Jazz and Hot Dance on Edison Records

Although Thomas Edison’s musical taste tended towards the conservative—his favorite song was said to have been “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”—recordings issued by his company did include a healthy share of jazz and “hot dance” performances. This may seem to be inconsistent with not only what we know about Mr. Edison’s tastes in music but also his strong-willed control over what was recorded and issued.

However, I sense that Edison’s apprehensions about recording certain artists lay in performance ability, as determined by his peculiar criteria, rather than musical styles. He apparently considered recording Bessie Smith, prior to her successful recording debut on Columbia records, but rejected her on grounds of her voice.[i]

By all accounts, Edison—almost completely deaf—could sense vibrations and therefore “hear” enough in order to pass judgment on the quality of a performer. This implies that perhaps it wasn’t Edison’s taste in music that influenced his recorded repertoire, but instead his self-proclaimed ability to pass judgment on a singer or instrumentalist’s artistic worth. However, Edison seemed to have been more concerned with purity of tone. Additionally, he was deeply concerned and critical of vocal vibrato.

In a general policy memo he wrote to his staff:

All that we desire is that the voice shall be as perfect as possible, free of conspicuous tremolo, clear and without ragged sustained notes, free of subsidiary and false waves on these notes.[ii]

To Thomas Graf, head of his recording studio in Berlin, Edison wrote:

I propose to depend upon the quality of the records and not on the reputation of the singers. There are, of course, many people who will buy a distorted, ill-recorded and scratchy record if the singer has a great reputation, but there are infinitely more who will buy for the beauty of the record, with fine voices, well instrumented and no scratch.[iii]

Combining that notion with a desire for Edison discs to succeed, we are not at all surprised that he permitted various forms of popular dance music in his catalog, as well as popular-style blues singers.

While much good-quality hot jazz was embedded within Edison’s dance band records, the company also released, if not a plethora, a respectable amount of high-quality jazz played by small ensembles.

Jazz on Edison recordings goes back to very beginnings of jazz on record. Close on the heels of Victor, who in February 1917 recorded the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), the Edison company recorded The Frisco Jass Band.

The Frisco recordings are quite interesting and are not an obvious imitation of the ODJB, as were so many other so-called jazz (or jass) groups. The Frisco Jass Band actually hailed from San Francisco. They came to New York around late March 1917 to play in the New York café Doraldina’s Monmartre, replacing the Creole Band, the legendary jazz pioneers from New Orleans.

Looking a few years ahead along the jazz history timeline, we find in 1923 Charles Matson’s Creole Serenaders, a band of New York-based African American musicians whose repertoire and style can be identified without hesitation as 1920s hot jazz.

Throughout the rest of the decade, the Edison company issued jazz performances uncompromised in style and integrity from performers such as the Georgia Melodians, a hot jazz-tinged dance orchestra from Atlanta that recorded for Edison, in New York, between 1924 and 1926. Their repertoire consisted largely of up-tempo material that was suitable for dancing the 1920s emblematic jazz dance, the Charleston.         

Even what might be considered “progressive jazz” made it onto Edison. For example, Red and Miff’s Stompers[iv], whose unconventional and so-called modernistic style was anything but staid or old-fashioned. 

Other high-quality jazz performances were captured throughout the 1920s, including the fabulous California Ramblers (known on Edison as the Golden Gate Orchestra). Charlie Skeete and his Orchestra, a first-class African American jazz band that included the extraordinary trumpeter Leonard Davis, made two titles for Edison in 1926.

The novelty-tinged but nevertheless authentic 7 Blue Babies produced some of Edison’s last recordings in late 1929, during which time the company switched from their patented vertical cut “Diamond Disc” to the short-lived, conventional lateral “Needle Type” records.

Although Edison recordings of jazz and hot dance music seem like diamonds in the rough, their quantity is nothing to sneeze at. While authentic jazz did not flourish on Edison, as it did on other labels, more than a sampling did appear. The peculiarities of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. were based on its namesake’s prideful and perhaps uninformed beliefs about the mechanics of music; however, while the cream of the crop may have been either turned away or, more likely, stayed away, exploring the Edison output for hot music is worth the effort.

-David Sager 

David Sager is a jazz historian and professional musician. He is also a three-time Grammy nominee.

[i] [Allegedly] Edison’s handwritten note in a log book reads “Bessie Smith, voice n.g.”

[ii]Edison, T. A. (1912). Edison General File. Microfilm Part V, Reel 253, excerpt. Thomas Edison National Historical Park, in TILO HÄHNEL, ibid

[iii] Harvith & Edwards Harvith, 1987, in How Thomas A. Edison shaped today's singing ideal: Tracking his ambiguous concept of tremolo by analysing archival documents and sound recordings”  TILO HÄHNEL,  Musicology Seminar Detmold/Paderborn, Paderborn University, Detmold, Germany.

[iv][iv] Led by cornetist Red Nichols and trombonist Miff Mole, and consisting of jazz luminaries such as Jimmy Dorsey, Arthur Schutt, and Vic Berton.