Musical Literacy and Jazz Musicians in the 1910's and 1920's

Chevan, David

In 1988, I conducted a telephone interview with the African American New Orleans clarinet player Willie James Humphrey about his tenure from 1925 to 1932 in the riverboat band led by Fate Marable. During our conversation, I asked Humphrey if Marable had hired him because of his skills as a jazz musician. Although we were talking by phone I could feel the mood of the conversation change. Humphrey sounded irritated as he replied, "You had to be a musician [his emphasis], 'cause that's the only way you could get on there. You had to know how to read." One need only think of how Humphrey's words complicate our reading of literature on jazz history, which so often describes the historical tensions and the social and musical disparities between the downtown blacks and the "Creoles of Color" in Humphrey's native New Orleans. The aim of this article is to consider the various ways that jazz musicians -both white and black-encountered and engaged with written music in the 1910s and 1920s. I have chosen an ethnographic approach to this subject. That is, this essay will privilege the voices of musicians, surveying and interpreting a broad selection of autobiographies, oral histories, and personal interviews of jazz musicians who grew up, studied, and performed during this period. The material from these primary sources has been sorted into five general sections that cover topics relating to how musicians learned to use written music and to the actual use of written music in performance. The resulting composite picture reveals a wide range of encounters with and responses to written music by these early jazz musicians.



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Columbia University
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March 27, 2015