The Journal of Provincial Thought
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Kid Spats Deepelym
Fortescue “Kid Spats” Deepelum
American musicians, instead of investigating rag-time,
attempt to ignore it, or dismiss it with a contemptuous word.
But that has always been the course of scholasticism in every
branch of art.  Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-
poohed; whatever is popular  is spoken of as not worth the while.
—James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-
Colored Man

As the jazz revolution got underway after 1917, a second wave of African-American music arrived in popular culture—the first phonograph recordings of the traditional blues by more or less authentic singers.  Printed scores of blues had been sold since ca. 1910, in the tide of new dance music generated by ragtime.  The blues appeared in the pop market as another kind of slow dance music, and when lyrics were printed, they were fanciful and bowdlerized, hardly the earthy, sexualized and demotic language of the Mississippi Delta or other corners of the rural south.  “Easy Rider” became the story of a jockey and his lady friend, not a tribute to pimping and copulation skills; other blues were sentimentalized into Tin Pan Alley tales of lost love and broken hearts, not the powerful expressions of rage, despair and lust blues singers retailed.  They lost both their bardic generality and their ethnic specificity when mass-marketed and force-fit into the tidy molds of Tin Pan Alley.

            W.C. Handy and other pioneer arrangers and composers collected folk blues and brought them to consumers of popular music in edited form but with something like their original feeling.  Handy claimed to have “invented” or “discovered” the music instead of transmitting it, which prompted Jelly Roll Morton later to trump Handy’s boast by saying that he had invented ragtime, jazz and stomps (three of a kind beating an ace), but everyone knew from the beginning this was all nineteenth-century folk material, even when it surfaced in the 1910s and ’20s.

            In 1920, phonograph records of blues singers reached the market with a further revelation—the subtle idioms of blues performance.  The first big hit of the burgeoning blues craze was Mamie Smith recording Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” for the Okeh label.  Smith, like the other blueswomen who followed, had a decorous, semi-vaudeville approach to the music, but her robust blues voice and distinct diction could sell a song even on the foggy medium of acoustically recorded shellac.  The music was a distinct novelty, though it sold primarily to the “race” audience, i.e., African-American listeners.  It may have brought back nostalgic memories for southern blacks who moved to Chicago and New York in huge numbers after about 1910, or it may have been a curiosity to find black-oriented vocal music on disc that wasn’t ragtime or vaudeville material of the coon song variety.  The up-close, personalized messages of the blues fitted with up-close listening to the parlor phonograph.

            In the next years, women blues singers developed this subgenre of “classic” blues, the operatic approach to the blues, featuring a singer and minimal accompaniment, usually piano, like a recital of exotic leider.  Some singers, like Mamie Smith or Sippie Wallace, were out of a vaudeville-singing background, but others like Ma Rainey were seasoned on the blues circuit of the rural south—medicine shows, tent shows and other venues for rawer down-home blues.  By the time Bessie Smith appeared in the Columbia recording studios in 1923, the genre settled into a predictable pattern, and more blues were reaching record—male country blues singers, street singers, urban singers and instrumental blues different from the old one-step ballroom arrangements.  The blues no longer seemed alien and inexplicable, and both the musical sound and the language of the blues were entering common consciousness, even if they, like jazz, emerged from the demimonde, the subbasement of the culture.

            The range of blues lyrics and the pliability of the musical form made the music infinitely adaptable, and the expressive possibilities expanded all popular music.  They emerged from a pool of materials story-oriented on the one hand—like ballads, like bardic tales, like the obscene and comic “toasts” built on folk-hero tales (of which white audiences knew fragments, like Joel Chandler Harris’s assemblage of Br’er Rabbit stories) or of semi-comic insult sessions like “The Dozens” or “signifyin’”— and on the other hand poetic, built of traditional phrases and images capturing elemental feelings. 

