Book Review / Jazz Essay: A Complicated Matter — Stephen Provizer’s “As Long as They Can Blow”

By Steve Elman

This is a story about jazz that we only think we know: the book challenges our preconceptions with admirable restraint, and generously invites others to build on its work.

(Disclosure: Steve Provizer and I both write for the Arts Fuse. Other than a mutual respect for each other’s work, we have no personal relationship. Provizer also blogs about jazz and other topics at Brilliant Corners.)

It’s complicated.

Stephen Provizer’s new book, As Long as They Can Blow: Interracial Jazz Recordings and Other Jive Before 1935 (Re-Balance, 2023) is a step into territory only marginally analyzed before. He tells a story we only think we know, challenges our preconceptions with admirable restraint, and generously invites others to build on his work.

The period he surveys (1893 to 1935) seems arbitrary when you first pick up the book, but he quickly draws a picture of the world of American music then (especially between 1920 and 1930) that demonstrates ways in which it was significantly different from that of any other before or since.

Provizer notes that the number of recordings in which Black and white musicians worked together increased dramatically during the ’20s; it peaked at the end of the decade and then fell off until the post-bop era. Thus the research here turns our current perception of the history of racially integrated recordings on its head. Benny Goodman, who hired Billie Holiday for her first sessions in 1933, Teddy Wilson to play piano in 1935, Lionel Hampton to play vibes in 1936, and Fletcher Henderson to arrange for his band in 1939, is thought of as a pioneer. But it turns out that he was doing what many of his contemporaries had done in previous years — though he took a much greater risk in doing so because of his popularity with the white audience.

There seems to have been a hardening of racial lines in the recording business and in the minds of people buying records in the mid-’30s so that this kind of interracial musical cooperation came to be seen as novel, even adventurous. The truth may be foggier, and that fog won’t be swept away by any amount of research, simply because there is little documentation about how the great mass of Americans, Black and white, genuinely felt about racial issues in the early part of the 20th century.

As a result, any observation about attitudes in the time Provizer surveys must be tempered with a good deal of caution. Wisely, he treads lightly when making his observations. It may be reasonable to speculate, given the number of Black performers in vaudeville and the number of white performers willing to adopt their styles (and even their skin color, with blackface), that there was a wide range of feeling.

There were racists, of course: people who would object to any kind of racial integration or to any attempt to see Black people as human. For these people racism conveniently bled (and still bleeds) into anti-Semitism and the vicious stereotyping of Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Hispanic immigrants, and even German and Japanese immigrants and their descendants during the world wars.

Critic Steve Provizer. Photo: courtesy of the author

But for some whites in the ’20s and early ’30s, there may have been a sliding scale of acceptance, even some admiration for Blacks, depending on the venues in which Blacks were seen and heard. And for a few Blacks, the goal of making a living in any way possible probably meant setting aside the outrage that was de facto segregation of American society. Anger, for these Black people, may have been a luxury they literally could not afford. There was most likely then, as there is now, a kind of racial doublethink in which the attraction to the Other and the fear/loathing of the Other existed side by side in the same person.

That attraction in whites was stoked by the irresistibility of jazz, or hot music, or whatever you wanted to call what was sweeping the nation through the ’10s and ’20s. This exciting music, much like rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, proved to be an ideal accompaniment to intoxication and a vehicle for ecstasy in dancing. And it may have opened some doors in the racial wall.

These are some of the thoughts prompted by Provizer’s research and his carefully crafted observations. Provizer is never so bold in his book as I have been here. But he does illuminate the issue of racial feelings in an unusual way, especially for a research-focused study like this one. His final two chapters adopt the personas of Mezz Mezzrow and Eddie Condon, two white players who frequently played alongside Blacks. Each of them worked with co-authors to “write” books (Mezzrow’s Really the Blues [1946] and Condon’s We Called It Music [1947]). Provizer uses these texts to fashion chapters that are narrated by their voices, each describing some exploits in spearheading interracial performance.

