Jazz in the Previous Century
May 2, 2019 1:29 PM   Subscribe

What effect did the primitive recording equipment of the early nineteenth century have on Jazz? Composers also write for the venue. Did they also write for the best sound reproduction on their media?
posted by Raybun to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I assume you mean early twentieth century.

By the time jazz and swing pieces were being "composed" and "arranged" in a sophisticated way, the technology wasn't all that primitive. Consider that the first jazz recording is held to have been made circa 1917 and the fact that electrical recording became the order of the day by the mid- to late-1920s. Meanwhile, the musicians making early recordings of jazz were hardly doing sophisticated arrangements that might take into account the limitations of contemporary recording and playback technology. Give a listen to the iconic early recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band or Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (or Hot Seven as the case may be). This is pretty elemental stuff from a recording standpoint.
posted by slkinsey at 2:08 PM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Or did you mean mid, or late, nineteenth century? The phonautograph was patented in 1857, and Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:10 PM on May 2, 2019

It didn't change composing (the high-level overarching form of song), but it did change arranging (the interpretation of a song for a given ensemble configuration). Everything needed to be stitched and rejiggered to fit within the 3-4 minute time frame of a 78 side. This was an art all its own.

Jazz was pop music then (I'm assuming you mean early 20th century), and none too reputable. It was all about grinding it out on dusty road tours, and only a tiny few bands ever recorded, and even for them recording constituted a tiny slice of their business. An important one, certainly, but those guys were touring and playing 200-300 gigs per year or more, and that was their bread and butter while recording was exceptional....and a rather artificial representation of what bands did at dances and events.

So recording was a rare and hermetic thing, a separate art that never backsplashed to affect everyday performance or composition....at least not until the 1940s, when bands became expected to sound like their recordings (this started with the 1942 Lionel Hampton recording of "Flying Home", a smash hit that compelled sax star Illinois Jacquet to repeat the same damned solo for many decades thereafter).

Arrangers (usually players in the band...often trombonists for some reason, a correlation that persists to this day) bore the brunt of all this and were well-paid. They needed to continually adapt arrangements for growing/shrinking band configurations, or to feature newly hired star players, or to stay abreast of trends (a top band couldn't be seen as falling behind the times), as well as to cleverly fit the unusual constraints of the recording process. The latter was just one of several arranging skills one had to develop.

If you want to talk mid 20th century, that's a whole other thing. But re: early 20th century, it affected day-to-day jazz performance little more than Alan Lomax's field recordings affected folk music. But without the stopgap ingenuity of talented and resourceful arrangers, it would have been a tough job to adapt early jazz music to the recording process. It was all on them.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:37 PM on May 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Not sure it affected jazz, but the Stroh violin (a violin with a horn attached) is a bit of an oddity invented to deal with the poor recording technology at the time. Also, it looks really cool!
posted by panama joe at 2:54 PM on May 2, 2019

Some features of primitive recording equipment also affected live shows.

For instance, it was a really important factor in the very early 20th century that microphones and amplifiers were very primitive. Jazz singers had to be loud, because the technology wasn't there yet to make a quiet singer sound good in front of a large band, either in person or on a record. It was only as microphones and amps started to get better that quieter jazz singing started to be an option, which is why there were big fads for crooners in the mid 20th century — quiet, intimate singing in front of a full orchestra was getting more and more technologically viable, and people were excited about the possibility.

So that's a case where the limiting factor wasn't records per se, but the general state of sound technology.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:32 PM on May 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Crooning and smoother big band jazz became much more popular as recording equipment got significantly better through the 1930s. In the 1920s, music that cut through the static - hot jazz - worked better for recordings. In the early 1920s you get King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which focuses on interweaving melodies because it's hard to make out static harmonies or tonal textures. (The way that all the parts are melodic reminds me, incidentally, of the way that J.S. Bach composed.)

By the 1930s, Bing Crosby's "early career coincided with recording innovations that allowed him to develop an intimate singing style". Harmonies and tonal textures got richer because it became possible to make them out. At the same time, New Orleans-style polyphony mostly faded away. More texture, less movement.
posted by clawsoon at 4:46 PM on May 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of nebulawindphone's more general tech limits, tuba was more popular as a bass instrument than double bass for the same reason, in both recordings and performance. And the double bass players that were working tended to play gut strings, which project a lot more (but are less subtle). The move to metal strings (allowing the more effete sound of, say, the Modern Jazz Quartet) only was possible with modern amplification.

Jazz started to get more introspective in the early 1950s, though it could be attributed both ways; i.e. art followed tech or the impulse was entirely artistic (and happily coincidental with tech innovation). I'd say more the latter. Miles Davis pretty much established that move, and while tech certainly facilitated, the impetus was the fact that bravura-style horn playing couldn't go much further than the era's giants (e.g. Dizzy Gillespie) had taken it. Miles wasn't ever going to catch up, so he pivoted, establishing his famously plaintive style. If there weren't good mics, he'd be a mere footnote, playing only in the smallest and most intimate clubs.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:48 PM on May 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Aside from length limitations the risk of early recording technology was that sudden, loud sounds could literally cause the needle to jump. Opera singers (the early recording stars) were coached in limiting their dynamic range. Higher voices could be louder in the loud parts (and quieter in the quiet parts) than lower voices because lower frequency sounds were more likely to cause needle jumps. There were physical limits on how much bass you’d be able to get in a recording, and arrangements were simplified to reduce the effects of limited bandwidth.

For early jazz recordings the same rules applied, and the limitations would have meant placing louder instruments (e.g. drums) farther from the microphone. The same physical limitations applied to bass frequencies, so old jazz recordings are just as treble-focused as old opera recordings. But early jazz was more along the lines of Dixieland and ragtime anyway, with fewer instruments total and sparser, but more polyphonic, arrangements than those that came along in the late 1920s and later. Jazz didn’t develop into the still-popular “solo over backing” type of arrangements until recording technology was already less limited. “Big band” arrangements were later still.
posted by fedward at 6:33 PM on May 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

I remember reading that from the 1920s to the 1930s a baritone voice became preferable to a tenor one because of changes in recording equipmen
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:23 PM on May 2, 2019

Best answer: There’s a book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by Mark Katz (a friend) that has a whole chapter specifically on Jazz and technology. It talks about the effects that key characteristics of recording technology—its portability, temporality (length of time for an individual recording), repeatability, and receptivity (quality/ability of the tech to capture the sound)—all had on the music itself.
posted by msbubbaclees at 5:52 AM on May 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

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