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Jazz History-Historiography Milestone

Tom Reney on some of the earliest written pieces on jazz

I corresponded with Mark Miller, the Toronto-based jazz historian, over the weekend. Miller wrote on Friday with information challenging the long-held assertion that Ernst Ansermet’s 1919 review singling out Sidney Bechet for praise was the first piece on jazz by an established authority. As Miller discovered, and writes about in a Comment on my Sidney Bechet blog, the honor belongs to Olin Downes, who wrote about a Clef Club orchestra and its trombonist Frank Withers in a review of a show at the Wilbur Theater in Boston in 1918.

Miller’s research does nothing to discredit the substance of Ansermet’s prescient appreciation of Bechet, but it shows that Downes got there first with a remarkably perceptive view of the Clef Club’s performance of “St. Louis Blues,” and Withers’ solo on W.C. Handy’s seminal original. “He plays the trombone as no one else the writer has ever heard…in a manner which makes of this instrument a sort of exclusive personal possession.” There, in a nutshell, Downes apprehends what came to be understood as a major distinguishing feature of jazz, the development of a unique, personalized sound, as opposed to the standardized tone required of symphony and band musicians.

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