Revisiting Black Swan: Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label

Revisiting Black Swan: The Documented History
Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the
Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label
By Allan Sutton

 

This new account draws on company documents and correspondence between Pace and Du Bois (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries), as well as information newly uncovered while researching John Fletcher’s involvement with Black Swan and the affiliated Fletcher Record Company.

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Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was the second black-owned and operated record company (preceded only by George W. Broome’s short-lived venture), and the first to succeed commercially, albeit briefly.

A 1903 graduate of Atlanta University, Pace initially worked in banking, but his interests turned increasingly to music. He and W. C. Handy collaborated on their first song in 1907, and in 1912 the pair formed the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. The company had its first major hit in 1914, with the publication of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and in 1918 it relocated to New York. Pace resigned in late 1920 to launch his recording operation, taking some key personnel with him. Handy recalled, “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace. Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”

Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Birth of Black Swan

On December 27, 1920, Pace wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois that he had formed a corporation to manufacture phonograph records. He held open the possibility of involving others, telling Du Bois, “I made the capital stock elastic enough so as to take others into it if the idea met very favorable consideration.”

The letter also makes clear that it was Du Bois who suggested the name “Black Swan” (in honor of the pioneering African-American diva, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield). Pace wrote,

I note your suggestion about the name “Black Swan” and it strikes me very favorably indeed. I debated very seriously  whether I should use a fanciful name or whether I should capitalize on my own name and use it… All of this, of course, had been done before I talked with you on the subject.

Pace reported to Du Bois that he had Ford Dabney’s Orchestra under contract and had already made test recordings by the group, which apparently were never issued. He was hoping to do the same, he told Du Bois, with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert, a very young Marian Anderson, and one or two “local folks who are getting in shape, and whom I am trying out with a view of having them record as soon as we are ready to make the permanent masters.”

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W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)

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Pace invited Du Bois to join the new company’s board and provide whatever funding he could. The Pace Phonograph Corporation was formally chartered as a Delaware corporation in January 1921, with Du Bois initially purchasing a single share. The officers at the time of incorporation were Pace (president and treasurer) and D. L. Haynes (secretary). Directors, in addition to Du Bois, included Levi C. Brown, T. K. Gibson, William Lewis, John E. Nail, and Emmett J. Scott. Pace and Du Bois found eager investors not only in Harlem, but in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, and other far-flung locations.

Among Pace’s investors was comedian Bert Williams, who according to a misleadingly worded advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.” It would not be only time that Pace took some liberties in describing Williams’ relationship to Black Swan. Following Williams’ death, Pace took a full-page ad The Crisis, in which he claimed that Williams had intended to move to Black Swan once his Columbia contract expired. Canny businessman that he was, it seems unlikely that Williams would have abandoned a company whose annual sales of his records alone exceeded Black Swan’s total annual sales.

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Pace’s April 1922 ad in The Crisis includes the questionable claim that Bert Williams planned to leave “a White Company” for Black Swan.

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Harry Pace’s townhouse at 257 West 138th Street served as Black Swan’s first office. Among the employees Pace took from Pace & Handy Music was Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., a young pianist from Georgia whom Handy had recently hired as a song demonstrator. Henderson’s defection garnered him the position of recording director and house accompanist, although Pace later admitted he felt that Henderson was not fully qualified for the job. William Grant Still, one of W. C. Handy’s staff arrangers, also made the move.

The studio in which Pace initially recorded remains a subject of debate. The location is not mentioned in any of Pace’s or Du Bois’ known correspondence, nor is there any suggestion in those letters that Pace equipped his own studio or hired a recording engineer. A New York Age article from June 1921 confirms that Pace did not yet have his own studio, reporting that the company was “planning to establish its own laboratory [i.e., studio] in the near future.”

If any of Pace’s pre-production test recordings have survived, they have not been located for inspection. Most of the early issued masters appear to have been made by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon some distinctive physical and aural characteristics. (NYRL at that time was recording masters for other small labels as well — most notably Arto and Grey Gull, as confirmed in band manager Ed Kirkeby’s session logs — which were assigned master numbers in each label’s own series).

Black Swan Comes to Market

Black Swan records were in production by the early spring of 1921, with initial releases planned for May. Pressing was to be handled by John Fletcher’s Olympic Disc Record Corporation plant in Long Island City. Newly incorporated, Olympic commenced operations in March 1921, the same month in which the earliest issued Black Swan recordings are believed to have been made. Like Black Swan, Olympic advertised its first records as May releases, and their physical characteristics were identical with those of the earliest Black Swan pressings, confirming Harry Pace’s recollection that they were pressed in what he termed the “Remington factory” (the Remington Phonograph Company being Olympic’s parent corporation).

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(Left) An early first-state Black Swan label, showing the sunken ring around the spindle hole and other tell-tale Olympic pressing-plant characteristics. (Right) A second-state label, pressed by the New York Recording Laboratories. Based upon the typeface, it appears that both labels were supplied by the same printer.

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From the start, Pace found himself torn between two disparate markets within the African-American community — a relatively small, affluent group that championed what it saw as culture and refinement (mirroring Pace’s own background and musical preferences); and a far larger working-class group with a growing appetite for jazz and blues records. In August 1921, Pace told The Talking Machine World, “While it is true that we will feature to a great extent ‘blue’ numbers of the type that are in current favor, we will also release many numbers of a higher standard.” In his attempt to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution in his choice of artists and repertoire.

The first three Black Swan records were announced as ready for delivery on May 4, 1921. Pace’s preference for “numbers of a “higher standard” was immediately apparent. For the inaugural release (#2001), he chose two old concert war-horses, “At Dawning” and “Thank God for a Garden,” sung by soprano Revella Hughes, with violin, cello, and piano accompaniment. There followed two equally straightforward sides by concert baritone Carroll C. Clark, then two blues-inflected pop tunes by vaudevillian Katie Crippen.

Pace reported first-month sales of 10,300 Black Swan records to Du Bois, who forwarded that figure to The Crisis. The editors, apparently unaware that figure was a minuscule fraction of the major labels’ sales for the same period, seemed impressed.

The black press (particularly The Chicago Defender) cast Pace’s attempt to launch Black Swan as nothing less than an epic struggle between good and evil. The venture had barely been launched when the Defender proclaimed that “a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.” If there was an uproar, it went unreported in trade journals like The Talking Machine World, which covered Black Swan to the same extent as the other small startups of the period, was positive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.

Pressing-Plant Woes

One of the Defender‘s most absurd claims, flying in the face of what are now well-established facts, was that the Remington Phonograph Company had purchased the Olympic pressing plant for the sole purpose of denying service to Pace—conveniently glossing over the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed Black Swan records, albeit briefly.

What actually caused Pace and Olympic to part company was a surge in orders that Olympic apparently was not prepared to handle. It was decided instead to contract pressing to the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount). In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (NYRL’s headquarters), Pace reported, “I am here arranging for an increased fall and winter production together with a line of Black Swan Phonographs.”

The NYRL pressing plant, although geographically remote, had the capacity for large-scale record production that Olympic lacked, and the company was actively courting new customers. Since Pace was already using NYRL’s New York studio, the move from Olympic made logistical sense, consolidating all Black Swan production within a single company. Black Swan pressings from the summer of 1921 into the spring of 1922 show the unmistakable characteristics of NYRL’s work.

Ethel Waters Sparks a Surge in Sales

The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough by the press and public. Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest offerings failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to make Black Swan profitable. The situation changed with Pace’s signing of Ethel Waters in April 1921. Already a veteran of the southern vaudeville circuits, Waters was attracting a strong following at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem.

Waters had already recorded two titles for Criterion Laboratories, an independent studio that supplied several small labels, but there had been no immediate takers (Cardinal eventually released them in September 1921), and Waters decided to visit Pace. Her first Black Swan release (“Down Home Blues” / “Oh Daddy”) was released in July 1921 and became a sizable hit. In October, Pace signed Waters to an exclusive Black Swan contract that reportedly made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time. In November, she was sent on an extended tour as the star of the Black Swan Troubadours, eventually playing in twenty-one states.

