Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture

by E. Douglas Bomberger, 288 pages, Oxford University Press (December 18, 2018)

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture1917 is remembered by many as the year jazz exploded on the scene and changed American music forever. In his new book about that year, E. Douglas Bomberger has found a novel way of framing this familiar story. He puts events taking place on stage and in the studio, to individual musicians, in their historical context. 1917 was the year that America entered the war and the war shaped everything.

His unique approach to portraying shifts in American musical culture is to follow the lives of eight musicians, some involved with classical music, some with jazz, as they traverse the events of the year and changing public expectations. In classical music, he follows orchestral conductors Karl Muck and Walter Damrosch, violinist Fritz Kreisler, pianist Olga Samaroff,  and contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, as they each navigate a radical public shift from the idolization of German art music, which had aided their careers, to a suspicion of all things German.

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Ernestine Schumann-Heink largely maintained an adoring public by holding concerts for the troops. But with sons fighting on both sides she was never beyond suspicion. Walter Damrosch put his patriotism on full display, he was even put in charge of standardizing the arrangement of the “Star Spangled Banner” and premiering it at a concert that December.

Others, like violinist Fritz Kreisler had their careers roughly interrupted. Karl Muck went from being the beloved conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to having concerts canceled because of riot threats. He was chosen to be the first to successfully record a full orchestra for Victor Records, only to months later have advertising for those discs omit his name. This downfall came because he wasn’t told about a request to add the National Anthem to a performance.

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture
Fritz Kreisler, Harold Bauer, Pablo Casals, and Walter Damrosch at Carnegie Hall, 1904

Controversies about the public performance of the National Anthem are a dramatic sub-theme of the book. Early in the year, as war is declared in March, dance and jazz bands are prohibited from playing it in their crass styles. By year’s end no symphony orchestra would dare omit it from a performance, artistic license being no excuse.

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Banishment of German music from the stage was by no means universal, but it did provide openings for American composers to be heard, and audiences to turn their gaze away from Europe. Though the major orchestras would continue to be led by Europeans for decades, psychologically the war allowed American classical culture to find its own place at the table. After the war there was room for men like Aaron Copeland to make their mark.

A similar shift happened in popular music. For the first century and more of American independence the nation looked to Europe for its music. What had begun to develop in ragtime and American popular song hit a critical mass with the birth of jazz. From 1917 on popular culture worldwide looked to America for inspiration.

In telling this story Bomberger follows jazz cornetists Dominic LaRocca and Freddie Keppard, and army bandmaster James Reese Europe. LaRocca, leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, takes “jass” from being a term always seen in quotation marks to advertisements for his band in late December starting to omit those quotation marks. By then jazz had become an established, if not quite understood, part of the culture.

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture
Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard alone ends the year about where he started it. The book traces his Creole Ragtime Band along a Midwest Vaudeville circuit that was increasingly expecting to hear jazz, and to a short success in New York before a dramatic breakup. Because they never recorded, and so much of the transference of jazz between musicians was through records, Keppard can be seen as a missed opportunity.

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James Reese Europe presents another dramatic missed opportunity. Had it not been for an untimely death he would have been a major force during the Harlem Renaissance, an early bridge to  Ellingtonian excellence and respectability. 1917 finds him organizing a regimental band with every intention of making it the best band in the military. The group that would become known as the Harlem Hellfighters is followed through their creation and their performances at various army camps during the year. They land in France on January 1st, 1918, where they would introduce jazz ideas to the European public.

A limitation of the book is that while the events of the year are guiding these eight musicians, none of the musicians is guiding the events of the year. Not even LaRocca. The ODJB is found in the studio, in Reisenweber’s Cafe, on rooftops, and back in the studio recording releases for 1918, but the impact of jazz isn’t found on one particular dance floor. Dozens of imitators sprang up, hyperbolic music critics fanned the flames, meanwhile, LaRocca was in court fighting for his copyright to “Livery Stable Blues.” The lived experiences of several of the highlighted musicians during the year don’t seem particularly remarkable, or relevant to the wheels of history turning outside their doors.

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture
Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a leading recording artist in 1917

But this is still a good read. The narrative propels you through 223 engaging pages as you bounce from character to character as in a novel. Thought of as a picture of a moment, rather than a case for the importance of 1917, the book is thoroughly enjoyable. The mix of jazz and classical artists makes for a compelling juxtaposition and one that has been missing. Nearly everyone at the time was familiar with the classical repertoire, and many symphony subscribers likely found themselves listening to a dance band after hours.

I appreciated the peak at a colony of classical artists in Maine during their summer offseason. The routine of dance bands coming in from the summer roof gardens was also revealing. Historians of early recording processes will appreciate the sections on the first recordings of symphonic music during the fall of 1917, as well as, obviously, the sections on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records of that year.  It could also be said without exaggeration that this is a book about the American homefront in the lead up to America’s entrance into WWI. Anyone with an established interest in that war will appreciate the interesting angle of discussion taken in this worthwhile book.

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