In these chapters, Provizer adopts the perspective of the working musician — the chores involved in making the contacts, the pleasures of working with good players, the fun of making the music, and the potential for money in the pocket. Racial issues are significant, but not central, as anyone who has tried to produce a live performance can tell you. It’s about “What are we going to do?” and “Who is available?” and “Will everyone show up on time?” Only incidentally does Provizer hint at the way in which Mezzrow and Condon viewed their Black counterparts — usually as better players whom they wanted to work with.

This may sound like As Long as They Can Blow has an unusual structure — and it does. Even more iconoclastic is Provizer’s decision to place his detailed discography of interracial recordings at the book’s center. Nearly every scholarly work on jazz I know of puts discographical material at the end, after the text, and here the 39-page collection of session information and player data, along with a 13-page summary section that condenses the detailed information into a list of sessions, amount to almost 60 percent of the book’s 172 pages. These two sections are a big speed bump in your reading. However, their positioning says clearly, “The data are not afterthoughts; they are the reasons for the book’s existence.”

What do I miss in As Long as They Can Blow? First, an index, which would help the reader identify artists and sessions quickly to locate something they remember imperfectly or something they want to reread. This is not just a fault of Provizer’s work — there are a lot of nonfiction works that need indexes. I recognize from my own stint as an author (Burning Up the Air: Jerry Williams, Talk Radio, and the Life in Between [Commonwealth Editions, 2008], co-written with Alan Tolz) that indexing is a huge chore. You’re much better off having a professional do it for you. Which costs money.

Could the discographical section be more carefully edited? Of course. Obsessives (guilty as charged) will find the typos irksome and the abbreviations inconsistent, but I am sympathetic to the tedium of doing such a project and the great patience it requires. And Provizer says with characteristic humility, “I hope my effort inspires others to undertake their own lists or to adapt this one.”

There is one more thing I would have liked — a sense from the author of which of these interracial sessions were of the most value, either as social or musical milestones. I asked Provizer about the issue in an email, and he responded, “I am in a small way trying to put my thumb on the racial scale to redress jazz historiography. Dealing more specifically with the aesthetics of particular recordings is something I didn’t want to get into. To some extent, I wanted to put all the recordings on the same level and avoid the question of people’s relative ‘contribution’ to the music.”

But the experience of reading the book will send some readers (as it did me) to hear some of the recordings Provizer points to. So I will rush in where Provizer feared to tread and note the importance of 13 of the sessions detailed in the book, along with my own thoughts on the recordings. Each one I cite is hearable on Spotify. I have created a playlist where you can hear them. (See More below.)

It is important to think carefully about the word “novelty” when it comes to grasping the nature of the times and the recordings. We can just barely imagine the experience of first hearing music reproduced on a machine in the early 1900s. The owners of the first record players were likely to buy all kinds of recordings, simply because the experience of hearing them was so new. Any phonograph owner might put racist monuments like “The Laughing Coon” alongside virtuoso records by pioneering saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft and multiclarinetist Wilbur Sweatman, genre-defying blue yodel records by Jimmie Rodgers, syncopated dance music by Arthur Pryor’s band, novelty rags played by pianist-composer Zez Confrey, marches played by John Philip Sousa’s ensembles, and/or opera arias sung by Enrico Caruso. As Provizer notes, it was only later that record companies began to market music to particular segments of the buying public, creating “Race Records” for the Black audience, “Hillbilly” music for rural whites, special labels for classical recordings, etc.

“Novelty” encouraged a lot of experimentation. The financial risk wasn’t great, so why not experiment with a mixed-race ensemble that no one could see and only a few would care all that much about? The goal was selling records. Provizer says, “Beneath each entry [in the discography] lurks a great deal of subtext; coded and cryptic, even to jazz cognoscenti.”

It’s complicated.


Here is a playlist of interracial jazz and jazz-related recordings from 1924 to 1935, inspired by As Long as They Can Blow.

