THAT’S GOT ‘EM: The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman Mark Berresford University Press of Mississippi (2010) Jackson, MS. 230 pp. – US$50.00 (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 Lynn Abbot and Doug Seroff’s RAGGED BUT RIGHT: Black Travelling Shows, “Coon Songs”, and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz (University Press of Mississippi  Jackson, MS) and OUT OF SIGHT: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (same publisher, 2002), Tim Brooks’ LOST SOUNDS: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 (University of Illinois Press  Urbana and Chicago), and David Wondrich’s STOMP AND SWERVE: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 (A Capella Books  Chicago), among others, certainly point us in the right direction. Improvisation has been a factor in musics of all sorts over the centuries, especially in many African and African American ones, and not just out of New Orleans. The likes of James Reese Europe, Johnny Dunn, Will Vodery, a.o. are getting something of a look-in in these times – 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 (or clarionets) including the bass clarinet. He also preceded Rahsaan by playing three at one time and this is partly responsible for him being held in a low opinion by the “Jazz Watchkeepers” of the past – White guys with N.O. tinged glasses! His repertoire ran the gamut from light classical to ragtime to early (or proto) 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 had an “act”, therefore he couldn’t be taken seriously. A product of circus and minstrel show bands, Sweatman became extremely able on his chosen instrument, a song-writer of some note (no pun intended) – 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 at one time, both in and out of the recording studio. Trained in playing by the likes of cornettists/trumpeters P.G. Lowery (circus), and W.C. Handy (minstrel), Sweatman was a superb reading musician, an ability that goes against one of the “accepted 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. (pp. 28/29)
His well-honed ability resulted in his rise quickly to the top of his profession and when vaudeville opened up for Blacks, 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 pay-days for working musicians. Sweatman had little in the way of Plan B save management and pick-up gigs; 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! “Same as it ever was.” (David Byrne, of Talking Heads) His recordings, mainly acoustic in nature, were quite successful in their day and are still “junked” in the present – I found one of his Columbia’s, as well as a Johnny Dunn, in a short-lived antique shop in my former small home-town in Ulster County, NY! Cost very little, too!! Most of the Columbia’s had a band – tpt/tbn/pno/bass/dms – while one session had a mandolin-banjo section added, probably in imitation of Jim Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra’s 1917 recordings. An earlier Pathe session had him fronting a saxophone quintet with his clarinet, similar to then popular Brown Brothers aggregation!
First recording some cylinders ca. 1903/04 in Minneapolis, Wilbur Sweatman recorded in NY for Emerson (1916), Columbia for three years (1917-1920) where he had his main hits, 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, MO in 1882, he died in NYC 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 things “jazz” and was not a trusting soul, having had some bad dealings in the past. The late Len Kunstadt* was one of the few White folks who was able to get his attention and some cooperation, resulting in material that was published in issues of RECORD RESEARCH (love it or hate it!). 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 ’64, she willed her estate to someone in Kansas City and nobody has been able to pick up the thread(s) since then. Sad, but true.
Wilbur Sweatman was one pioneer of sorts for early jazz and ragtime. Even though passed by over time and now a dim recollection (at best), he’s an interesting and important individual worthy of our attention. Berresford has done a decent job with this book, given the relative lack of first-hand information that exists 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 “double” CD (BDW 8046) that Mark has assembled – this is complete (1916-1935), including the Little Wonder sides! Archeophone has a 25 cut selection on one disc covering the 1918-1920 Columbias (ARCH 6004) for those with smaller curiosity or tighter purses. My curiosity for the music discussed probably is a positive recommendation of the book! Those early proto- and pre- years are extremely interesting 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 going to get on the subject… unless those papers somehow surface. As they say hereabouts in Oz, “Give it a go!”
* Speaking of the late, lamented Len – a story himself, and, as one used to say, “a trip” – I wonder what became of HIS stuff. I remember going with him a couple of times to a warehouse in Brooklyn that was jam-packed with “stuff”: paper, records, posters, etc! R.R. central was semi-organized chaos. Anyone who has read his magazine in the past will understand what I mean by that. My additional question now is “what happened to Len’s materials?” Probably went the way of Joplin and Sweatman’s papers into a landfill and is our loss.
PETER B. LOWRY
Published: IAJRC Journal – Vol 44, No 1: March 2011; pp. 86/87.