Author: Lowry, Peter B
Date published: March 1, 2011
That's Got 'Em The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman By Mark Berresford University Press of Mississippi, 230pp. 2010 $50 (hardback)
As time goes on, the realization that jazz was NOT something that sprang full-fledged from the head of some New Orleans Zeus grows stronger. Such books as those listed at the end of this review certainly point us in the right direction. Improvisation has been a factor in music of all sorts over the centuries, especially in many African and African-American scenes, and not just those breaking out of New Orleans. The likes of James Reese Europe, Johnny Dunn, and Will Vodery, are getting something of a look-in now. And then there was Wilbur Sweatman.
Sweatman had a successful career as a vaudeville act, playing with a drummer, and later a pianist as a trio: the man himself played various clarinets (aka clarionets) including the bass model. He also preceded Rahsaan Roland Kirk by playing three at one time and this is partly responsible for him being held in a low opinion by the jazz critics of the past, white guys with N.O. tinged glasses!
Sweatman's repertoire ran the gamut from light classical to ragtime to early jazz; later on he added a singer and some dancers to his trio act. And that's why he has suffered at the hands of the toll-takers of the jazz researchers. He's not from New Orleans and he strove to entertain, therefore he couldn't be taken seriously by the critics later on.
A product of circus and minstrel show bands, Sweatman became extremely able on his chosen instrument and a songwriter of some note. His Down Home Rag being quite popular, covered by many contemporary, as well as later, performers - a band booker/broker, and from time to time, for greater or lesser periods, a band leader in his own right. The likes of Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Claude Hopkins, back to Arthur Briggs, Dan Parrish, and Crickett Smith all were with him in the recordings studios. Trained in playing by the likes of cornettists/trumpeters PG Lowery (circus), and WC Handy (minstrel), Sweatman was a superb reading musician, an ability that goes against one of the accepted critical wisdoms from on high in the past.
This flies in the face of the romantic notion of early jazzmen being gifted musical illiterates, pouring forth a stream of endless improvised melody, oblivious to the rules and conventions of "proper" music. In reality, musicians groomed in the world of the tent show and the circus were those most in demand in other areas of musical activity.
His well-honed ability resulted in his rise quickly to the top of his profession and when vaudeville opened up for Negroes, he was able to grasp that opportunity and run with it. Granted, it eventually turned out to be a cul-de-sac for him, as radio and sound film resulted in the decline of vaudeville with its concomitant loss of good paydays for working musicians. Sweatman had little in the way of Plan B save management and pick-up gig. And he wasn't getting any younger. Yet he survived.
Columbia Records took Wilbur Sweatman into their 'recording laboratory' in 1918 as a probable reaction to Victor's unexpected success with the ODJB - "get me someone like..." being one of the most utilized approaches in the music business to this very day! His recordings, mainly acoustic Columbia issues, were quite successful in their day but still 'junked' in my foraging experience. Most of these had a quintet of trumpettrombone-piano-bass-drums, while one session had a mandolinbanjo section added, probably in imitation of Jim Europe's Clef Club Orchestra's 1917 recordings. An earlier Pathé session had him fronting a saxophone quintet with his clarinet, similar to Tom Brown's then-popular Six Brown Brothers aggregation on Victor 1914-1917 and into the early 1920s.
First recording some cylinders ca. 1903 or 1904 in Minneapolis, Wilbur Sweatman recorded in New York for Emerson (1916, 1920); Columbia for three years (1917-1920) where he had his main hits; Lindstrom American (1920, 1924); then Edison (1924), Grey Gull, et al (1926, 1929), Victor (1930), and Vocalion (1935).
The Victor material was with a trio similar to that which constituted his vaudeville act - clarinet, piano, and drums. Musical tastes changed by the thirties and Sweatman was more and more marginalized in the performance aspect of the business. He kept busy with his publishing company, playing a few gigs from time to time and hanging out with his diminishing circle of old friends as time and age progressed. Born in Brunswick, Montana, in 1882, he died in New York City in 1961 intestate, with his sole child, an illegitimate daughter, initially getting his papers and publishing. This became a problem on many fronts with a loss of information, as will be discussed shortly.
Wilbur Sweatman was a closed-mouth individual who was aware of his true place in the grand scheme of jazz history but was not a trusting soul, having had some bad dealings in the past. The late Len Kunstadt*, publisher-editor of the equally loved and loathed Record Research, was one of the few white folks able to get his attention and some cooperation, resulting in material that was published in several issues.
Sweatman was slowly writing his autobiography (shown to Len) and was therefore rather silent on many matters, saving them for his own work - he also was the executor of the Scott Joplin estate, having lived on the premises owned by Lottie Joplin and being trusted by her to do the right thing. He therefore ended up with Joplin's papers, too, on her death. With his demise, his daughter's illegitimacy caused his sister to legally take over the estate (such were the laws then)... and the papers of both 'Sweat' and Joplin. When the sister died in 1964, she willed her estate to someone in Kansas City and nobody has been able to pick up the thread since then. Sad, but true.
Wilbur Sweatman was a pioneer for early jazz and ragtime. Even though passed by over time and now a dim recollection (at best), he's an important individual worthy of our attention. Berresford has faced the challenge of this book, given the relative lack of first-hand information that survives today - Sweatman doesn't really come alive in these pages, but neither is he totally silent.
I now want to hear the stuff in more depth, so I must save up for either the Jazz Oracle 2-CD (BDW 8046) that Mark has assembled - this is complete (1916-1935), including the Little Wonder sides! Archeophone offers a 25 cut selection of the 1918-1920 Columbias (ARCH 6004) for those with smaller curiosity or tighter purses.
Those early proto-jazz years are fascinating and such knowledge is capable of remolding our perceptions of how jazz came to be. This is a thorough work, with extensive appendices, including an annotated discography, that's probably as good as it's ever going to get on the subject... unless those papers somehow surface. As they say hereabouts in Australia, "Give it a go!"
* Peter B. Lowry
* Speaking of the late, lamented Len Kunstadt, I wonder what became of his riches? I remember going with him a couple of times to a warehouse in Brooklyn that was stuffed with paper, records, and posters. Record Research was semi-organized chaos, as readers of his magazine will well understand.