Jazz and the Phonograph

Having spent the better part of three decades as a professional jazz musician, at least on a part-time basis, I’m well aware that jazz could not really exist and continue to progress in the way it does without recording.  If there were no sound recordings, a musician could only study improvised soloing and comping by attending live performances. Jazz musicians must, of course, experience the music live to develop their own chops, but there would be no way to really dissect solos down to the bones without sound recordings. Jazz musicians often make transcriptions of recorded solos to better understand them.  But with no recordings, no transcriptions would exist. Jazz improvisations, when they are truly innovative, are simply too complex and fleeting to notate as they are heard live. And it might be said too that even a transcription is only a rough approximation of what a jazz musician has played. It can’t possibly capture all the nuances—of tone, timbre, rapid dynamic shifts, approach to swing, etc. So jazz simply could not have developed as it did had the musicians not had access to recordings of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane and in my own case (I’m a drummer) to those of Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones, Vern Fournier, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Rutgers’ own Ralph Peterson, Jr., just to name a few.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I read through the 1888 correspondence between Thomas Edison and the composer, pianist, and conductor Edgar Stillman Kelley concerning Edison’s then-new “perfected” phonograph. Kelley was interested in coming out to Edison’s spanking-new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, to experiment with this improved phonograph. So in May 1888, he sent a note to Edison to see if the inventor was up for a visit.  “Many machines have been invented to reproduce in visible form the tones produced upon the pianoforte,” Kelley offered, “. . . but none have been practically successful—The main idea being to preserve musical improvisations.”

There it was! I felt like this was really the beginning of it all, a necessary moment that nearly a century later would allow me to spend countless hours trying to figure out what Art Blakey was playing on recordings like “Free for All” or “The Crisis” or just trying to soak up the swinging brushwork of Vern Fournier on Ahmad Jamal’s album Live at the Pershing 1958. And I’m talking a lot of listening. I wore out two LPs of Live at the Pershing before I was able to get this album on CD (which so far is holding up).

Kelley, of course, was writing well before the advent of jazz. He was interested in recording improvisations—snippets of music known as motifs—that might later be written down for the purpose of composing “classical” style works. Later, in 1911, when jazz was still in its raw infancy in New Orleans and virtually unknown outside of that city, Kelley recalled that after working at the lab with Edison’s new phonograph, he had “expressed the hope that the invention might be so applied as to enable composers to preserve their improvisations, whereas they at times lose some of their happiest inspirations through inability to record with sufficient rapidity the ideas as they occur to them.” Kelley was no doubt thinking of the kind of noodling composers do as they are puzzling out a new composition. With the phonograph, one might capture such an improvisation without having to immediately stop the flow of ideas to scratch it down on paper.  With the phonograph, if the recorded music was later found worthy, it could be played back again and again and notated at leisure before being incorporated into a formal composition.

Kelley, while he is now a virtual unknown, was an important figure in American music in the late nineteenth century. Some writers considered him the successor of Edward McDowell. So this was not a nobody who had contacted Edison immediately after seeing an article on the perfected phonograph in the New York World. “While pursuing my musical studies in Germany,” Kelley explained, “I became deeply interested in your phonograph when it first came out, and witnessed a number of experiments with it.”  This early interest was in Edison’s first phonograph, the tin-foil phonograph of 1877-1878, which appeared when Kelley was a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory.

As Kelley would later note, recordings made on the 1878 phonograph could capture with surprising accuracy the “rising and falling inflections of the orator’s voice as well as the melodic outline of musical selections. . . . But the tone colors of the various sound producing media were only remotely suggested bearing about as strong a semblance to the originals as does a blurry copy in charcoal to an oil painting.” In other words, it had little use for accurately documenting musical performances. While Edison’s early phonograph with its ability to record and playback the human voice astounded the world, the poor fidelity and the delicacy of the tin-foil cylinders made it little more than a remarkable toy. It failed commercially, and Edison himself soon lost interest in it.

But the exhibition of Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter’s wax-cylinder graphophone in New York City in 1887, rekindled Edison’s interest in improving his own phonograph design. It was this redesigned “perfected phonograph,” which used a wax cylinder, that Kelley wanted to see. “I feel certain,” he explained, “that it may become an aid to the members of the musical profession.”

By the end of May or early June at the latest, Kelley had paid his visit to Edison’s new lab in Orange, New Jersey. He brought with him a number of other musicians to test whether the new phonograph could capture with sufficient fidelity the tone colors necessary to turn recorded music from blurry charcoal copies to proverbial oil paintings of sound. After experimenting for several hours, Kelley was satisfied that this new machine would transform not only how people heard music, but how they learned it, composed it, and performed it. And though he might not have realized it in 1888, the phonograph and its successors would go on to play a seminal role in the creation of whole new genres of music—jazz first and foremost.

—Dan Weeks


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