Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band

Generally, the original Dixieland Jazz Band gets credit for the first jazz recordings. They were a group of white musicians from New Orleans working in Chicago and recording in New York. Dixieland Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jazz Band One-Step” on February 26, 1917, and released them in March of that year.  They were big hits, revolutionizing the market for recorded jazz and influencing the instrumentation of other jazz bands and subsequent recordings.  But an African-American musician by the name of Wilbur Sweatman is sometimes touted as preempting them for the claim to the first jazz recording(s).
Sweatman was prominent in early jazz recordings.  From 1918 through 1920 Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band issued a bunch of sides for Columbia records. Many of these were big sellers.  In those years, he sold a total of about a million and a half records. This included a million in 1919 alone.  Because of his extensive touring as a vaudeville performer and these popular recordings he was the first African-American performer with a national fan base.  Also, he can lay claim to the first jazz recordings by an African-American musician. These recordings easily pre-date the West Coast recordings of New Orleans’ ‘Kid’ Ory in 1922.

Early Recordings

His earliest recordings were for Emerson Records in December of 1916. These pre-dated the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings by 3 months.  First was “My Hawaiian Sunshine” with the Emerson Symphony Orchestra and also “Down Home Rag” with the Emerson Trio.  Both include what may be limited improvisation from Sweatman’s clarinet.  Were these actually the first jazz recordings?
Wilbur Sweatman's Original Jazz Band
“Kansas City Blues” by Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band
Unsurprisingly, the answer depends on how one defines “jazz” and, more specifically, what differentiated early jazz from its antecedents and contemporaneous styles of music.  The key differentiating characteristic of early jazz seems to be the presence of collective improvisation. This means it’s not just improvisation but improvisation by multiple instruments simultaneously. They generally modify what they are playing in response to what others are playing at the same time.  Although Sweatman may be including some improvisation in his 1916 recordings, he is the only one doing the improvisation. This doesn’t quite fit the key defining characteristic to make them jazz recordings.  His later 1918-1920 recordings actually identified as a jazz band clearly have collective improvisation and even tend to swing better than the Original Dixieland Jazz Band Recordings.

Changing the Narrative

So, … why do we care?  If Sweatman’s 1916 recordings are accepted as the first jazz recordings, then it changes the narrative on the history of jazz.  For starters, the first recordings would then be performed by African-American performers instead of white performers.  This would be important because Nick LaRocca, the cornetist and leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band infamously claimed that jazz was created strictly by white musicians. He furthermore claimed African-Americans had no contribution.  This is laughably false.  Although there were many early white jazz musicians, the creators and early innovators were all African-American.  It would also shift some of the nexus of the origins of jazz away from New Orleans.
Almost universally, New Orleans is identified as the source of jazz and the source of the earliest jazz musicians.  However, Wilbur Sweatman had no association with New Orleans and New Orleans musicians.  His career was centered around the Midwest and New York, even including a strong enough relationship to ragtime icon Scott Joplin to eventually become the executor of Joplin’s estate.

Judge for Yourself

Probably the most lamentable aspect of overlooking Wilbur Sweatman is not whether or not he had the first jazz recordings but how he has been lost to jazz history and even dismissed by jazz historians.  He was a popular musician in his time. He had credible jazz recordings during the same period as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band but now is sadly forgotten.  You can do your own evaluation by listening to his biggest selling record, “Kansas City Blues” from 1919.
We want to thank our extraordinary guide Dave Thomas for this post. For more fascinating music history you can join Dave on The Savvy Native’s New Orleans Music Tour.

The Savvy Native is a group of experienced local tour guides who were either born in New Orleans or wish they had been.

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