Document Records - Vintage Blues and Jazz

Blues Bytes review of Jazz and Blues On Edison

Here are some mighty fine words said about the last Document Records release Jazz and Blues On Edison.

One problem with some vintage music is that it’s released due to either antique special interest, or for the repackaging of previous big-sellers, and sometimes producers have no clue as to how to deal with one or the other. Jazz and Blues on Edison, Volume 1 (Document Records) is an excellent 16-page liner note booklet is clear-cut. Edison didn’t like jazz (“I always play jazz records backwards, they sound better that way”) but recorded quite a bit, and apparently released some. Most of these artists are totally obscure and almost all the material has never been released until now. What does this tell today’s jazz/blues enthusiast? Probably that this is not what the public heard or was buying at the time, but rather what the day’s musicians considered fun, more spontaneous and out of the ordinary, since the categories of records then were classical (including folk), hits (pop), “race” (precursor of jazz/blues/R&B) and “hillbilly.”

It’s marketed now as Jazz and Blues on Edison and that seems appropriate. At the time a Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith were in the same category, whereas today purists certainly call one jazz and the other blues. And though most of the obscure music here hasn’t been available until now, it was still recorded by Edison. So you’ll hear the category lines blurred within the tracks, then hear jazz popping out here and a minor key blues there. As other pioneer labels were taking equipment to regions to record undiluted folk sounds, the Edisons here were all apparently recorded at its West Orange, New Jersey studio, possibly explaining their more urban polish.

Another personal problem I have with vintage jazz recordings is quite frankly having too much tuba and/or banjo, and silly things like high-trill clarinets and kazoos are too much. This has tended to make the music cornier, especially ruining the novelty tunes of the time. Fortunately Edison was a major corporate player (with a fledgling Columbia and also Victor as competitors) in the marketing of music, and this release indicates Edison Records was focused on high quality, including musicianship and recorded sound. The problems just mentioned are minimal on this CD and the overall picture turns out to indeed have much musical value, harmonically adventurous and in-tune. Yes, you’ll hear Andy Razaf’s ridiculous vocal in an attempt to sound society white on “Hot Tamale Baby,” but the producers are creative by following that immediately with Marjorie Royer’s version of “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” a tale of a baby not so hot. Interesting also is a possible precursor to “Sweet Georgia Brown” in chord structure, “Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down,” by Winegar’s Penn Boys.

Among the known musicians in this collection are Wilbur Sweatman (pictured on the cover--once employed a young Duke Ellington and sounding the jazziest of the bunch), Rosa Henderson, and Noble Sissle/Eubie Blake. There are also period or regional stars Georgia Melodians, Clarence Williams and Mal Hallet, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike who conducts the final track with an orchestra in a style forward-looking to the swing era, including a trace of walking bass (tuba) under a sax solo on “Wang Wang Blues.” The various-sized group leaders among the tracks are multi racial, but it’s highly unlikely that way within the groups themselves, given the era.

For the story of how the Edison recordings survived and finally came to release go to http://edison-project.50megs.com. There you’ll also find the link “Biographies On Selected Edison Artists” with most names on this disc profiled. May we also encourage indulging yourself at the Document label website  which specializes in pre-World War II recordings like these (an entire separate article could be written on the label and founder Johnny Parth of Austria, who I once heard speak at a Memphis convention).

A few technical comments: Edison was apparently the pioneer record label ever, with Thomas himself at the helm, beginning with cylinders in the 1800s. The range here starts in 1914, two years after the generally regarded first jazz records, when the discs were very thick and groove frequencies went up and down in what they called vertical-cut. The end is 1929, when Edison stopped making records. By this year the company was using the refined lateral-cut method, i.e. back-and-forth grooves that lasted into the LP era. There is no indication as to which of these selections were recorded acoustically (megaphones) or electronically (microphones) of which the industry was transitioning in the ‘20s.

But the best summary of the modern technology of the day is sung in the words of Elsie Clark, the only artist omitted in the CD’s liner notes, on the track “Loud-Speakin’ Papa:” --- "Lucy Lee from Tennessee, went and bought a radio set, she also had as a household pet, the loudest-speaking papa I’ve heard yet. He talked tough, acted rough, and strutted his material proud, he’d rave and shout out loud, he always sounded like a crowd. One night he bawled her out about her radio, that made miss Lucy angry and she told him so, she said ‘Loud-speakin’ papa, you’d better speak easy to me.’ Some day you’ll shout and then no doubt, I’m gonna turn your dial and tune you out. I don’t have to listen to your noise and din, just find the other stations and tune right in. You’re listening now to station W-I-F-E, you’re mama is announcing, listen carefully. If you get mama angry sure as you are born, I’m gonna twist your aerial and buck your horn. I don’t like what you’re broadcasting anyhow, your program’s getting stale it’s full of static now. You know you’re mama’s got an awful powerful set, and there ain’t no place that she can’t get.”

Tom Coulson
Radio broadcaster/musician

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Thank you to Tom Coulson for his article.

 

 

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