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Black Swan’s first hit: “Down Home Blues” (here advertised in August 1921) brought national attention to Ethel Water and Black Swan. Pace plugged many of Waters’ subsequent releases as “Another ‘Down Home Blues'” (the example above is from late 1922), but none approached the popularity of the original.

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Thanks largely to Waters’ records, Black Swan developed a small following among white customers, including some stage and film stars. It was widely reported that actress Marilyn Miller had presented a “large selection” of Black Swan records to Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) on their wedding day. The Dallas Express reported, “It is now becoming quite a fad with many stars of the theatrical profession, who have found something different in these all-Colored records, to have them sent to their friends in various parts of the country.”

Pace, however, failed to capitalize on that momentum. He placed no advertising in the white consumer publications and made little effort to court the important trade publications. His advertisements in The Talking Machine World, which did not begin running until August 1921, often appeared to be halfhearted efforts, sometimes simply listing a few artists’ names, or dwelling on past hits rather than fresh releases.

Trixie Smith, Pace’s next star, was signed in January 1922, shortly after she took first place at the Fifteenth Regiment Blues Contest in Harlem. With Waters and Smith on his roster, Pace found it easier to attract new singers. However, the oft-repeated tale that he auditioned Bessie Smith, and rejected her after she stopped to spit in the midst of her test recording, is apocryphal. It appears to have originated in the 1940s with W. C. Handy, who was prone to spinning colorful tales and is unlikely to have been present at the alleged session, given his strained relationship with Pace.

April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s quixotic attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of a Red Label series, an obvious play on Victor’s prestigious Red Seals. Victor, which for years had taken legal action against competitors’ use of red labels on classical records, does not appear to have taken any such action in Black Swan’s case, casting further doubt on the Defender‘s claims that the white recording establishment was out to destroy Pace.

The Red Label listing included operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert and Antoinette Garnes, and concert selections by Hattie King Reavis. In December 1922, Pace tried to secure concert tenor Roland Hayes for Black Swan, only to be informed by Hayes that he was under contract to Aeolian in England. The series sputtered along until being discontinued in May 1923, marking the end of Pace’s production of original classical recordings.

Marketing Black Swan

With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, spotty marketing and distribution were hobbling sales. Pace was unable to obtain national coverage through the major jobbers. Although racial prejudice was likely a factor in some cases, small white-owned startups had experienced the same problem for many years. In Pace’s case, however, the major distributors’ lack of confidence probably was compounded by his inexperience in the record business and Black Swan’s targeting of a still-unproven market.

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Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.

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Pace countered by recruiting small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell the records wherever and however they could. In June 1921, he hired Paul Robeson (who was then a student at Rutgers) as a part-time salesman, but missed the opportunity to record him. That autumn, Pace hired C. Udell Turpin (spelled Turpine in some accounts, but Turpin in company correspondence) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpin brought along several professional salesmen from a previous venture, but he continued to build Pace’s network of small retailers and individual salespeople as well, advertising in The Crisis, “We want men and women with a backbone and a desire to earn $100 a week…men and women who don’t care what $20 a week people think.”

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Pace depended heavily on heavily on independent salespeople, like Mrs. L. A. Shaw of Dallas, Texas.

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In March 1922, Pace published a Black Swan distributor map in The Crisis that looked impressive at first glance, with all forty-eight states covered to varying degrees. The heaviest concentrations were east of the Mississippi, but many states had a distributor or jobber, and at least a few retail dealers. However, the largest number of dots on the map represented “agents,” those independent salespeople who peddled the records door-to-door, from their homes, or wherever else they could.

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Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis
for March 1922.

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In January 1922, The New York Age perhaps unintentionally revealed the company’s financial fragility when it reported that Black Swan had made a profit of slightly more than $3,300 on sales of $104,628.74 in 1921. Although the reporter seemed impressed by the latter figure, it was minuscule by industry standards of the day. Given that Black Swan records initially retailed for $1 (reduced to 85¢ late in the year), and normal wholesale rates were 50% of list price, Black Swan’s 1921 sales probably amounted to between a quarter- and a half-million records, depending upon the ratio of wholesale to direct retail sales. In the same year, Victor sold nearly fifty-five million records.

Enter John Fletcher

On March 25, 1922, assets of John Fletcher’s bankrupt Olympic Disc Record Corporation were auctioned by order of the company’s receiver. The purchaser was Fletcher himself, in partnership with Harry Pace and Michael Naughton. For their winning bid, they acquired ownership of Olympic’s trademarks and masters, but more importantly for Pace, the company’s Long Island City studio and pressing plant.

The Fletcher Record Company was incorporated in New York on May 26, 1922. Fletcher, Pace, and Naughton were listed as directors of the new company, which was chartered simply to “deal in merchandise.” With Fletcher serving as president, and Pace as vice-president and treasurer, the Fletcher Record Company was the first American record company to have a racially integrated executive team, although there appears to have been only minimal interaction between Pace and Fletcher.

The Fletcher Record Company initially served only as a supplier to Pace, providing Black Swan masters and pressings to order; its name never appeared on a Black Swan label. The Pace Phonograph Corporation continued to function as an autonomous entity, with a separate board of directors, and with Harry Pace still largely in control of who and what appeared on Black Swan. It would not be long however, before disguised Olympic recordings began turning up in the Black Swan catalog.

Initially, at least, the arrangement eliminated the production bottlenecks that has plagued Black Swan from the start. Pace was soon able to report, “We are now issuing ten numbers a month instead of three…. We do our own recording, plating, pressing, as well as printing of every description, in the above plant.” However, the operation soon proved to be unprofitable.

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Fletcher-era Black Swan pressings; note the return of the sunken ring surrounding the spindle hole, which is absent on the New York Record Laboratories’ and Bridgeport Die & Machine Company’s Black Swan pressings. Black Swan 60006 is a reissue from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, with xylophonist George Hamilton Green disguised as “Raymond Green.”

Pace Breaks his Pledge to Use Only Black Artists

Fletcher revived his Olympic label later that year, with an all-white artist roster. Pace had already reissued some older Olympic recordings on Black Swan, under pseudonyms, breaking his pledge to use only black artists.

By July 1922, so much outside material was being released under the Black Swan label that the catalog was split into ten separately numbered series. Of those, only the 14000 race series (replacing the original 2000s) and 7100 operatic series remained purely Pace productions, employing only black artists. The remainder (which included Hawaiian, novelty, sacred, novelty, and classical series) were made up almost entirely of pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s Olympic catalog. In an ironic twist, the nation’s first successful race-record label was now producing its own racially segregated catalog, while continuing to falsely claim that it employed only black talent.

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Pace broke his pledge to use only black artists even before going into partnership with John Fletcher. By the time this ad appeared in The Crisis in late 1922, the Black Swan catalog contained many pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, including the “Xmas records” advertised here.

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The aliases employed by Black Swan for Olympics’ white artists were obviously contrived to suggest black performers. Various Harry Yerkes groups became “Joe Brown’s Alabama Band” or “Sammy Swift’s Jazz Band,” Rudy Wiedeoft’s Californians became “Haynes’ Harlem Syncopators,” and novelty whistler Margaret McKee was renamed “Bessie Johnson.” Recordings
by Irving Weiss’ Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Fred Van Eps’ Quartet, and Wiedoeft’s Palace Trio were released as “Ethel Waters’ Jazz Masters” while Waters was on tour and likely unaware of the use of her name on records with which she nothing to do. Some Olympic recordings by conventional white dance bands were credited to “Henderson’s Dance Orchestra” or “Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra,” with no first name given but obviously meant to imply Fletcher Henderson’s involvement, even after Henderson had left the company.

At least one newspaper was taken in by the bogus artist credits. A reporter for The Chicago Defender praised the Baltimore Blues Orchestra, “a new musical organization…doing exclusive recording for Black Swan records,” unaware that name was simply a disguise for several white dance bands from the Olympic roster. Whether record buyers were more savvy than that reporter is unknown, but Black Swan sales began to stall.