            The stories could be archetypal and timeless—“Trouble in Mind” or “Downhearted Blues”—or topical—“Muddy Water Blues,” about the great Mississippi River floods of 1927-28—or local murder ballads like “Staggerlee.”  While records of classic blues were laments by lovelorn women, this was only a minor subset of the blues.  In response to the demand for blues records, jazz groups cut instrumental blues, which conveyed the blues feelings in a jazz context. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band had recorded excellent original blues—“Bluin’ the Blues” and “Mourning Blues”—but later bands demonstrated an even wider range, including Handy standards like “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues.”  The music no longer seemed a quaint offshoot of ragtime or dance music but a medium for intense musical expression in complex patterns.  It was a basic language of African-American music, and the emerging “race” records of the early 1920s and band recordings like those of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (1923-24) taught listeners its vocabulary and syntax.

            Like “jazz,” the term “blues” seemed mysterious, either nonsense or derived from some vocabulary and mindset beyond comprehension.  The lyrics conveyed a root sense of the word, the feeling it implied—not simple “sadness,” or “depression,” or “grief,” or “loneliness,” but a compound emotion, a state of mind recognizable and describable but hitherto unnamed.  The lyrics showed that the blues wasn’t about surrender or helplessness or passivity:  there were solutions for despair, however drastic:  “Gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Let the 219 train pacify my mind” or “Gonna get me a pistol long as my arm/Shoot every man who done me harm.”  But the same lyrics often found hope amidst hopelessness:  “Sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday” or “Pack my bags and make my getaway” or “Gonna get to Atlanta if I have to ride the rods.”  The songs were problems and solutions inextricably bound together, rising from impenetrable darkness to light in a few dozen measures.

            Jelly Roll Morton, with one of the most fertile imaginations in early jazz and blues, invented the term “joys” as an antonym for “blues,” but he sometimes conflated them.  One early number  (based on what the great pianist/multi-instrumentalist Manuel Manetta called “the old New Orleans blues”) Morton called alternatively and indifferently either “New Orleans Blues” or “New Orleans Joys.”  Other Morton  numbers, like the energetic stomp “Milenberg Joys,” are clearly extroverted and carefree.  The blues wore two faces, the masks of comedy and tragedy, sometimes showing both at once.

            The paradoxical mixture of desperate sorrow and giddy energy was a new feeling for most listeners.  The hardboiled realism of many lyrics, and their frequent humor and titillating innuendo,  attracted young people eager to break out of the prison of middle-class respectability, the moralizing and finger-pointing of what H.L. Mencken speared as the “booboisie” or the success-obsessed attitude of the rising middle class that Sinclair Lewis called “Babbittry.”  Blues singers were cool, self-reliant, tough, all attitudes  young women especially needed as they embraced enfranchisement and confronted other cultural barriers.  The blues lyrics expressed the devil-may-care jauntiness and independence of the generation after World War I.  As one title expressed it, “Wild women don’t get the blues!”

            The blues reached a mass audience by records in the early ’20s, and they also reached live listeners through vaudeville, tent shows and other musical theater.  White singing and dancing sensations like Gilda Grey, Blossom Seeley and Bee Palmer presented sanitized or homogenized versions of the blues, as did later stars like Mae West and Sophie Tucker.  But the authentic blues divas were black singers like Ma Rainey, Clara, Mamie, Trixie or Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Sara Martin and many others who worked in shows like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels or other southern-circuit tent shows, on second-tier vaudeville circuits for the notoriously exploitative T.O.B.A., the Theater Owners Booking Association (usually called “Tough on Black Asses” by the artists themselves) or in circuses and carnivals.  The music was available on two distinct levels—in live, lower-class environments, as almost a folk form, and on phonograph records in parlors or living rooms, including those of the middle class (insofar as blues records sold beyond the “race” market of southern blacks or southern blacks newly transplanted to northern cities).  Versions of the blues were sung in speakeasies and night clubs, by college bands, by popular singers.  The form migrated by osmosis, like ragtime and jazz, through white imitations and homage.

