Book Review: “Making Music American — 1917 and the Transformation of Culture”

By Steve Provizer

1917 was an important year, but perhaps not important enough to justify the sweeping title of the book.

Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture by E. Douglas Bomberger. Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $29.95.

This book was very different than the one I anticipated when I saw the title. I imagined certain names would play key roles — James P. Johnson, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy. They didn’t, but a few people — or groups — that I did expect made the list: Nick LaRocca and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). Freddie Keppard and the Creole Band, and James Reese Europe. The rest of the book’s dramatis personae came from the classical world: violinist Fritz Kreisler, pianist Olga Samaroff, singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, along with conductors Karl Muck and Walter Damrosch. Not listed with the others at the beginning of the book — but figuring prominently —  is Samaroff’s husband, conductor Leopold Stokowski.

So, how was this group chosen? How do they represent “the transformation of culture?”

Simply put: the classical musicians were German (or popularly believed to be so) and had been long-established pillars of the American classical music establishment. But, with the onset of World War I, they became personae non grata to the American listening public. A war-induced wave of patriotism and xenophobia dislodged them from dominance. And this diminishment signaled a change in how America viewed high culture; it devalued the primacy of European musicians and elevated the importance of home-grown American talent. This is the classical side of author Bomberger’s thesis.

The other musicians represent the popular side of the equation. And the influence of this cohort — Keppard, the ODJB, and J.R. Europe — can’t be as succinctly limned. Keppard is generally seen as a link between the earliest jazz trumpeters — personified by Buddy Bolden — and later players, such as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. He probably influenced the development of horn playing in New Orleans-based music; it’s hard to know because of the lack of recordings. Keppard could have been the first definably “jazz” musician to be recorded but, for reasons that are still disputed, he declined the opportunity and the ODJB got the call. It’s difficult to see him and the Creole Band as culturally transformative; especially because, in that era, they were performing in a vaudeville “plantation act,” a regressive form of stereotyping entertainment.

On the other hand, the ODJB and J.R. Europe are obviously culturally transformative. Their influence was widespread and is well documented. The ODJB recordings were incredibly popular, spawning imitators all over the country, initiating a “jazz craze.” James Reese Europe’s importance was multi-dimensional. He was a skilled musician, but his real importance lies in his talents as an organizer and advocate for black musicians. As organizer of an Army unit of black musicians, which eventually became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” he was the first to introduce ragtime and proto-jazz to Europe.

The ODJB broke out in 1917 and J.R. Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters landed in France in early 1918. This raises an important question: is this enough to support the notion of 1917 as fulcrum of American (popular) music? Bomberger argues that it is: “Arriving as it did just nine days after Congress voted to declare war, the sound of the [ODJB’s] manic, energetic music would forever be linked in the American psyche with the new atmosphere in the country.” And, speaking of late 1917, he posits: “Many continued to hear a parallel between the frantic sound of jazz and the unsettled spirit of wartime.”

Some of these claims ring true. Others, less so. Was the small combo format (which leaves out J.R. Europe, who preferred large ensembles), really a metaphor for encouraging individualism? While there is truth in the notion that smaller ensembles stimulated more flexibility on the part of individual musicians, I’m not sure how much this “individualism” contributed to the American ethic. Can it be seen as a factor that can be separated from other major cultural movements of the day — urbanism, anti-immigration, isolationism, and racism.

And yes, European musicians had clearly been in charge of American orchestras and “concert” music. European operetta was still influential n Broadway musicals. Jazz, however, was a home-grown product. The rapid rise in popularity of this newly discovered music arguably displaced parlor music, ragtime music, cakewalk, and ”coon” songs. But jazz did not supplant popular European musical culture. If there were “ethnic” musics popular before jazz (Italian, Hungarian, Latvian, etc.), they remained so after.