Black Swan in Decline

Pace reported sales of only 256,202 Black Swan records for fiscal year 1922. In his November 1922 financial statement, he disclosed that Black Swan had experienced “the greatest slump since we began business” during July.

The slump persisted into early October, by which time Pace seemed resigned to average monthly sales of only 25,000 records. “I am trying to devise some sales plan whereby this figure can be greatly increased,” he wrote to Du Bois, “but regret to say that I have not yet hit upon it.” In the same month, Pace set up a dummy collection agency to handle delinquent accounts. Although the operation netted only $544 in its first month, Pace seemed pleased with that figure and reported that the operation was “still pulling them in.”

Pace advertised a new stock issue in October 1922, promising a “certain” 6% return in three years, plus 6% dividends.” But the stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming.

Exit John Fletcher

By late 1922, it was clear to Harry Pace that he needed to disentangle himself from John Fletcher’s pressing plant. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.” On January 20, 1923, he reorganized the Pace Phonograph Corporation as the Black Swan Record Company, ending what had become an unprofitable relationship with John Fletcher. Fletcher carried on alone, but his revived Olympic label failed to attract much attention.

With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for pressings, using the affiliated Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut as a secondary supplier. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.

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Letterheads for the original Pace Phonograph Corporation (above) and the Black Swan Phonograph Company (below), a 1923 reorganization of the original corporation following Pace’s split with John Fletcher.

Artist Exodus

The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter was the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she left to sign with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed that autumn. His replacement was William Grant Still, who took over as Black Swan’s new recording director on November 13. Pace, who later stated that he had not been satisfied with Henderson’s work, predicted that “Still will bring wider experience and more technical musical knowledge than Henderson has had, and I believe will greatly improve the work of the records.” Preoccupied with his theatrical work and growing stature as a serious composer, Still brought about no apparent improvement in Black Swan’s recorded output.

The company’s reorganization and declining fortunes spurred a second and far more damaging artist exodus that began with Trixie Smith’s defection to Paramount in March 1923. Smith was followed in short order by Josie Miles, Julia Moody, Lena Wilson, and others. Many subsequently signed on as free-lance recording artists with music publisher and booking agent Joe Davis, who shopped them around to whatever labels would have them.

In the meantime, Ethel Waters had foregone membership in the Black Swan Troubadours and was now touring independently, in what could only be seen as an ominous sign for Black Swan. When the Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discover that Black Swan was barely operating.

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Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.

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The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, with little to celebrate. In or around early August, Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan recording session.

Only a handful of new Black Swan releases would be forthcoming after July, and some that were advertised are not known to have been released. The label’s final release (Ethel Waters’ “Sweet Man Blues” / “Ethel Sings ‘Em,” recorded in June at her final Black Swan session) was advertised in The Chicago Defender on  December 22, 1923. Black Swan advertised in the Defender for the last time on February 23, 1924. Even then, Pace was still soliciting “agents in every community.”

“Every Effort Should Be Made to Dispose of the Assets”

By the autumn of 1923, Du Bois was looking to cash out of the failing operation. On October 1, he wrote to Pace,

Is there any market for Black Swan stock? I have got to be out of the country attending the Pan-African Conference for three months and I want to finance my house payments while I am gone. If you think of any way I can help myself by the sale or a hypothecation of any part of my stock, kindly let me know.

Pace offered no aid, noting that “summer has been very dull for us.” By then the company had gone dormant for all practical purposes, and its stock was virtually worthless. Its debts, which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services, were accumulating at an alarming rate. At year’s end, Black Swan’s board of directors approved a resolution that read, in part,

To make the corporation successful..will require not simply time, but the uninterrupted and undivided services of all the executive officers. We believe that any division of time or of interest will be fatal to the interest of this corporation. If, however, the president and other officials feel that the present condition of the corporation does not warrant them in giving their full services, we think that every effort should be made to dispose of the assets of the organization… .

Paramount Takes Over

In January 1924, Maurice Supper traveled to New York from Paramount’s Wisconsin headquarters to negotiate a buyout of Black Swan. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.

Under terms of the agreement with Paramount, the Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but only on paper, to serve as a holding company for the protection of its shareholders. It would have no further involvement in recording or production. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name, trademark,  and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute the existing Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be leased to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty on sales.

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A redesigned Black Swan label appeared in early 1923 (left), following Pace’s split with John Fletcher. Pressings bearing this label were produced by both the New York Recording Laboratories and the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (the example pictured here came from the latter). The ill-fated Paramount – Black Swan reissue label was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, which leased Pace’s masters.

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Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when Paramount’s advertising logo was changed to read “Paramount Records (Combined with Black Swan).” A hybrid Paramount – Black Swan label, combining both companies’ trademarks, was introduced with some fanfare a month later, but it never developed into anything more than a reissue vehicle for previously released Black Swan recordings. Having failed to attract much interest after ninety-nine releases, the Paramount – Black Swan label stalled. The licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount – Black Swan label had already been discontinued.

Winding Down Black Swan

Pace spent the next several years attempting to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, at one point asking stockholders to contribute $10 for each share they owned. He recalled, “I did not get even the courtesy of a reply from one percent  of the stockholders, and not a dollar were they willing to risk to safeguard $100 invested.”

Pace contributed a few thousand dollars of his own money and made vague allusions to engaging in “other activities” with the potential to raise some funds. The company’s only other significant revue was coming from the heavily mortgaged Seventh Avenue building, which was netting just $2,500 annually in rent.The masters were deemed worthless; a message to stockholders noted “it is doubtful if anything is going to be realized” from their sale.

In a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors, Pace characterized his efforts as a “worry for me and punishing effort which appears to be wholly unappreciated by some.” He then turned his back on the recording industry, went on earn a law degree from the University of Chicago, and in later years operated an insurance business.

 

Selected References

“A Consolidation.” Chicago Defender (Apr 19, 1924), p. 6.

“A New York Incorporation.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1921), p. 157.

Allen, Walter C. “Report on Black Swan.” Unpublished manuscript (Jun 12, 1961). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

“Black Swan Artists Broadcast.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 43.

“Black Swan Takes Over Company.” Chicago Defender (Apr 1922).

“Black Swan Records—New Firm Announces First List of Productions.” Chicago Defender (May 4, 1921), p. 8.

“C. Udell Turpin Takes Charge.” Talking Machine World (Oct 15, 1921), p. 46.

“Demand for Ethel Waters Record.” Talking Machine World (Aug 15, 1921), p. 89.

“Distribution System of Black Swan Phonograph Records.” The Crisis (Mar 1922), p 221.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Letter to Roland Hayes (New York, Nov 24, 1922), re: Invitation to record for Black Swan. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

— . Letter to Harry Pace (New York, Oct 1, 1923), re: sale of stock.

Du Bois, W. E. B., et al. “To the Stockholders of the Black Swan Phonograph Company” (New York, Jan 2, 1926). Du Bois Papers.

“Gives Jack Pickford Black Swan Records as Wedding Present.” Dallas Express (Nov 11, 1922), p. 1.

Handy, W. C. (Arna Bomtemps, editor). Father of the Blues—An Autobiography, pp. 202–203. New York: Macmillan (1941).

“New Incorporations.” New York Times (May 26, 1922), p. 34.

“New Incorporations—Capital Increases.” New York Times (Feb 1, 1923), p. 28

“New Incorporations—Delaware Charters.” New York Times (Feb 5, 1921), p. 22

“New York Charters—Name Changes.” New York Times (Jan 30, 1923), p. 27

“New Incorporations—New York Charters.” New York Times (Jun 25, 1921), p. 13.

“Now the Fletcher Record Company—Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New ­Corporation.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1922), p. 57.

Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 27, 1920), re: Company launch and Du Bois’ proposal of the Black Swan name. Du Bois Papers.

— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Mar 21, 1922), re: Financial statement through Dec 31, 1921.

 — . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 23, 1922), re: Roland Hayes, and proposal to press imported Caruso masters. Du Bois Papers.

 — . Letter to Du Bois, et al. (New York, Jan 19, 1927), re: Ongoing attempts to liquidate Black Swan debt.

— . Postcard to W. E. B. Du Bois (Port Washington, WI, Jun 24, 1921), re: Preparations for increased record production. Du Bois Papers.

— . Stockholder Notice (New York, Jan 1, 1923), re: Organization of Black Swan Phonograph Company. Du Bois Papers.

Pace Phonograph Corp. “Black Swan Records.” U.S. trademark filing #149,558 (Jun 23, 1921).

“Pace Phonograph Corp. Changes Name.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1923), p. 124.

“Phonograph Company Making Rapid Progress.” New York Age (Jun 18, 1921), p. 6.

“Purchase Black Swan Business.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1924), p. 168.

“Report of Pace Phonograph Corporation” (Nov 8, 1922). Du Bois Papers.

“Robeson Casts His Chances with Pace Phonograph Co.” Chicago Defender (Jun 18, 1921), p. 9.

“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units,
Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive” (Exhibit: Victor record sales). U.S. District Court, S.D. of N.Y., Jan. 26 1943

“The Horizon” (re: First-month Black Swan record sales). The Crisis (Aug 1921), p. 176.

“The Horizon” (re: Black Swan distribution and record sales). The Crisis (Mar 1922), p. 220.

“The Swanola—A New Phonograph” (ad). The Crisis (Oct 1921), p. 284.

Thygesen, Helge, et al. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottingham, UK: VJM Publications (1996).

“To the Investing Public.” The Crisis (Nov 1922), p. 282.

“White Phonograph Record Companies Object to Colored Men Making Phonograph Records.” Dallas Express (Feb 26, 1921), p. 3.

 

Of Related Interest

This new addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library includes listings for all Black Swan records using Olympic masters. It is free to download for personal, non-commercial use.

 

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© 2022 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. Please contact  Mainspring Press for information on reproducing of any portion of this work in excess of customary fair-use standards.

 

Free Download • Emerson Records: The Complete Discography, 1915–1928

Free Download Now Available

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EMERSON RECORDS: THE COMPLETE
DISCOGRAPHY, 1915–1928
Edited and annotated by Allan Sutton

Primary Data Contributors:
William R. Bryant, The Record Research
Associates, and Mark McDaniel

 

The first online version of Mainspring’s Emerson discography, Emerson Records begins with a thorough revision of the original print edition (ten- and twelve-inch issues), incorporating additions and corrections received since its publication nine years ago. To that, we’ve added what was to have been Volume 2, which was still a work-in-progress at the time Mainspring exited the book business:

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All currently confirmed corresponding issues on subsidiary and client labels are included (with takes and label credits noted individually for each record), along with a first attempt to document Emerson masters not issued on the Emerson label, and Emerson’s often-elusive Melodisc releases. Pages are fully searchable, and there are bookmark tabs to guide you to the various sections.

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The James A. Drake Interviews: Artie Shaw

The James A. Drake Interviews: Artie Shaw

 

ARTIE SHAW.

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James A. Drake, Interviewer
Westport, Connecticut (November 1974)

On a late-autumn afternoon in 1974, Gustave (Gus) Haenschen, a radio and recording pioneer for whom many of the leaders of the “Big Band Era” had played in the early years of their careers, drove from his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, where I joined him, to nearby Westport where Artie Shaw was renting a house. When Haenschen turned into the driveway, Shaw was standing at the edge of the sidewalk. As soon as Haenschen get out of his car, Shaw put his arms around Haenschen’s midsection and lifted him off the ground, repeating “Gus … Gus … Gus” until Haenschen said, “I love you too, Artie, but I’m 85 years old so put me down!”

 Having seen Shaw on talk shows, where his prickly personality was always on display, and knowing his reputation for correcting interviewers mid-sentence and citing logical flaws in their questions, I was taken by his open display of affection toward Haenschen, whom he hadn’t seen for almost 25 years. Although he knew that the purpose of the visit was for me to record an interview with him, Shaw promptly put me to the test. Probably because of Haenschen’s presence and my own research, I managed to pass his test and he responded in detail to my questions and gave candid, often blunt assessments of his and other bandleaders’ assets and liabilities.

 

Let me begin by thanking you, Mr. Shaw, for taking time to grant us this interview.

I’m doing this because Gus [Haenschen] asked me to do it. Gus is one of the great men in the music business. You, on the other hand, I don’t know at all. Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you want from me?

 

Well, I want to ask you questions about your career, and specifically about–

You’re a little late, sonny. I got out of the Artie Shaw business in 1954. So you’re exactly twenty years late.

 

I realize that you’re not actively performing, but your career is very significant in American popular music and popular culture. But you certainly don’t need for me to tell you that. 

As I just told you, I quit being Artie Shaw twenty years ago. I’m through talking about my “career,” as you called it. 

 

Well, then, what would you like to talk about?

Target shooting. Which you don’t know shit about. Have you ever heard of skeet shooting?

 

Yes, I have.

Do you know what a five-round drill at 100 yards is?

 

Yes, it’s an event that’s usually timed, and each shooter must put five rounds as close to the center as possible using open sights. Those with the tightest group are the winners.

Do you see that rifle [pointing to a rack on a wall]? What is it?

 

I can’t tell what the caliber is, but the rifle itself looks like an Anschutz or maybe a Weatherby with a full Mannlicher-style stock.

You’re doing all right so far. And by the way, it’s a .22 Hornet. What’s the best shotgun for skeet shooting?

 

Well, I know that the shotguns most skeet shooters prefer are made in the U.K. They’re James Purdy double-barreled side-by-side 12-gauge shotguns, which are hand-crafted to fit each buyer.

Well, I’ll be goddamned—you proved me wrong. You want to see some Purdys? Follow me to my gun room.

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[After an interval of approximately twenty minutes, the interview resumed.]


Okay, go ahead and ask me anything you want, with one exception: I don’t want to talk about my ex-wives. So let’s stick to music. 

 

What role did Charles E. Rochester play in your career?

You’ve done some homework. Charlie Rochester was the president and general manager of the Lexington Hotel in New York. When I was playing there, we had a clash that made me despise him until I realized that he was telling me was right. I didn’t understand it at the time.

 

What did you and he clash about?

I had signed with an agent after I put my first band together, and the agent got me a gig at the Lexington. We played there for about a week, but the ballroom we played in was practically empty. I didn’t really pay much attention to it because I was focused on the band and our arrangements. Well, at the end of the first week of our engagement, my agent told me that Rochester was displeased with my band because we weren’t drawing enough customers. So I asked my agent to arrange for me to meet with [Rochester].

When I went to his office, he said to me, “Your band isn’t pulling its weight, and if this keeps up, I’m going to have to let you go.” I said, “What do you mean we’re not pulling our weight? This is one hell of a band, and we’re playing our hearts out night after night.” He interrupted me and said that the band wasn’t pulling in customers, to which I said that pulling in customers was not my job. My job was to lead a quality band, irrespective of how many customers are on the dance floor, or at the bar, or having dinner at the tables in the room.

He said to me, “You’ve got it all wrong, kid. I’m not running a concert hall here. This is a hotel dining room, and it’s been practically empty every night this week. Your job is to provide the kind of entertainment that will fill this room. If you want to take off your pants every night and shit on the stage, and if it draws enough customers to fill this room, I’ll pay you to shit on the stage every night. You’re in show business, kid, and you’d better understand the ‘business’ part if you want to have a career.”

That was tough to hear, but he did me a favor by explaining show business to me because he smashed the picture that I had in my mind. I had thought that musical perfection, which was what I was always striving for, would always draw an audience. But it doesn’t because audiences in hotels and movie theaters and what-not aren’t educated about music. They want a show—and that’s why it’s called show business. I was mad as hell at him until I realized that he had just done me a favor. I was in a business. And that’s what I hated—the “business” of show business. That’s why I quit so many times until I finally quit for good.

