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That's Got 'Em!

The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman

Publication Year: 2010

William C. Sweatman (1882-1961) is one of the most truly important, yet unheralded, African American musicians involved in the transition of ragtime into jazz in the early twentieth century. In That's Got 'Em!, Mark Berresford tracks this energetic pioneer over a seven-decade career. His talent transformed every genre of black music before the advent of rock and roll--"pickaninny" bands, minstrelsy, circus sideshows, vaudeville (both black and white), night clubs, and cabarets. Sweatman was the first African American musician to be offered a long-term recording contract, and he dazzled listeners with jazz clarinet solos before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's so-called "first jazz-records." Sweatman toured the vaudeville circuit for over twenty years and presented African American music to white music lovers without resorting to the hitherto obligatory "plantation" costumes and blackface makeup. His bands were a fertile breeding ground of young jazz talent, featuring such future stars as Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Jimmie Lunceford. Sweatman subsequently played pioneering roles in radio and recording production. His high profile and sterling reputation in both the black and white entertainment communities made him a natural choice for administering the estate of Scott Joplin and other notable black performances and composers. That's Got 'Em! is the first full-length biography of this pivotal figure in black popular culture, providing a compelling account of his life and times.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I first encountered Wilbur Sweatman in the early 1970s, when most of my school friends were listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. By the age of thirteen I had already discovered the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and was spending most Saturdays in a wonderfully ramshackle vintage record shop on Arkwright Street in Nottingham, run by lifelong classic jazz enthusiast and clarinetist Johnny Hobbs. ...

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pp. xi-xvi

as we enter the second century of jazz history, it is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate the earliest years of its development. All of the musicians who were involved in the transition from ragtime and cakewalks to jazz in its earliest forms are now dead. Many of these important pioneers were largely ignored by historians when they were alive, unless they happened to fit into a populist view of mainstream jazz development: from ...

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1. IN DEFENSE OF WILBUR SWEATMAN: A Response to His Critics

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pp. 3-8

History has not been kind to Wilbur Sweatman. Key his name into a web search-engine and you will find numerous references—nearly all of them relating to a few weeks in early 1923 when a struggling pianist from Washington found himself in New York along with some friends, working in vaudeville with Sweatman. That vaudeville stint made a lasting impression on the young Duke Ellington, who learned ...

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pp. 9-16

The small Missouri town of Brunswick (“Home of the Pecan”) is located in Chariton County and stands at the confluence of the Grand and Missouri rivers, between St. Louis and St. Joseph, some ninety-odd miles from Kansas City. On Wednesday June 13, 1804, Lewis and Clark encamped there, their hunters killing a bear and a deer. William Clark noted that it was “a butifull place the Prarie rich & extensive.”1 However, it was not until 1836 ...

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pp. 17-26

Opportunities for professional black musicians in the mid-1890s were severely limited—for a pianist it was often the bar or whorehouse; for other instrumentalists it was either working with a musical act in a travelling tent show, or playing with a circus sideshow or minstrel band that provided regular work. The importance of vaudeville and touring tented shows in the development of jazz has largely been ignored; only recently has the ...

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4. CIRCUS AND MINSTRELSY: Touring Life with Cornet Kings P. G. Lowery and W. C. Handy

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pp. 27-39

In April 1902 Sweatman joined the legendary P. G. Lowery’s Concert Band as orchestra leader and violinist, as well as playing clarinet in the larger concert band. According to a report in the Indianapolis Freeman some eight years later, he was the youngest orchestra leader on the road.1 This was a remarkable achievement for a twenty-year-old, and is not only indication of the esteem that Sweatman was held in by his contemporaries but ...

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pp. 40-44

On his arrival in Minneapolis, Sweatman wasted no time in forming a band—in fact, it is highly likely that he, along with cornetist J. Jeff Smith and drummer George Reeves, left the Mahara band with the prospect of a job already agreed. Smith was a star cornet pupil of P. G. Lowery who over several years worked sporadically with Lowery’s sideshow band. Drummer ...

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pp. 45-65

As noted in the previous chapter, Wilbur Sweatman, according to a 1910 newspaper report, spent four years in Minneapolis—a very shadowy period of his life, with little factual information available. Tom Fletcher’s previously quoted comment that Sweatman “had roamed around playing with different groups in different towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin” would seem to fit the period 1906–07—a baffling gap in Sweatman’s career when ...

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pp. 66-84

By the autumn of 1911, Sweatman, having spent three years accompanying traveling vaudeville acts and stock companies at the Grand and Monogram theaters, probably felt that the time was right to look for new opportunities and challenges. Throughout his professional career to date, he had been almost continually on the move; first with N. Clark Smith’s Pickaninny band, then with the Lowery and Mahara circus bands, then roaming around ...

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pp. 85-111

In December 1916 a musical milestone occurred. What is astounding is that this event, a pivotal moment in black American musical history, passed virtually unnoticed at the time and has been subsequently overlooked by practically all jazz writers since. On the day in question Wilbur Sweatman visited the studios of the Emerson Phonograph Company at 3 West 35th Street in midtown Manhattan and cut the first jazz records. The Emerson ...

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pp. 112-131

In 1918 war was raging in Europe, and the United States had been drawn into the fray despite Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to keep the country neutral. American troops started to arrive in France in June 1917, but were not involved in combat until October 1917. By early 1918 tens of thousands of U.S. troops were arriving weekly in France—and they were needed: on ...

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pp. 132-159

By the early 1920s it seemed that Sweatman’s recording career was over. New bands, both black and white, were changing the whole approach to jazz. On one hand there were the “symphonic jazz” bands such as Paul Whiteman and Vincent Lopez dispensing a form of dance music that, to the casual dancer or record buyer of the time, was the epitome of modern jazz music, but to subsequent generations of collectors and critics plumb the ...

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pp. 160-164

The almost complete collapse of two-a-day vaudeville, brought about by the domination of entertainment by radio and talking films, coupled with the onset of the Great Depression, saw many hundreds of long-established performers looking for work. Many had known no other life than the stage, and for them it meant taking whatever work they could find—if any. Sweatman, now in his fifties, had not only lost his main income, but ...

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pp. 165-171

In the 1940s and 1950s a worldwide awakening of interest in early jazz occurred, with many old players being dragged out of retirement to record (including several who should not have bothered), and a mini-industry grew up among writers anxious to tell the story of the birth of jazz “as it was”—which for the most part meant the story of New Orleans musicians. A few brave souls, such as Sam Charters and Len Kunstadt with their fine ...

APPENDIX 1. Listing of Known Compositions

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pp. 172-174

APPENDIX 2. Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus Route, 1902

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pp. 175-181

APPENDIX 3. The Speeds and Pitches of Wilbur Sweatman’s Recordings

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pp. 182-185

APPENDIX 4. Quantities of Wilbur Sweatman’s Columbia Records Shipped to Dealers

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pp. 186-187


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pp. 188-208


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pp. 209-221


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pp. 222-225


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pp. 226-230

E-ISBN-13: 9781604733716
E-ISBN-10: 1604733713
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604730999
Print-ISBN-10: 1604730994

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2010