Whether or not one finds the major theses credible, it needs to be acknowledged that the book abounds in juicy historical details. I was not really surprised at the wave of retribution aimed at the German musicians, but the details are startling, especially the level of intrusiveness and outright spying performed by military, police, and the public on Muck, Damrosch, Kreisler, and the others. Each of these responded in different ways to the increasing public pressure that they not identify as German and that German composers be removed from the performance repertoire. Ernestine Schumann-Heink’s position was difficult. She had 4 sons in the American army and one who was an officer in the German army. She performed often for American soldiers, establishing a reassuring public stance.

Karl Muck, longtime conductor of the B.S.O., was the most tone deaf to the potential ramifications of ignoring the patriotic wave. He was something of a misanthrope in any case, and refused to reduce German representation on concert programs and in the orchestra. Initially, he refused to play the “Star Spangled Banner” (not yet ordained our National Anthem) at his concerts. Muck was taken by the Boston Police after a rehearsal, delivered to federal authorities the next day, and then delivered to an internment camp in Georgia. He was detained there until August, 1919, then deported, never to return to the U.S.

“The Star Spangled Banner” was a political lightning rod and its saga, in itself, is interesting. There was no standard version of the song and variations abounded. I would love to have heard the ragtime version sung by a chorus of ladies in bathing costumes at Rector’s New York nightclub in March 1917. That summer, New York‘s commissioner of education (name not mentioned) created a committee to prepare an “official” version of the song. The committee included Damrosch, John Philip Sousa, Oscar T.G. Sonneck, A.J. Gantvoort, and Will Earhart. The book doesn’t make the point clear, but it seems as though the “official” version never got much traction. Chaos reigned until operetta composer Victor Herbert came up with a version, which became somewhat popular though it was criticized as being too filled with ornamentation.

Leopold Stokowski. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In terms of the influence of the ODJB, plenty of evidence is supplied. For me, the two most interesting revelations here are that black composer/musician W.C. Handy was tasked by Columbia Records to create a large ensemble and pretty much duplicate the original versions of the ODJB recordings. The other fascinating bit is that, in an interview for the Hogan Jazz Archive, New Orleans violinist and pianist Manuel Manetta said he was fired from the African-American King Oliver/Kid Ory band because they wanted to sound more like the ODJB.

Freedom fries lovers will learn that, in WWI, sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage.

There are a great many details regarding the classical musical scene and I found most of these unnecessary because they do not contribute much to the book’s theses. Of course, the reader needs to learn the scope of the careers of the featured conductors and musicians in order to understand the changes wrought by the looming war. The author clearly chose this classical cohort because of their colorful nature as well as the cumulative weight of their stories. But establishing the biographical foundations and their musical bona fides was enough; there was no reason for him to go into depth about their various itineraries, repertoire choices, and critical responses to their concerts.

1917 was an important year, but perhaps not important enough to justify the sweeping title of the book. Yes, it makes sense because the war and the rise of  a virulent patriotism altered the fate of the German classical music infrastructure. The year is also appropriate in asserting the importance of the ODJB and J.R. Europe. Still, in other ways, 1917 is an arbitrary date when it comes to showing how the transformation of culture “made music American.”  In the case of popular music, too much has already been set in motion — and too many other changes were yet to come. You would need to check off more years to encompass the work of other important ‘transformers ‘ of American music —  Scott Joplin, George M. Cohan, Jelly Roll Morton, the Harlem stride pianists, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Tin Pan Alley, and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith. Yes, a cataclysm like World War I can have myriad and profound effects on culture, and those are well documented in Bomberger’s book. But cultural transformations of the scale and depth proposed in this narrative don’t happen overnight — or even in a single year.

Steve Provizer is a brass player and bandleader who has been blogging about jazz for 15 years and written about the music for many publications.