 

Your fame as a bandleader is as a clarinetist, but did you study the clarinet formally? Was it your first instrument?

No, I was a sax player, alto and tenor. I’m an auto-didact, and I learned the sax on my own. I came to the clarinet after I had been playing sax in studio orchestras. I was in a lot of this man’s [Haenschen’s] sax sessions, especially during those World Broadcasting recording sessions. That’s why I keep saying to you, Gus, that you kept food on our tables.

There wasn’t enough work after the stock market crash, but those World Broadcasting sessions that you and Ben Selvin and Frank Black and Lenny Joy and the other directors you had working with you were our salvation. We could do three of those if we were free and had the stamina, and those smorgasbords you had for us were just the best—and you let us take food home. Believe me, the guys I’m still in touch with talk about those sessions the way I do.

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Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (circled at left) in the saxophone section at a World Broadcasting session conducted by Leonard Joy. James Melton is circled at the right.

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Since we’re in the presence of Mr. Haenschen, what do you recall about playing under his direction?

Well, first of all, Gus is probably the only guy in the music business who has no enemies. No one in the business is more beloved by the guys who played under him than Gus Haenschen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting here.

 

What do you recall of the sessions with other directors, in particular Ben Selvin and Frank Black?

I don’t think Ben did as many as most of the others—certainly not as many as you did, Gus, and that Frank Black did. I didn’t like Frank Black—he was prissy, no sense of humor, and always gave me the impression that he wanted to be at Carnegie Hall conducting Beethoven instead of directing arrangements for radio. I don’t know how the others felt about him, but I didn’t think much of him.

The difference with Gus was, and any of the guys who played under both of them will tell you this, was that he treated every one of us with respect. He ran a tight organization but never an oppressive organization, yet he never hesitated to call out any player who made mistakes or wasn’t giving a hundred percent.

I don’t know if he’ll remember this, but he nailed [Benny] Goodman when he and I were in the sax section of one of [Haenschen’s] radio bands. Goodman was a good clarinetist—a damned good clarinetist, to give him his due—but he was a horrible saxophonist. Any high-school beginner would have a better tone than Goodman had on a sax.

There was a fairly complicated passage in one arrangement that we were rehearsing, and I played it well. It was tricky, but not really hard. Gus wanted it played one more time, so Goodman leaned over to me and said, “Let me play it this time.” It didn’t matter to me, so I let him play it.

Well, about five or six notes into it, Gus waved at the orchestra from the podium to stop our playing. “Who just played that sax phrase?” he said. You remember this, Gus? [Haenschen nods yes.] Well, Goodman jumped up and said he had played it. Gus said to him, “Sit down, Benny, and give that passage back to Artie!” To this day, I’m sure that sticks in Goodman’s craw.

 

Were you and Benny Goodman actually rivals?

In Goodman’s mind, such as it is, apparently so. Years later I met his daughter, who told me that her father referred to me as “the competition.” “The competition”? All I was trying to do was to make music as perfectly as I could. It wasn’t about competition, ever. But addled little Benny told his daughter that I was “the competition.” Go figure. 

 

One legendary story that I’ve heard is that Mr. Goodman felt that he had bested you when Toscanini chose him to be the soloist for the NBC Symphony broadcast of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but that you jinxed him. Is any of that true?

Yeah. I ran into him on Seventh Avenue one afternoon, and he made a point of trotting over to me to tell me that Toscanini had picked him for the “Rhapsody” broadcast. I don’t know what he expected me to say, but what I did say was, “Really? Well, you’ll be so nervous that you’ll fuck up the opening solo, and millions of people will hear you squeak when you fuck it up.”

Which is exactly what he did—and that cracked note, that out-of-tune squeak, is there for posterity. On any other day, he could play that solo part easily. But I got inside his head, and he fucked it up on the air. He’ll never live that down.

 

Another legend about Benny Goodman is the “death ray,” the stare that he gives any band member who makes any mistake, even in a first rehearsal. Was he that way when you were playing together in those early days?

That “death ray” is total horse shit! As a man, Goodman is a mouse, and mentally he’s what psychologists call an “idiot savant.” Now, when you copy this tape, or you transcribe it or whatever you’re going to do with it, I don’t want to come off saying that Goodman is an idiot. So let me say it again: idiot savant.

If it weren’t for the fact that he married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had. Hammond is a Vanderbilt descendant, so he comes from money, and he knows a hell of a lot about the music business because he’s been in it since the late-1920s. He’s the one who shaped Goodman’s career.

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Benny Goodman with Artie Shaw (left) and producer John Hammond (right). “If it weren’t for the fact that [Goodman] married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had.”

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All Goodman knows and cares about is a goddamned clarinet. He has no interest, no knowledge, and no curiosity about anything other than a clarinet. Which is about as shallow as a human being can get. Several years ago, and this was when I was still playing, I was asked to help put together a benefit to sell war bonds. So I called Goodman and asked him to meet me for lunch at the ‘21.’ Well, I spent about ten or fifteen minutes explaining this benefit, when all of a sudden he says to me, “What mouthpiece do you use?”

I just looked at him and said, “What the hell does that have to do with what I was talking to you about?” He said, “Well, the clarinet is our instrument, isn’t it?” I said yes, of course it’s our “instrument,” but it’s just an instrument—just a tool, just one among many different instruments that make up an orchestra. But, you see, that’s the only thing he could talk about: a clarinet, a goddamned tube of wood with holes and keys.

 

We’d like to talk about your childhood a bit. Where did you grow up, and what occupations did your father and mother have?

I was born on the Lower East Side in New York. My birth certificate says May 23, 1910, and I assume it’s accurate. My mother, whose name was Sarah, worked in the garment industry as a young girl. My father, whose Anglicized name was Harold, was a garment worker too. He was a dressmaker. And he had a photography business on the side. His darkroom was in a closet in the flat we were living in.

He had to have a steady supply of water to rinse off the chemicals from his negatives and prints, so one of my jobs was to keep refilling a big wash pan that he used for that purpose. He and my mother moved around a lot until he was able to get steady work in New Haven. So that’s really where I grew up.

 

How did your parents influence your involvement in music?

They didn’t. In fact, my father was contemptuous of music. Whenever he heard me practice the clarinet, he would refer to it as a blosser, which is a Yiddish word for a noise-maker that you blow through, like the ones you see people blowing into on New Year’s Eve. No, my father had nothing but contempt for music and musicians. Well, except maybe for the violin and the famous violinists of those days—Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, and so on—because the violin is a “Jewish” instrument and almost all of those great violinists were Jews.

 

Were you raised in the Jewish faith?

I had a bar mitzvah, but that’s about it. We didn’t go to the synagogue very often, and anyway I wasn’t interested in “Jewish” anything. I didn’t go out of my way to hide it, but I don’t look Jewish—not like Goodman, who definitely looks Jewish—and the name “Shaw,” although it’s not my real name, is British. I’d bet that if you took a survey of people who claim to be fans of mine, and you asked them whether I was a Jew or a Gentile, they’d say I was a Gentile, a goy.

 

Just for the record, what is your birth name?

Arthur Arshawsky. Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. That’s the spelling our family used, although I’ve seen other variations like “Arshavski.”

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Artie Shaw (née Arshawsky) in the early 1930s

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When did you begin studying music?

I was a bookworm as a kid, and wasn’t interested in stickball and the other stuff that boys my age were interested in. But my mother insisted that I learn an instrument, so I picked the saxophone because it was the popular instrument at that time. I had a couple lessons, but I mostly taught myself the sax. In those days, the C-melody sax was very popular because of Rudy Wiedoeft. He was the most famous saxophonist of his time. He’s the guy Rudy Vallée named himself after, if you don’t know that.

