Satchmo Dancing

Here is some more from David Byrne’s book, How Music Works.

Music has been part of human culture for as long as there has been such a thing as culture, but it changed dramatically with the invention of recorded sound by Edison in 1887. His first machine was not to record music – it was far too simple for that, but was more a dictaphone, for the recording of famous speeches.

It was not until 1915 when it first became possible to record music, but a very limited form of it, as there were no microphones, but a large funnel so the sound had to be made directly in front of it., so there was a problem if there was more than one singer or musician. Today, when people want to test their sound equipment, the standard test piece of music is Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega, probably because it is in a middle range, and almost spoken, so a very simple, clear piece of music. Some time ago, she was invited to do a recording of the song onto an early recording machine, which involved singing with her head almost inside the giant horn.

So the loudest instruments had to be further away, and musicians had to move forward to do solos, so there was constant moving about. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet was so loud and piercing he had to stand about 15 feet away. Percussion also caused problems as they created wide grooves in the wax cylinders, making them jump so were often replaced by hitting wood blocks or the sides of the drums, and the double bass was often replaced by a tuba “because its low end was less punchy. So early recording technology was limiting not only in terms of what frequencies one heard, but also in terms of which instruments were actually recorded. The music was already being edited and shaped to fit the new medium.

Recordings resulted in a skewed, inaccurate impression of music that wasn’t already well known. It would be more accurate to say that early jazz recordings were versions of that music. Musicians in other towns, hearing what these drummers and bass/tuba players were doing on the recordings, sometimes assumed that that was now the music was supposed to be played, and they began to copy those adaptations that had initially been made solely to accommodate the limitations of the technology. How could they know differently? Now we don’t and can never know ” what those bands really sounded like – their true sound may have been “unrecordable”. Our understanding of certain kinds of music, based on recordings anyway, is completely inaccurate.”

This last is only partly true, as a lot of people heard those bands live, and as Byrne quotes elsewhere, Jazz is mostly learned on the band stand; folk  and country music are also learned primarily from other practitioners, so are in effect rare in being a profession that still trains largely on the job, from masters to juniors.


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