Introduction: the 1910-1919 era

Minstrel shows, the late 19th-century American equivalent of British music-hall, featured knockabout comedies, skits and songs in 'blackface,' as the performers parodied black plantation workers. Negroes, in their turn, parodied whites taking their snobbish promenades with the 'cake-walk,' mincing along while bowing left and right and twirling their parasols and walking-canes. Some of this music made its way on to early records, and would have an influence on both blues and jazz.

A nation-wide craze for expressive (and suggestive) forms of dancing such as the Turkey Trot, the Fox Trot and the Black Bottom gripped America just prior to the First World War. The mania was largely driven by the notoriety of Vernon and Irene Castle, a British/American pair of dance-instructors who also led the way in clothing fashion. Their success led to the popularity of the instrumental dance band.

In homes and parlours, piano-player machines, controlled by perforated paper rolls, played jaunty melodies known as 'rags' by composers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. This genre would also influence 'Dixieland' jazz.

In 1914 the world blundered unsuspectingly into total war. Troop-trains, jammed with soldiers singing patriotic songs, took phonographs along with them for a touch of 'home, sweet home' in the back trenches. For the families back home, there were synthetic accounts of battles being fought, with whistles and kettle-drums evoking the terrifying sound of machine-guns and shellfire.

In early 1917, while the European armies were deadlocked in trench warfare, five young American musicians were busy creating musical insanity. The Original Dixieland Jass Band were the first to record 'jazz' music. When the Americans crossed the ocean to participate in the last six months of the war, jazz would accompany them by way of the 'Hellfighters,' the band of the 15th New York (black) regiment. They astonished onlookers by reinterpreting the plodding, even-beat tempo of European marches with syncopated, up-tempo African rhythms.

The onset of war had a disruptive effect on international and intercontinental trade relations. The German-owned Fonotipia recording empire suffered loss, many of its subsidiary British labels disappearing. However, the Okeh label, led by the German-American Otto Heineman, was to become one of America's premier labels.

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