[Wiedoeft] wrote and played a lot of what I’d call “novelty tunes” like “Saxophobia” that seemed impossible to play and that every sax student wanted to be able to play. But he was also a virtuoso and wrote classical compositions for the sax. Like everybody else did when I started out, I learned the C-melody [sax] and then went on to the tenor and alto saxes.

 

Did you teach yourself the clarinet as well?

I did because in those days the real demand in studio work was for “doublers,” guys who could play clarinet and sax. I learned the [clarinet] fingering system from a book, and for me it wasn’t that hard even though the fingering is different than the sax, which has the same fingering in the upper and lower registers.

The upper register of the clarinet has totally different fingering, and [the clarinet] has several open holes. Sax keys all have pads. Another big difference is what reed players call the “embouchure,” or the way that your lips and your tongue interact when you’re playing the instrument properly. The clarinet requires a different embouchure.

 

There are two clarinet “systems,” the Boehm and the Albert. Which system were you taught?

There are four systems, depending on how you want to count them. There’s not only Boehm and Albert, but also the Öhler and the relatively new one, the Mazzeo system. Like most kids of my generation, my first clarinet was an Albert, but I switched to the Boehm [system] pretty early.

 

Every clarinetist who has heard your recordings wonders how you were able to play ultra-high notes so easily. One rumor has it that you used a synthetic reed and a specially designed mouthpiece to be able to play above the high-C in the upper register. Is any of that true?

Oh, hell no! For some reason, the upper register just came easily to me. Which is just the opposite for most clarinetists. Take this guy who did “Stranger on the Shore” a few years ago. I can’t remember his name right now, but do you know who I mean?

 

I believe it’s Acker Bilk you’re thinking of.

He plays mainly in the lower register. His tone is raw and there’s too much vibrato in it, but there’s something appealing about his low-register playing. He sold a hell of a lot of records of “Stranger on the Shore.” When he goes into the upper register, his tone changes and I can tell he’s not comfortable in that register. With me, it was just the opposite. I could play beautifully in the lower register, if I may say so myself—and anybody can listen to [my] records and judge it for themselves.

As much as I detest hearing [my] “Begin the Beguine” recording—and I detest it because I was asked to play “Begin the Beguine” so goddamned many times, everywhere I played—you can hear my lower register because I recorded it in [the key of] C, and the first bars are from low G to a middle E. I’ll also put my recording of “Star Dust” against anybody else’s. I’m not modest about that [studio] recording because that was as close to perfection as I could get.

 

Are there other recordings you’re especially proud of?

If you’re talking about a single, there’s a Decca I made of “These Foolish Things” that’s not easy to find. It’s with the full band, and I play a cadenza that I don’t think can ever be bettered. That and “Star Dust,” with Billy Butterfield on the trumpet, are my best work on recordings.

My ease in alt, the very high notes in the upper register, had nothing to do with mouthpieces. I used a standard hard-rubber mouthpiece for almost all of my work. In fact, most of us “doublers” would carry just the [clarinet] mouthpiece with the reed and ligature and the cap on it and borrow a clarinet from somebody else during a session.

 

Did you use one brand of clarinet during your whole career?

I had three. Two of them were Selmers. A Selmer has what I’d call a “shout” to it—a lot of volume, which is what you need in a big band. I did almost all of my playing with one of those two Selmers. You always have two because clarinets are delicate in a way—a pad can come loose, or a spring can come off the key, or maybe a spring will break, and you’re out of luck if you don’t have a back-up. So I had two identical Selmers, and a little later I used a Buffet [clarinet], which has a softer, more intimate sound than a Selmer.

This register thing, while I’m on the subject, isn’t something that a professional clarinetist gives any thought to when he’s performing. Registers and fingering and those kinds of things are for students and teachers. A professional gives no more thought to fingering and registers than he would his left or right arm. Your arms have distinct parts—joints in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, not to mention veins, arteries, tendons and nerves. But when you’re using your arms, you don’t think about those individual parts. Your arms move naturally, as a whole.

A “pro” plays the clarinet that same way. You play the instrument as a whole. You don’t give a damn about fingering and registers because you mastered them long, long ago. You don’t care what key you’re playing in, or how many high notes the arrangement calls for because you can play anything in any key.

Let me go back to mouthpieces, which you asked about. I never had anything special done to the mouthpieces I used. The same with reeds: I used a #3 or sometimes a #4 cane reed, and I would wet-sand the reeds until they sounded just right to me. I did try a couple synthetic reeds toward the end of my career, but they weren’t any good. Today, they’re probably a lot better, I don’t know. It wouldn’t matter anyway because I haven’t touched a clarinet since I quit the business.

 

Is it true that you didn’t read music when you began playing professionally?

Yes—I played by ear at first. I was playing sax then. In those days, the sax is what the electric guitar is today. Everybody wanted to be a sax player, and although I was basically self-taught, I had a very good tone and I had no trouble getting work in and around New Haven. One day, I got an audition for a pit band at one of the Poli vaudeville theaters in Connecticut. When I got there, the leader handed me the sheet music of the arrangement and told me to play it for my audition. I told him I didn’t read music, so of course he told me I couldn’t get the gig.

I asked him if he would give me an audition again a month later. He said he would give me another shot at it, if I learned to read music. One month later, with the help of a piano teacher I knew, I was able to sight-read quite well, and from then on I was never out of work. When I played in two Midwest bands—the Austin Wylie band in Cleveland, and the Joe Cantor band in Cincinnati—I wasn’t just their lead clarinet and sax player, but I also wrote most of the arrangements for those bands.

 

You have had a second career, and a very successful one, as a writer. There is a story that your writing is what got you to California the first time you went there.

Before I quit school, which was when I was sixteen, I wrote an essay that won first prize, which was an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. That was the start of my writing career. I’ve written several books, and The Trouble with Cinderella in particular sold very well. I’ve been writing all my life, and I’m still writing today. I’m working on a book that will probably be the death of me. The manuscript is over 1,000 pages so far, and I’m nowhere near the end. At the rate I’m going, even though I work on it nearly every day, that book will probably become my “unfinished symphony.”

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Artie Shaw, author

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When you went to Hollywood, it is said that you got to sit in with one of the top bands of that era.

 I was sixteen and playing sax by then, and I was able to play with an outfit that was a sort of “first,” a band that was led by a drummer. [Gus Haenschen interjects, “Abe Lyman’s orchestra. I went there to sign and record him for Brunswick.”] He was the first drummer I know of who led a band. He had his complete set [of drums] on the stage with him. He was a nice guy for a big band leader—at least he was to me. He asked me to play for him, and he let me sit in a few times. And he paid me too.

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Abe Lyman (at the drums) and his orchestra in “Paramount on Parade.” Lyman was “was a nice guy for a big band leader,” Shaw recalled, “at least he was to me.”

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Two other drummers who became bandleaders, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, played with your orchestras at different times, if I’m correct.

Not Krupa, no. Buddy Rich, yes.

 

I’m sure you heard Gene Krupa in his prime, so how did he compare with Buddy Rich in your estimation?

No contest—Rich is the best damned drummer, period. He’s a feisty son of a bitch and off the bandstand when the band was playing at the Lincoln Hotel, we got into shouting matches because he thought his way was the right way for any arrangement. I had to threaten to fire him more times than I could count. But let me tell you, on the bandstand he could do it all.

He’s a perfectionist, which is something I’m familiar with, and he has a reputation for berating players, which is also something I’m familiar with. Now, Krupa was a competent drummer and he led a band that was okay but nothing more—and in a carving contest, Buddy Rich would have eaten him alive.

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Artie Shaw, with Cab Calloway looking over his shoulder. Standing behind them are Tony Pastor, Helen Foster, and Buddy Rich.

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Did you hear Krupa when he was with Red Nichols and the Five Pennies?

I heard the records but didn’t hear the band “live.” Gus, didn’t you record him at Brunswick? [Haenschen replies that he did, but that most of Nichols’ Brunswick recordings were done after Haenschen left Brunswick.] Most of us who were around then had no respect for Nichols because he copied Bix Beiderbecke. It was the same with Charlie Barnet, who copied Duke Ellington note for note. It was the same with Nichols. He copied Bix and got away with it because Bix destroyed himself.

