott, on banjo and guitar, Lawson Buford, on bass and Johnny Wells, drums.
Not long after the session, McKenzie counted up his dough, felt flush and said why don’t we go to New York. I was working in trumpeter Louis Panico’s band and when I told Panico about it he said:
Why not. You’ve got to learn about life sometime.
I asked McKenzie if you could breathe in New York without straining the air and he said:
People in New York don’t inhale. They just exhale.
I landed in New York in 1928. Typical of the joints I lived in was the Grencourt Apartments on 50th street, between 7th Ave and Broadway, where I roomed with Joe Sullivan. It was the crummiest block in the city—taffy joints, hamburger stands, popcorn stalls, and a subway entrance. No light from the outside got into any of the rooms and all the windows opened on billboards. We lived behind a loaf of Bond Bread in a two-room suite the size of a single jointed peanut.
Playing jobs were off and on, good and bad. If you wanted to play hot, you had a lot less work than if you played for social dancing; and most people wanted to dance. Times were pretty good if you hooked up with a dance band with steady gigs. Otherwise, it was a scuffle. You could “get off” once in a while in those bands, but we hated the music. To us, not scuffling meant that, one way or another, you’d sold out.
To hear real music, we went to Harlem. I went five nights a week, whether I was working or not. I was at Small’s Paradise listening to Charlie Johnson’s band. Somebody, I thought, ought to put this music on record. It’s too good to miss. I knew Ralph Peer, who scouted talent for Southern Music publishers, a subsidiary of Victor records, and told him I wanted to put some of Johnson’s band together with some of my own crowd. Yea, black and white musicians together. Don’t ask me if I thought about that too much. If I had, I might not have tried. Nobody was playing in public in a mixed race group then, but for years, black and white musicians had been mixing off the record, in late night and early morning jam sessions in after-hours joints or homes. Since no one was gonna take pictures in a recording studio and advertise the fact that black and white were playing together, I thought the risks to the record company would seem small to Peer. He looked dubious, but I talked at him for 20 minutes and he began to think that he could make a decent record and a few bucks. Finally, he gave in and set a date, saying:
This will be for Victor. I hope it’s good.
It was. I was on banjo, Jack Teagarden, trombone, Mezz Mezzrow, C-melody sax and Joe Sullivan, piano. Leonard Davis, trumpet, Happy Caldwell, tenor sax, and George Stafford on drums came from Johnson’s band. When it was over, Peer said:
This is excellent. All in all I should say this has been an interesting experiment.
I don’t know about an interesting experiment, but I knew it was a helluva session, and thought at that point, February 8, 1929, that it was the first mixed recording date on a national label. Now I know that’s not so, but I would call it the boldest mixed session up until then. Instead of having one or two people of a different race on a recording, this was the first time a major label had used an almost equal number of black and white musicians. I guess it opened up a new space, you might say, and more and more recording sessions became mixed. okay
The next mixed session came when I got tied in with my favorite piano player, Fats Waller. I suppose you’d say that Fats and I were opposites. I come from a big Midwestern family. My father was a barkeep and we had to move around some, whenever a state changed its laws about selling booze. Fats was a New Yorker and his dad was a truckdriver and a preacher. Fats was a large black man and I was a white runt. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. I did, and sometimes, more than one. I was a good enough musician to get by. Fats was one of the most important piano players on the planet. I was always on the hustle, but Fats blew from joint to joint as he pleased, letting it all come to him. He churned out tunes the way Atwater Kent turned out radios and I knew a melody when it bit me. We both loved the bottle, but I was amateur night and Fats was world-class. Fats knew classical music and I knew how to pronounce Beethoven.
Where we came together was in the night and in the music. In that way, you couldn’t get a Gillette razor blade in between us.
We never played a job together—at that point, black and white didn’t. I could go and see him play, but being black, he wouldn’t have been able to get into most of the joints I played, even if he’d wanted to. People did sit in on gigs—Miff Mole with King Oliver, Jack Purvis, and Pee Wee Russell with Fletcher Henderson. Wingy Manone and Bix with Louis Armstrong. But you were a lot likelier to see mixing at after-hours joints, rent parties, and jam sessions. Like at Small’s, you’d see Jack Teagarden, Benny and Harry Goodman, Ray Bauduc and a gang of others jamming with Ellington.
So, the world had its own rules about race, but we found the cracks; the places we could share ideas and dig each other’s music and style.
It was big shots from the recording industry, trying to protect their investment, who brought me and Fats together. It went this way: not long after the mixed race session with Charlie Johnson’s guys, Ralph Peer called me to his office and introduced me to Mr. Adams. Mr Adams had a moustache and a problem. The problem was Fats Waller. Adams’ company, the Southern Music Company, part of Victor, had an investment in Fats and was having trouble getting him into the studio and once there, having him produce anything usable. Adams asked me if I’d be willing to deliver Fats, with a well-rehearsed band, to a session scheduled four days later. For $75, I said I’d have attempted to produce Herbert Hoover in a soft collar.
I caught up with Fats at Connie’s Inn/Lafayette Theatre, where he was rehearsing the show “Hot Chocolates,” for which Fats had written, among other songs Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Black and Blue. I told Fats that Earl Hines had asked me to look him up and Fats suggested we have a drink and talk about it. He was so agreeable and good-natured that I was almost ashamed of my assignment to ride herd on him, but I asked him if he’d make the session and he said:
Fine! Wonderful! Perfect! okay
I stayed close to Fats for the next three days, but every time I brought up the idea of rehearsing, he said:
Fine! Wonderful! Perfect!
