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Sedalia and St. Louis: Ragtime - WHAT IS RAGTIME?, THE RECORDING INDUSTRY PRIOR TO 1917, ST. LOUIS IN THE 1920S,  

music jazz musicians played

Ragtime was the first African American music to catch on, and it could be considered America’s first nationwide musical craze. During its prime from 1899 to 1915, ragtime’s popularity was measured not in record sales (the recording industry was still in its infancy), but in sheet music sales. During an era that was long before radio, the main form of family musical entertainment centered on the piano. As Ted Gioia notes in his book, The History of Jazz , the number of pianos built annually in the United States grew from 100,000 in 1890 to 350,000 in 1909. Even households that did not have a pianist in the family often had a piano in case friends dropped by, or perhaps they invested in a new invention called a player piano (first widely available in 1897) that made it possible for rags and popular songs to be heard at home.

Although some jazz history books claim that ragtime preceded and directly evolved into jazz, it was actually a contemporary of early jazz, and stands apart as a different style of music altogether, despite its influence. Classic ragtime is written out like classical music and generally utilizes the structure A-A-B-B-A-C-C-D-D, with each of the letters representing a melodic theme. There is no blues feeling in ragtime, and improvisation was frowned upon, at least at band concerts and straight renditions of rags. Influenced by both marching band and classical music, even in its early days the form had its own catchy Page 2  syncopations and “ragged” rhythms, leading to the term ragtime. Its greatest composers considered ragtime to be an art form in the years before the as yet unnamed jazz music was known beyond the South, and it was seen by some of its main supporters as the American alternative to European classical music.


In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a machine that used a brass cylinder and could duplicate the human voice, a pioneering tape recorder. After some initial excitement, Edison worked on other projects (including the light bulb) and did not return to the phonograph until 1887. By 1889 it was apparent that the best use for the machine was to record music, using wax cylinders. The first instrumental recordings date from that year, and Edison’s company would continue to record and issue cylinders until 1929.

Unfortunately, cylinders were fragile and were soon overshadowed and in time replaced by 78 records. Emile Berliner in 1887 patented the gramophone, a machine that played flat discs that held about three minutes of music. By the late 1890s, 78s were more popular than cylinders, and they would be the main recording form until the late 1940s. Victor and Columbia emerged early on as the leading record labels.

The original recordings of 1889 to 1916 are often difficult to listen to, partly because of the very primitive recording quality, but also because of the content. Best are the concert band recordings and the works featuring classical-oriented virtuosi such as trombonist Arthur Pryor and cornetist Herbert L. Clarke. More difficult to sit through are the so-called comedy records (most of which were quite racist) and many of the vocal records (usually featuring singers more notable for their volume than their talents), with a few exceptions. It is due to these early records, however, that listeners today can hear Enrico Caruso, Al Jolson at the beginning of his career, ragtime banjoists Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman, some early vaudevillians, and the orchestra of James Reese Europe.

Because the record labels were based in New York rather than Sedalia, St. Louis, or New Orleans, many of the early twentieth-century jazz performers missed being documented. It is a major disappointment that Scott Joplin and the other early ragtime composers and pianists never had an opportunity to record.


St. Louis was not finished as a music city when the ragtime years ended. Because of its location as a main stop for the steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River, it was important as an entertainment and tourist city, particularly through the 1920s. Like New Orleans, St. Louis had a large red-light district and many cafes and bars, so there was plenty of employment for musicians. Of the bands coming up the river from New Orleans, pianist Fate Marable’s was one of the most impressive. Before these musicians settled in Chicago, Marable’s group featured such top players as cornetists Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, bassists Pops Foster and (in the 1930s) Jimmy Blanton, and drummers Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton.

The influx of musicians in the early 1920s made St. Louis one of the more important Midwestern cities for jazz, although the lack of local record companies led to insufficient documentation of local bands and the dominance of Chicago and Kansas City overshadowed St. Louis’ role. In the 1920s the most significant jazz groups were led by trumpeters Charlie Creath, who led the Jazz-O-Maniacs, and Dewey Jackson, who headed the Peacock Orchestra. Creath’s band recorded just a dozen selections from 1924 to 1927 for the Okeh label, when the company took a mobile recording unit on field trips, while Jackson just led one four-song session. Other recording groups included the Arcadia Peacock Orchestra of St. Louis and the unrelated Arcadian Serenaders, with either Sterling Bose or Wingy Manone on cornets; the latter played music similar to that of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

In truth there was not much difference between the music that was recorded in St. Louis and that being played at the same time in Chicago. Although St. Louis developed a tradition of great trumpeters, from Dewey Jackson and Harold “Shorty” Baker in the 1930s to Clark Terry and Miles Davis in the 1940s, and had a worthy avant-garde movement during the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in the Black Artists Group (BAG), the city’s musicians had to move elsewhere to gain much recognition. After the Depression hit in the early 1930s and the music played on the Mississippi River riverboats declined in popularity, St. Louis became a minor league jazz city, a situation that has not changed to the present day. St. Louis does have a glorious past, however.


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