Jazz and Hot Dance on Edison: A Guide to Listening
This guide to listening is a sampling of quality jazz performances released on Edison Diamond Discs from 1917 to 1929.
Edison entered the field of recorded jazz in May 1917, just a few months after Victor recorded the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), which yielded the first commercially released jazz recordings.
Edison’s answer to the ODJB was the Frisco Jass Band. Led by pianist Arnold Johnson, the Frisco band actually hailed from San Francisco. They came to New York around late March 1917 to play in the New York café Doraldina’s Montmartre, replacing the legendary jazz pioneers the Creole Band, from New Orleans. Their style was significantly different than that of the ODJB. Using a violin lead, the ensemble did not include a cornet or trumpet. The clarinet or saxophone obbligati and trombone countermelodies and ground bass fulfilled similar roles used by the ODJB, but with a very different feel. Their recording of “Johnson’s ‘jass’ blues” is a good example.[i] The violin lead and prominent, busy banjo seem quaint and eccentric to our ears. However, contemporaneous listeners probably found them no more unusual than the ODJB.
Among their ranks was saxophone virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft, who doubled on clarinet. He would soon achieve international fame as a saxophone soloist.
The Frisco Jass Band recording of “Night time in Little Italy” demonstrates how well the ensemble worked, with a smooth handing off of lead between the sax, violin, and trombone.
The 1920 recordings by Lopez and Hamilton’s Kings of Harmony (led by pianist Vincent Lopez and clarinetist Billy Hamilton) attempted to imitate the exuberance and musical interplay of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and these attempts were largely far more successful than those of other early imitators, such as Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band. Whereas the Fuller recordings, recorded in 1918, demonstrate an inept understanding of the ODJB’s musical attributes, the Lopez and Hamilton sides are played without forced caricature and actually capture some of the ODJB’s sense of ensemble counterpoint.
In 1923 Edison recorded an African American ensemble led by pianist and arranger Charles Matson. The personnel for the recordings by Charles A. Matson’s Creole Serenaders has been a mystery for decades. Some have speculated that they were actually the New Orleans-based orchestra led by Armand J. Piron. More recent research reveals Matson’s group to have been composed of various New York-based musicians. The forceful New Orleans-styled cornetist is thought to be Thomas E. “Petey” Hillary.
Also notable are two sides recorded in 1926 by Charlie Skeete and his Orchestra, a fine jazz dance band with maestro Skeete at the piano. The trumpeter is believed to be Leonard Davis. Here is “Deep Henderson.”
Cornetist Red Nichols and trombonist Miff Mole were thick as thieves as musical partners during the 1920s. Their collaborations were the “modern” or “progressive” jazz of the day, featuring arrangements by pianist Arthur Schutt or reed man “Fud” Livingston. “Alabama Stomp” also features the clarinet and saxophone of Jimmy Dorsey, along with Arthur Schutt on piano and pioneering jazz percussionist Vic Berton.
One should not ignore the recordings made by the Georgia Melodians, an excellent all-around dance orchestra from Atlanta. Excellent examples include “My mammy’s blues,” “I’m bound for Tennessee,” and “Everybody loves my baby,” which were recorded in New York.
Among hot music aficionados, Edison’s most memorable jazz recordings were made by the very popular California Ramblers, disguised on Edison as the Golden Gate Orchestra. The Ramblers prominently featured the bass saxophone of Adrian Rollini, along with saxophonist Bobby Davis and the eponymously named Abe Lincoln on trombone. Their 1926 recording of “Shake” turns out to be Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Shake that thing.”
The Golden Gate Orchestra also included on occasion brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy Dorsey played some of his best jazz solos on two of the Golden Gate Edisons, “I ain’t got nobody” and “Third rail.”
During the Edison company’s waning years, they tended to record a blend of hot jazz with comedic “novelty” vocals. Among these rather fun performances were several by Fred “Sugar” Hall’s novelty-tinged jazz group. Issued as Arthur Fields and his Assassinators, these buoyant recordings are good examples of Edison’s very well-tuned electrical recording system. A good example is “Hello Montreal.”
David Sager is a jazz historian and professional musician. He is also a three-time Grammy nominee.