- Historic Sites
Sounds From The American Past
One day in 1917, five young white musicians from New Orleans composed the very first jazz record ever offered for sale
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
In fact, only the Smithsonian could have compiled a Keppard album; his scattering of recordings were made for several competing labels. The Smithsonian Classic Jazz set has sold more than a million copies, something multi-record albums almost never do, and perhaps inspired in part by its success, all the major companies have lately ransacked their vaults in search of old material that can be repackaged for new listeners. But the Smithsonian retains an advantage over even the largest of the record companies. Because Williams and his collaborators work for a public institution, they have persuaded companies otherwise barely on speaking terms to contribute music to the same album. By my quick count, twenty-one labels are represented in the Classic Jazz collection—Columbia lying down with RCA Victor, groove to groove.
Nor has the Smithsonian team been content to reissue familiar material: of the fourteen cuts on Pieces of Eight , a collection of characteristically high-baroque musings by the pianist Art Tatum, only five have ever been heard on long-playing records before, and five have never been previously issued—including three tunes played for friends at a party and an especially shimmering version of “Exactly Like You,” recorded by an amateur enthusiast at a long-vanished Milwaukee club called Frenchy’s Pink Pig.
Jazz is American because it is improvisational.
A recent release in the series is another six-disk compendium, Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties . There have been other such collections, put together by commercial outfits and usually aimed frankly at the nostalgia market—Americans of a certain age will never get over their fondness for the pulse and lilt of the music that set them dancing during the Depression. But here again the aim is musical excellence: among the eighty selections chosen by Williams and the composer-conductor G’fcnther Schuller are performances by such celebrated bands as Ellington’s, Count Basic’s, and Benny Goodman’s, as well as others by orchestras of which most of us probably have never heard—Jesse Stone and His Blue Serenaders, Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.
Martin Williams promises more records to come. If they are as rewarding as those already in print, they should brighten the life of anyone even remotely interested in how American music is made—and add greatly to the hilarity thereof.
(The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings also includes albums devoted to classical and country and western music and the American musical theater. For a catalog, write to Smithsonian Customer Service, P. O. Box 10229, Des Moines, Iowa 50336.)
But television has changed all that. We remember how events looked at least as much as we remember how they sounded, and a portrayal without pictures just seems inadequate. Morley Safer’s “CBS Evening News” report on the destruction of the South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne in 1965 gave a good many of us our first taste of real ambivalence about that troubling conflict: the sight of weeping villagers watching, helpless, while Americans—Americans!—methodically flicked cigarette lighters to set their thatched homes on fire was unforgettable. Yet as heard here, unaccompanied by film of the orange flame swirling above the disappearing village, Safer’s piece only confuses.
There are some genuine surprises on these records— Sputnik ’s mocking chirp; the jubilant stutter of rams’ horns blown by Israeli troops in Jerusalem at the end of the Six Day War; the heroic swoop of Mahalia Jackson’s voice electrifying the March on Washington even before Dr. King began his dream. But the rest of the material is all too sadly familiar and—except for a nice sampling of John Kennedy’s wit and a selection of the staticky countdowns that got us to the moon—uniformly dispiriting. It is all here if you want it: Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Watts, Chappaquiddick. Us at our worst. Having lived through the decade, I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it again.