            After the initial effect of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band on the public, imitative versions of New Orleans jazz were available as arranged music by dance bands like Art Hickman’s, Leo Reisman’s or Paul Whiteman’s or as quasi-jazz by studio musicians closely aping the ODJB formula, like the myriad of five-piece combos recording in the early 1920s for dozens of labels as The Memphis Five, The Cotton Pickers, Ladd’s Black Aces, etc.  These groups played the basic ODJB repertory but added current pop and dance hits and, as the blues craze of 1920 developed, instrumental blues.  The bands included excellent musicians with long jazz careers—Miff Mole, Phil and Marty Napoleon, Frank Signorelli, Jimmy Lytell and many others who made “Dixieland” a permanent subgenre of jazz--and the recordings were respectable versions of hot music when  African-American jazz bands were not yet recorded.  Their records on low-budget labels were widely distributed and sold and probably introduced more Americans to what they believed to be jazz than records by major groups.  Their music was peppy, confident, pop-oriented and accessible.  While the ODJB played a tight ensemble music in the New Orleans mode, with no real solos, these little bands used solos liberally, featuring trick arrangements and catchy “sound effect” devices on the ODJB order but also focusing on individual instruments.  They lacked the frenetic energy of the ODJB—who didn’t?—and replaced the ODJB’s nervous vitality with a relaxed and simpler sound, a “listener-friendly” directness.

            Dance bands of the early 1920s played blues and pseudo-blues and pop blues like “Wang Wang Blues,” “Wabash Blues” or “Limehouse Blues,” smooth and danceable, light music that replaced operetta or musical comedy dance numbers of past decades, and Broadway tunesmiths like Jerome Kern hurried to assimilate the sound.  Tin Pan Alley absorbed the blues, which became part of the inventory of pop music and pop culture.  Irregularities and tonal subtleties of the blues were smoothed out, and the blues changes were conventionalized.  At the same time, more grassroots blues sounds circulated.  In 1922 the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, also called the Friars Society Orchestra, white musicians from New Orleans and Chicago, recorded for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana.  A connection between the record company and Melrose Music in Chicago became a conduit for New Orleans musicians who worked in Chicago and achieved fame.  The NORK sounded more like black New Orleans bands than the ODJB.  Cornetist Paul Mares, clarinetist Leon Roppolo and trombonist George Brunis revered black musicians and their styles, and their records had a subtle rhythm and organization closer to jazz (as played in 1920) than to ragtime.  They recorded some ODJB repertory—“Tiger Rag,” “Clarinet Marmalade”—but introduced more New Orleans standards—“Panama,” “Milneburg Joys”—and original compositions.  They put more convincing blues onto record than the ODJB, including “Tin Roof Blues,” “Farewell Blues” and “Discontented Blues.”

            The NORK played a blues-based music at foxtrot tempo, rather than the jittery one-step tempo of the ODJB, and they created an ensemble sound like that which cornet king Joe Oliver invented for his bands in New Orleans and Chicago.  Mares was a mute specialist like Oliver, using terse wa-wa effects in his lead, and Roppolo was a powerful clarinetist who used the middle and lower registers effectively.  While the band had a powerful rhythmic drive, it was also lyrical and featured solos more than the ODJB.  It sounded smooth, like the white dance bands and The Memphis Five, without departing  from the patterns of New Orleans jazz.  On one session, Jelly Roll Morton sat in on piano and introduced tunes he was cutting as a solo pianist for Gennett, and a blacker sound was produced by the NORK.  The road was paved for New Orleans jazz played by African-American bands, which Gennett introduced in 1923 with their first records by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

            This group sat at the pinnacle of the music.  Joe Oliver with trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory had created the finest bands in New Orleans in the late 1910s.  He and Ory parted ways, both going for awhile to the west coast (where in 1921 Ory recorded for an obscure label the first black jazz group), then Oliver went to Chicago and built a band with the best New Orleans musicians, eventually including young Louis Armstrong.  Oliver was well known as a leader and as a star cornetist famous for his mute work and blues playing.  His band showcased his own talent, but it also played a traditional New Orleans jazz ensemble style, with careful “routines” (head arrangements) more imaginative and lively than anything northern audiences had heard.  With Armstrong as second cornet and sometimes another reed with Johnny Dodds’ clarinet, Oliver’s group  had a big, dance-band sound.  Oliver’s band and the NORK created a foxtrot-tempo jazz adaptable to the pop music market of the early 1920s.  The Creole Jazz Band records of 1923-24 included a range of music wider than that of either the ODJB or the NORK, with New Orleans jazz standards like “High Society” and “Dippermouth Blues” (an Oliver mute specialty), blues like “Riverside Blues” (by the later gospel master Thomas A. Dorsey), “Chimes Blues,” fast stomps like “Snake Rag” or  “Chattanooga Stomp,”  sweet semi-pop tunes like “Tears” or “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”