 

You knew Bix Beiderbecke personally, am I correct?

 I knew Bix very well—we were roommates for a time. Other than Satchmo, who’s in a class of his own, Beiderbecke was the greatest cornet player I ever heard. He was a genius in his own way—he wrote intricate, elegant music and even recorded some of it on the piano. As a cornetist he was different from Satchmo, very different, but he had the purest tone I ever heard. But Bix—it’s such a sad story because you couldn’t get him off alcohol. He got so bad that he couldn’t play.

 

On the subject of brass “legends,” I’d like to ask you about several beginning with Tommy Dorsey. He and Jimmy Dorsey, together or separately, are now considered big-band and jazz legends. You knew both of them, so how would you assess them as players?

Tommy Dorsey had the purest tone of any trombonist I have ever heard, and his phrasing was first-rate, but he was definitely not a “jazzman.” He was what I call a “melodist,” someone who can play a melodic line with such a pure tone, but that was all. If you want to talk about jazz trombonists, you talk about Jack Teagarden, not Tommy Dorsey. Jimmy Dorsey, on the other hand, was one of the best “doublers” in the business. He was an equally fine clarinetist, and unlike Tommy he could play jazz, he could really improvise.

 

Where would you place Glenn Miller?

A few inches from the bottom of the barrel. The bottom belongs to ones like Shep Fields, who blew into a glass of water with a straw for his “rippling rhythm.” Who the hell would want a band to be identified by that? That’s like [Lawrence] Welk with that goddamned champagne cork popping.

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Shaw rated Glenn Miller (left) “the Lawrence Welk of the big band era.” Shep Fields (right) “blew into a glass of water with a straw…who the hell would want a band to be identified by that?”

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Glenn Miller was said to be a fine arranger and worked to get a sound that would give his band definition.

A lot of that came from that movie [“The Glenn Miller Story”]. That and the fact that [Miller] was lost at sea during the war. That was too bad, but almost all of us were overseas and played for the troops in war zones. I was in the Navy and I was playing to GIs at Guadalcanal. So were lots of other bandleaders. Miller’s sound was about as distinctive as Welk’s, now that I think of it. Miller was the Lawrence Welk of the big-band era. Welk can’t play his own instrument worth a shit, and neither could Miller. He’d say that himself—he even said it to a few of his players. He said he didn’t want to take his trombone out of the case if Tommy Dorsey was around, let alone Teagarden.

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Shaw and his orchestra entertain the fleet during World War II.

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Have there been other bandleaders whom to your knowledge were inept, for want of a better word, as players?

Guy Lombardo would be at the top of that list. The reason he leads the band is because he’s the only one of the Lombardo brothers who couldn’t play an instrument. He used to have a violin on the bandstand to give the impression that he played it, but he didn’t and couldn’t. But what the hell, he found a niche, never changed anything, and is still playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.

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The Lombardos (Guy holding the baton): “Playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.”

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Now, Fred Waring can’t read music but he conducts choral music now—which he learned from [Robert] Shaw, if you don’t know that. I know he couldn’t play anything but a banjo-uke by ear. He had a brother who wrote a couple of good songs and he played piano by ear, and they had a dance bad in the 1920s but Fred got more interested in choral music. I give him credit for what he’s done because he’s a stickler for phrasing and he’s been at it for what, forty years or so?

 

There are three others I’d like to ask you about. The first is Sammy Kaye. Was he a good player himself?

He was a “doubler,” and he was equally bad on sax as he was on clarinet. Totally unoriginal. He had some good players but he couldn’t keep the best ones because they couldn’t stand the derivative crap he was playing.

 

The two others I have in mind are Will Osborne and Ozzie Nelson.

Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”—who formed their own bands. Both of them were nothing but Rudy Vallée imitators as “crooners.” That’s how they got their start. Osborne came up with a gimmick for his “sound.” He had his trombones play glissandos and [he] called it “slide rhythm.” The only good thing about his band was that he stopped singing.

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.Ozzie Nelson (left) and Will Osborne (right): “Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”…the only thing Nelson could do was wave a baton.”

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Nelson was on television so long that most people don’t remember that he ever had a band. Which is good because the only thing he could do was wave a baton. One of his sons—the older one, not the one with the rock-and-roll hits—said to some interviewer that he was amazed his father had any career in music because he couldn’t read music, could barely play a sax, and couldn’t sing either. His wife—they weren’t married at the time—was the singer. He had the good sense to hire good arrangers and have others rehearse the band because he couldn’t do it himself. 2

 

I assume Rudy Vallée is on your “bottom of the barrel list.”

No, he isn’t—not at all. He was stuck with that “crooner” label, but if you put aside his singing and the megaphone and all that, he was a good clarinetist and a good sax player. He learned a lot from Rudy Wiedoeft—that’s where he got his first name, as I think I said before—and he got a lot out of his players. Where he was a real innovator was on radio with his variety shows. He invented the network variety show. He did on radio what Ed Sullivan does on television except that Vallée himself introduced each performer and did all the segues himself.

 

Continuing with players who led bands, and this time I’m asking about trumpeters who led bands, where would you place Harry James?

 A very good horn player, and a very good bandleader. Not top-tier, but very good. Of course, he gave Sinatra his start, and then [Tommy] Dorsey hired Sinatra.

 

There’s a story that Frank Sinatra asked you instead of Tommy Dorsey to hire him as your vocalist. Is that true?

Yes, and his pitch to me was that I was using women singers instead of him. I had different women singers at different times—Peg LaCentra, Helen Forrest, Billie Holliday—and as I told Frank, I don’t like “boy singers.” He said to me that I did have a boy singer, Tony Pastor, my lead sax man. Frank said, “You call that a singer?” I said yes, Tony does vocals on certain songs we play, and I like him. Frank has never forgiven me for turning him down, but it was the right decision from my standpoint. I wasn’t about to subject myself or the band to a bunch of screaming bobbysoxers.

 

Later, you had Mel Torme as a vocalist.

Yes, later, and he was fine for certain songs. He’s also easy to work with and sees himself as part of an ensemble and not just “the singer.”

 

Back to trumpeters, where would you place Dizzy Gillespie and Be-bop?

On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have. To hear [Gillespie] tell it, and the writers who bought into his berets and his horn with a hard-on and the image he tried to make for himself, thought that be-bop was a new “idiom,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. He also ridiculed Satchmo—he said that Satchmo and the whole New Orleans style was outmoded.

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Harry James (left): “Not top-tier, but very good.” Dizzy Gillespie (right): “On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have.”

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Do you remember the first time you heard Louis Armstrong?

Not only do I remember it, but if there was a moment in my life where I could say that something changed me, it was going to Chicago to hear him “live” at the Savoy Ballroom. I was lucky enough to get close enough to the bandstand—it was just a carpeted riser—to hear him play “West End Blues.” The cadenza that he opened “West End Blues” with blew me away. I had never heard anything like it, and every note of it is still fresh in my mind.

Something you have to understand to appreciate him is the difference between valve instruments then and now. Today, a trumpet player can play like lightning because the valves are machined to a degree of precision that wasn’t done in Satchmo’s day. And the springs are different too, which makes a high-end trumpet today easier to play than a trumpet or cornet or valve trombone forty or fifty years ago.

The instruments of today can make a great player even greater. Take the trumpeter who’s with Johnny Carson, Doc Severinsen, who’s a damned good player. If you handed him a horn that Satchmo played in 1920 and had him put his mouthpiece in it and try to play it, he wouldn’t sound so great. None of the ones today would.

 

All the big bands had theme songs, but yours was unlike any other that I can think of. Why did you make “Nightmare” your theme song?

Because I was told I had to have a theme song for a radio broadcast I was doing that night. I wrote it in about an hour and played it on the air that night. I wrote several arrangements of it to fit different time slots. I could stretch it out or keep it short, depending on how much airtime I was given.