  1. Jeff Turton on March 1, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Steve – I agree with much about your premise. I think the date while interesting is not reflective of many of the cultural changes the author describes. While historically interesting I think the Post WWl period like the post WWll period is far more significant for Jazz, popular music and Classical music. The post war periods ushered in some of most significant cultural changes in our history. Which is why I would argue they are more significant than 1917

  2. rob chalfen on March 1, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    sounds like his expertise is more in the classical world – didn’t know that about Muck, that’s nuts!

    here are some footnote cavils/minutiae:
    – re ODJB & WW1 : Congress declared war on 6 April ’17; the 1st ODJB record was recorded on 26 Feb ’17 but not released til sometime in late May, anyway not on 15 April
    – the original title of ODJB tune Fidgety Feet (rec. 25 June ’18) was War Cloud

    – WC Handy only recorded one tune of the ODJB, Livery Stable Blues, anyway the premise is wack, the band was a motley pick-up group gathered from Memphis & Chicago & not assembled by Columbia; if they’d wanted an ODJB cover group he would’ve put together a quintet – the size & instrumentation of the group recorded was typical of the ragtime dance bands he was leading in Memphis (12 pieces, 4 strings)

    – Ory & Oliver may have told Manetta they wanted to sound like the ODJB, but the early Ory & Oliver sides don’t; and Oliver had New Orleans violinist Jimmy Palao with him in a photo of the band from Oakland CA in ’21; maybe he was just hitting the sauce too much & they were trying to be nice

    – re Original Creole Orch : in Laurence Gushee’s That Creole Band, clarinettist George Bacquet recalled that Keppard wanted to be paid for the test sides Victor wanted to do, and insisted on the same royalties Caruso got, otherwise no dice!
    – although they didn’t record as such they did tour extensively for a half-dozen years (1912-1918) and did make an impact as the first New Orleans jazz most people heard – I don’t think it’s an accident that most early white jazz cornetists sound kinda like Keppard!

    – re JR Europe introducing jazz & ragtime to Europe : there are examples of recorded ragtime in Europe from the ‘aughts on, and various ragtime & proto-jass acts toured & recorded there before the war: the pianist and Chicago bandleader Charlie Straight and ragtime/jive singer Gene Greene recorded many duets in 1912-13, Hedges Bros & Jacobson (from SF), the Clef Club acts Versatile 3 and 4 & Ciros Club Orch w. Walter Kildare (JRE influence for sure, 1916), off the top of my head.

    • Steve Provizer on March 1, 2019 at 3:24 pm

      Thank you for your scholarly reply.
      In his autobiography, Handy says Columbia sent him a contract to bring 12 musicians to NYC to record the ODJB cover and other numbers.

      I agree with you about the Creole Band making an impact, but that was earlier in the teens, and so undermines the importance of 1917.

      Money may have been at the bottom of the Keppard refusal, but other the explanation persists that he didn’t want his stuff to get stolen. Also, Bomberger says there are “tantalizing clues that the band did make test recordings that were rejected because of poor recording quality.” And if Bill Johnson was playing bass and not tuba, that was likely to cause recording issues.

      Inre Europe-yes, the music had already found its way over there, but the big presence of the 15th and their constant concertizing made a huge publicity splash that helped spread the musical word.

      • rob chalfen on March 1, 2019 at 5:32 pm

        yeah 1917 is kinda arbitrary

        yeah Rust lists an unissued Victor test for a ‘Creole Jass Band’ in NY on 2 Dec. ’18 of
        Tack ‘Em Down, c/tb/cl/as/p/md/sb/d – it doesn’t survive, so we’ll never know.
        The ‘stealing my stuff’ line always struck me as suspect; if you’re playing in public all the time people can hear what you play, and indeed he was popular & influential. If they did this test the hang up could’ve been the bread – an under-recorded string bass wouldn’t scratch the deal – but it may have been that the band was breaking up, and wouldn’t even be around to book a date

        • Steve Provizer on March 2, 2019 at 10:18 am

          The “stealing my stuff” idea is not as groundless as you make it out to be. How was the language of jazz communicated? Before recordings, face to face. After recordings, listening and copying records became the dominating approach. Maybe Keppard actually had some intuition about that change.

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