            In the Creole Jazz Band repertory were many kinds of blues, the raunchy low-down, grinding blues like “Mable’s Dream” (descended from the “Bulldagger’s Dream,” a dirty lesbian blues), blues-inflected pop music like “Just Gone” or “Tears” and the high-flown “churchy” blues like “Riverside Blues” or “Camp Meeting Blues,” which deliberately evoke a sound like a church choir or revival meeting.  One observer who heard the Oliver band live said its sound was most like that of a big church organ, with the four brass and the reeds (clarinet and sometimes ax) carefully blended to enrich the harmony and interplay of voices.  Trombonist Honoré Dutrey was a subtle and skilful accompanist who read and imitated cello parts in stock arrangements, Oliver and Armstrong were delicately tuned to the first and second cornet roles and Johnny Dodds preferred the clarinet’s low register and the sobbing blues.  The ensemble sound was very rhythmic and exciting but also quite beautiful and lyrical.

            The next powerful infusion of new jazz and blues that shaped the course of 1920s music came from Oliver’s apprentice and faithful co-cornetist, Louis Armstrong.  At the urging of his wife, the strong-willed and capable Lil Hardin, Armstrong left his mentor in 1924 and set out to conquer the new musical galaxy of jazz.  He spent time in New York with Fletcher Henderson’s capable but not very jazzy big band, where he gave lessons in New Orleans swing and timing to such upcoming soloists as Coleman Hawkins, Joe Smith, Jimmy Harrison and others.  He made records for entrepreneur Clarence Williams, some in the company of the powerful bluesy soprano sax master Sidney Bechet, others as a blues accompanist.  By 1926, the Armstrongs assembled for Okeh Records a studio band to be called Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, recruiting New Orleans veterans— trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory (once Joe Oliver’s employer and partner), clarinetist Johnny Dodds (a Creole Jazz Band stalwart) and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr

            With Lil and Louis writing original jazz tunes and arranging others, the Hot Five began issuing records in 1926 with “Gut Bucket Blues,” a patter number in which Louis introduced each band member, who played a little illustrative hot solo.  The flip side was “Yes, I’m in the Barrel!” a riff tune focusing on Armstrong’s cornet virtuosity and Dodds’ intense blues inflections.  Armstrong had apparently been saving up such set-pieces since early in his days with Oliver, when he kept his light properly under a bushel.  A series of other releases quickly followed, and the Hot Five became a recording sensation.  Over the next three years, various incarnations of the Hot Five and an expanded group called the Hot Seven laid down a basic repertory and stylebook for hot jazz in the mid-1920s, with Armstrong innovating the role of the solo horn player and creating a sky-high standard for sheer energy and expertise.  Many sides were blues, instrumental and (increasingly) with Armstrong’s gravelly, wholly unique singing voice. 

            The black New Orleans sound of Oliver and Armstrong was revolutionary.  It deeply influenced other musicians and set Parnassian standards for both ensemble and solo playing.  However, like all New Orleans groups after the ODJB, they reached a relatively small record audience beyond the “race record” pale.  What most Americans heard and thought of as “jazz” were white dance bands, movie theater pit orchestras, vaudevillians and novelty records like “Yes, We Have No Bananas” or “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”  They were all shaped and influenced by jazz performance practices and the general sound of jazz, but most were of a low order of musicianship and creativity.  The diluting and popularizing of jazz continued through the decade, so that by the time Al Jolson made The Jazz Singer in 1927, the film was a broad travesty about a Jewish song-plugger (in blackface) whose music was pure pop-vaudeville.  This was because most listeners simply assumed that whatever Al Jolson sang was “jazz,” pure and simple.  Radio broadcasts began in the early 1920s, and they brought a wide variety of both instrumental and vocal music to the public, usually live from locations, including jazz or dance music by bands with jazz aspirations like the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks of Kansas City.  But the ratio of actual jazz to jazz-novelty remained low until late in the 1920s and regular network broadcasts by superior black bands like Duke Ellington’s or Earl Hines’. 