And handed me another belt of gin. We were in perfect accord about everything. Nothing happened. Any stab I took at staying on task was drowned in a bottomless gin bottle.
At 10 AM on the day of the session we both woke up, fully dressed, at Connie’s Inn, and through my fog I noted we were due at the studio in two hours. Fats told me to find three nickels and poof, he made three calls and rounded up the rest of the band. In a taxi on the way to pick them up, I said to Fats:
What are you going to play?
Fats said to me: “What are you going to play? Man, you’re with us. Where’s your banjo?
But I’m not supposed to play with you.
Fats looked hurt.
You mean you don’t want to play with us?
Of course I do.
What Fats and I wanted to do was a hell of a lot more important than what Ralph Peer or Mr. Adams’ moustache wanted, so we picked up my banjo and then the other musicians.
As we drove in the taxi to the studio, Fats hummed a tune to the rest of us that he’d made up on the way. He repeated it until we got it and explained the arrangements.
We got to the studio and Mr. Adams complimented us on our punctuality. The session, on March 1, 1929, went off without a hitch. We called it Fats Waller and His Buddies, with Charlie Gaines, trumpet, Charlie Irvis, trombone, Arville Harris, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, Fats Waller, piano, and me on banjo. Afterward, Mr. Adams said to me:
You see what careful rehearsal will do? This is an excellent example of the wisdom of planning and preparation. We must have more of these dates.
After that, the Southern Music Company, with careful planning and preparation, brought out the record on a Victor label with the titles reversed: Harlem Fuss was called The Minor Drag and The Minor Drag was called Harlem Fuss.
I got my $75.
At that time (and still) everybody’s main man was Louis Armstrong—Pops, Satch, Satchelmouth, Satchmo—the King. Pops was a New Orleans guy, of course, who’d gone to Chicago in 1922 to join up with Joe Oliver—who had himself once been the King. Armstrong rose quickly to the top of the heap and he answered the call to come to New York in 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Pops wasn’t that happy to be in NYC and went to back to Chicago.
Tommy Rockwell, whom we met earlier in this saga, was the guy behind the world-shaking recordings that Pops had made for Okeh records. Rockwell had tried to get Pops back to New York and after three years, had finally convinced him to come back to play with Luis Russell’s Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom and make some recordings. We all greeted Pops like the conquering hero that he was and threw a banquet celebration in his honor.
I looked around the banquet room and shook my head. I had never seen so many good musicians, white and colored, in one place at the same time. okayAround about four o’clock in the morning, I went up to Tommy Rockwell and said he had to do a session with Pops in a mixed group and Rockwell said he didn’t know about using a mixed group.
That made me sore and I figured a low shot across the bow might move him from his spot:
If Victor can do it, Okeh can do it. Or can’t they?
By now, people were leaning into our conversation and I think Rockwell knew he would have looked gutless, so he agreed and said:
I’ve got a date at nine this morning with the Luis Russell band. I’ll put it back in the afternoon. okayGet your boys together and I’ll speak to Louis.
I rounded up Jack Teagarden and Joe Sullivan and we got to the Okeh studio at nine. Kaiser Marshall, Fletcher’s drummer, showed up with Pops and tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell and said:
Morning fellas. We didn’t bother going to bed. I rode the boys around in my car for a while and we had breakfast about 6 so we could get here by eight. And by the way…
He held us a gallon jug of whiskey.
…we brought this.
Eddie Lang had been scheduled to record with the Luis Russell Orchestra and I guess no one had told him that session was rescheduled for the afternoon, so he was there. And what the hell, there was no better guitarist in the world, so we asked him to join the fray.
The engineers started to creep around, setting mics and all that, and we started to warm up. I noticed Pops listening carefully to Teagarden and I saw him put his hand on his heart and say:
It moves me. It moves me right through here.
Pops started to walk around, and it looked like he wanted to find a place to get the clearest sound from Teagarden’s trombone he could. He even climbed up a stepladder so he could hear him better and only came down when the engineer persuaded him to get to his microphone so we could start the recording. Pops stood next to Teagarden and said:
I’m a spade and you an ofay. We got the same soul—so let’s blow.
I warned you earlier in this tale that I could be amateur night when it came to booze, and I’m afraid I went into a snooze at that point and didn’t play on the session. I had to pick up what happened after I woke up and listened to the playback. The band had decided on a slow blues. Eddie did a nice little guitar intro, and Teagarden picked it up from there. He sounded like he’d heard Pops; not an imitation, you know, something in the blood. Eddie, Happy and Joe all took a chorus. Then, Louis came in and picked it up higher with each chorus until he called all the children home at the end. The recording sounded fine, with maybe Kaiser’s snare drum a little too close to the mic.
Rockwell asked what we called the tune and we all looked at each other. Pops said
I don’t know…
And then he saw the empty jug.
…But man, we sure knocked that jug—you can call it Knockin’ a Jug!
Even though I didn’t even end up playing on the date, I somehow got listed as co-composer of the tune. Maybe the guys and Rockwell agreed as payment for my putting the session together.
After Knockin’ a Jug, we tried to record another tune—I’m Gonna Stomp Mister Henry Lee—but we couldn’t get through it. I guess by that point, the jug had knocked us.