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(Left) “Art” Shaw with his New Music on Brunswick, May 1937. (Right) The first commercial recording of “Nightmare,” Shaw’s hastily written new theme song. It was initially issued on Brunswick; the Vocalion was a later release using an alternate take from the same session.

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What would have been the typical instrumentation in most of your bands?

Mostly four saxes, two or three trumpets, two trombones, a string bass, a guitar, and drums, either trap drums or whatever was best for a particular arrangement. In the early 1950s I added a string section, which was not done in swing bands, although [Paul] Whiteman had done it long before I did. My string section had ten violins, three violas, two cellos, and a string bass.

 

Speaking of Paul Whiteman, you were on the bill of his Carnegie Hall concert on Christmas day 1938. You played “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m wondering if the arrangements was your own.

No, It was done by Irving Szathmary, who worked for Whiteman. That was quite a concert because Satchmo was on the program. I did play “St. Louis Blues” but on the printed program the title was “A Mess of Blues” in case I wanted to play more than just the “St. Louis Blues,” but I decided to stick with that as a framework for improvising. I began it at a blues tempo, then switched to a jazz tempo, and at the end I gave a nod to Whiteman, or Whiteman and Gershwin, by playing the glissando from the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue.” I have to say, I did some of my best playing in that concert. 1

 

What prompted you to name songs that you wrote after streets and airlines?

 Songs have to have titles or they don’t get published, so I just used whatever came to my mind at the time. “Summit Ridge Drive” came from the street I was living on at the time. “Nonstop Flight” came from the nonstop flights I had to take so many times.

 

Your song “Shoot the Liquor to Me, Johnny” wasn’t named after a street or a subway stop. Where did you get that title?

Do both of us a favor and get the title right: it’s “Shoot the Liquor to Me, John Boy.” That’s the working title, but the real title is “Sanfronia B.” Calvin Boze wrote it, and the lyrics were too raunchy at the time to sing on radio or records. Just like “Nightmare,” I had different arrangements of different length so I could fit it into any time slot. I chose it as a showpiece for each section of the band, for Buddy Rich, and for me.

What I had in mind when I arranged it was a “call and response” where I would improvise on the clarinet and each section of the band would have to play what I had just played. It was all carefully rehearsed, including the part near the end where one of the players would shout “Higher!” I would go from the top G to A-flat and then A, then do a descending credenza.

 

Even the name of the Gramercy Five, if I’m correct, came from your telephone number at that time.

Again, why not? I need a title for the group, and my phone number started with “Gramercy 5” back when telephone exchanges had both letters and numbers.

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The Gramercy Five on a seven-inch Bell 78 in 1952. Bell’s roster included some well-known big-band era names, like Artie Shaw and Cab Calloway, who were past their primes from a commercial standpoint but attracting audiences.

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Your Gramercy Five recordings have been re-released in LP form, and surely will be re-released in formats that we can’t even envision yet. I know that the players you chose for those sessions varied, but whom did you choose and why?

I had Billy Butterfield on trumpet, and after Billy I had Roy Eldridge. Irv Kluger was on drums, Joe Roland on vibes, Tal Farlowe on guitar, Ray Conniff on trombone, and if I used a piano in the session I wanted Hank Jones. I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music at the time, and I was intrigued by how a harpsichord would sound so I had Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. I chose all of them because they were “explorers” who could follow me wherever I was going in those sessions.

 

There was a time in the 1940s when you shaved your head. There are photos of you with what looks like the kind of haircut that a Marine boot camp is known for. Why prompted you to do that?

As I said, I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music. Stravinsky was my first foray into classical, and then came Debussy, and from there it was Bartok. Naturally, what they were doing, especially Stravinsky, got into some of my arrangements and I got criticized for it. Some of the magazines said I was becoming a “long-hair,” which was a euphemism for a classical musician.

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Artie Shaw at NBC, and with his “retaliatory” shaved head

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My way of retaliating was that if they were going to call me a “long-hair,” how about I cut off all my hair? What are they going to call me then? Unfortunately, I was starting to lose my hair and ended up being as bald as a billiard ball. But shaving my hair down to the scalp made a point at the time. At least I thought it did.

 

Do you consider your Gramercy Five records to be jazz?

No. There isn’t really a name for what we did in those sessions. I was exploring, and they were exploring with me. Sometimes it took a dozen or more “takes” before I felt I had gotten what I wanted. Now, doing ten or twelve or fifteen “takes” would drive most players nuts. But not those guys—they were “explorers” and we were exploring together on those recordings. And as I said, I used my Buffet clarinet in those sessions because its tone was intimate. I played so close to the microphone that at times you can hear the keys clicking as I’m playing.

 

You played classical clarinet compositions. How different was it to play, say, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or the Brahms Quintet from the type of popular music you were known for?

You have to use less vibrato and less volume when you play classical clarinet. My tone was the same, just softer and with less vibrato. There too I used the Buffet, which is what most classical clarinetists play, or did at that time. 3

 

This is a difficult question for me to ask because I can’t find the right words for it, but film footage of your playing tends to show that you were self-taught because of the positions of your fingers.

I don’t know what you mean by that. Are you talking about alternative fingerings in the upper register?

 

No, I’m referring to how high you lift each finger, no matter how fast you’re playing. Clarinet teachers always stress the importance of keeping the fingers close to the keys so that fast passages can be played more easily. But you raised your fingers very high, no matter at what tempo you were playing.

Like I said, I’m an auto-didact and I learned where to put the fingers and thumbs from charts in a book. It didn’t say anything about keeping the fingers close to the keys. Now, I did make sure that the keys themselves, the ones with holes and the ones with pads, were close to the holes in the body of the instrument. But I never gave any thought to how high I raised my fingers.

 

Have you ever been tempted to take one of your clarinets out of its case and play it again?

I swore I never would, but several years ago I decided to try out my favorite Selmer. I took it all apart, cleaned all the holes, oiled the keys, changed all the pads, re-corked the different sections, took out a couple of the reeds that still looked good, and tried to see what I could do.

I asked my wife to leave the house—I didn’t want anyone around because I knew my fingering would be off and my embouchure would be too weak. I worked at it for about two hours, but I couldn’t even get a decent tone in the lower register. So I put it away for good.

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Artie Shaw lecturing at age eighty

 

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Notes

1  Although the title of Shaw’s part in the program was titled “The Blues” rather than “A Mess of Blues,” he received some of the finest reviews of his career from the major critics of that period. From The New York Times, December 26, 1938: “As if to appease the in-the-groovers, Artie Shaw’s clarinet soloing of his own composition, ‘The Blues,’ was a distinguished 16-minute performance with the full Whiteman band. Irving Szathmary scored it and Shaw got things out of his clarinet that were amazing in sheer virtuosity. His blends of the immortal ‘St. Louis Blues’ were but incidental to the major Magyar mood of the ‘Blues.'” From Variety, review by Abel Green: “The audience loosed its enthusiasm on the appearance of Artie Shaw, variously described in the program as ‘The greatest clarinet player in New York,’ ‘The greatest clarinet player in the United States’ and ‘The greatest clarinet player in the world.’ Playing ‘The Blues,’ a composition of his own, arranged by Irving Szathmary, Mr. Shaw’s wild improvisation evoked from Mr. [narrator Deems] Taylor the remark that ‘you just can’t do things like that with a clarinet.'”

 

2  Rudy Vallee and Ozzie Nelson appeared in the 1946 Paramount musical comedy “People Are Funny.” In their only scene together, Vallee notices a small megaphone on the piano and says to Nelson, “Hmm … a megaphone. How well I remember them. I used to have one myself—at Yale, you know—as a bit of a singer. I had a rather unusual quality. This enhanced it.”

 

3  Shaw used a Buffet A-clarinet and a Buffet E-flat clarinet for performances of classical instrumental music.

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Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. No portion of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or used for commercial purposes, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright owner.

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