            As pop blues became widespread, many songs masqueraded as blues or were written about the blues, and the basic idea of the blues was detached from the musical  structure.  It was assumed to be a vague feeling of melancholy or loss or longing.  The most obvious example is the pop standard by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, “Birth of the Blues” (1926), which is not a blues, is only vaguely bluesy, but which narrates a fanciful “story” of the blues’ creation and may have seemed plausible to innocent listeners. It was an immense hit and became an enduring standard.  The refrain gives a genealogy of the blues to place the music in a comfortable American landscape:

                        They heard the breeze
                        In the trees
                        Singing weird melodies

                        And they made that part of the blues.
                        And from a jail
                        Came the wail
                        Of a downhearted frail,
                        And they played that as part of the blues.
                        From a whippoorwill
                        Out on a hill,
                        They took a new note,
                        Pushed it through a horn
                        ’Til it was worn
                        Into a blue note!
                        And then they nursed it, rehearsed it
                        And gave out the news
                        That the Southland gave birth to the blues.

This Tin Pan Alley mythologizing was a necessary step in assimilating the folk blues, smoothing them out, fitting them into the genre of popular song.  The blues, according to this text, were straight from nature—the breeze and whippoorwill—but also born of the raffish underworld (the downhearted frail in the jail) and through musical invention, the “new note.”  It makes the blues instantly familiar and acceptable, like an instructional cartoon.

            The same process occurred immediately on the national exposure of jazz in 1917-18, as in “Take Me to the Land of Jazz” by Kalmar, Leslie and Wendling (1919), whose narrative lyrics created a genesis myth for jazz, which deals with the new dances, the word itself and its connection with the popular blues of the previous decade:

                        It was down in Tennessee
                        That the Jazzy melody

                        Originated then waited for popularity.
                        Now in ev’ry cabaret,
                        It’s the only thing they play,
                        I love to hear, must be near it;
                        That’s why I say:
                        “Take me to the Land of Jazz,
                        Let me hear the kind of blues that Memphis has;
                        I want to step,
                        To a tune that’s full of ginger and pep;
                        Pick ’em up and lay ’em down,
                        Learn to do the Razmataz,
                        Let me give you a warning,
                        We won’t get home until morning;
                        ’Cause ev’rybody’s full of Jazzbo;
                        In the lovin’ Land of Jazz!”

The lyrics place jazz in Tennessee rather than New Orleans, because of the association with Handy and the blues and because Tennessee was part of a vague “Dixieland” beloved of minstrelsy and vaudeville for generations (and echoed in the name of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band).  Memphis is specifically named, as in “Memphis Blues,” and there is something parallel to “ginger and pep” (that is, basic American get-up-and-go in 1920s advertising and self-help terms), here called “Jazzbo,” evidently the spirit of the music infused into you by listening and dancing to it.  This puts the strangeness of jazz and the blues into a homey, easily digestible framework of story.  It shows how the music was made self-reflexive and self-referencing, so it is music talking about itself—it provides its own built-in introduction and explanation.

**To be Continued** the powerful conclusion explodes onto your screen NEXT ISSUE!


De Toledano, Ralph (ed.).  Frontiers of Jazz. New York:  Durrell, 1947.
Johnson, James Weldon.  The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, in Three
Negro Classics.  New YorkAvon, 1965.
Malone, Bill C.  Country Music, U.S.A.  AustinUniversity of Texas Press, 1974.
Smith, Charles Edward. “Jazz:  Some Little Known Aspects,” Symposium  (Oct. 1930),
Van Vechten, Carl. “Black Blues,” Vanity Fair (Aug. 1925), 57ff.

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