This Spotify link contains a playlist of these tracks in this order:

1922 – 1928: the White California Ramblers record as a studio dance band, with Black Bill Moore as trumpet soloist. We have to start with this group, who are almost unknown aside from a few obsessive discographers. The usual Ramblers track is a peppy dance number; their recordings are quintessential dance music of the ’20s.

Throughout the ’20s the New York-based Ramblers recorded under that name and a huge number of pseudonyms, often with a small string section and vocalists. cites more than 130 of their aliases, and Provizer shows Moore playing with four of these pseudonymous groups. Their prolific output alone makes them a group to be reckoned with; their tangled discography deserves a book-length analysis of its own. Since each of their recordings was a 78-rpm single, a load of their collective output (assuming it could even be assembled) would have required a modern high-powered pickup truck. For the first time, Provizer’s discography gave me a sense of the Ramblers’ importance.

Frequently, the white multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rollini was an important contributor to Ramblers sessions, but for the most part the players were not adept at injecting “the hot” into the performances. For that, the directors frequently called on outside soloists, especially a light-skinned Black trumpeter named Bill Moore, whose job was to read his charts accurately and provide hot solos when called upon. He will never be cited as an unsung Armstrong, but he does his job well.

“Pardon the Glove” (rec. New York, 3/29/1927; written by Howdy Quicksell [1901-1953], a perfect name for someone in the record business) is a better-than-average California Ramblers disc, with breaks probably by pianist Irving Brodsky and an alto sax player who could be Jimmy Dorsey, and hot solos by a violinist, probably Moore on cornet, and Rollini on bass saxophone. (I apologize for the lapses in discographical data here; the Ramblers’ recordings need some definitive documentation.)

August 1924: Bill Moore gets a featured spot with The Goofus Five.  A Rambler spinoff band NOT cited either in Provizer’s discography or on was the Goofus Five, which gave Moore a chance to be heard in a more intimate context. The group took their name from Adrian Rollini’s performances on the novelty instrument called the goofus, which sounds very much like a melodica.

“Tessie! Stop Teasin’ Me” (rec. 8/11/1924, New York, written by Brooke Johns & Ray Perkins) – Bill Moore, cornet, vo; Adrian Rollini, goofus, kazoo, vo; Irving Brodsky, p; Tommy Feline, bjo; Stan King, dm. Moore plays the lead, muted, with Rollini playing goofus under him. Rollini then takes a wordless vocal-kazoo break, with Moore laying down his cornet to scat alongside.  Moore takes the lead on cornet again, plays some single-note stuff behind Rollini’s goofus solo, and has a final spotlight in a hot out-chorus.

July 1923: the all-White New Orleans Rhythm Kings record with composer-pianist Jelly Roll Morton. These sessions have been cited by many critics as landmarks. On page 20 of his book, Provizer helpfully provides a bit of background, documenting that publisher Walter Melrose underwrote the session as a way of promoting his publication of some of Morton’s compositions.

I find two things notable about these recordings. The first is the issue of Creole v. Black in New Orleans, which Provizer touches upon briefly — apparently it was not as risky for a Creole like Morton to be recording with a white band as it would be for Louis Armstrong or Johnny Dodds to be playing with them. The second point is more salient, I think: this is certainly the first session in jazz (and one of the extreme rarities in all of jazz history) where a Black composer/arranger directs an all-white ensemble. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and George Russell never did anything to compare with it. This recording is a great example of the collaborative spirit of the session and the respect the NORK have for Morton.

“Mr. Jelly Lord” (rec. 7/1923, Richmond, IN; written and arranged by Jelly Roll Morton) – Paul Mares, tp; George Brunis, tb; Leon Roppolo. cl; Glen Scoville, ts; Chink Martin, tu; Jelly Roll Morton, p; Lou Black, bjo; Ben Pollack, dm. Clarinetist Roppolo has the only solo, in his chalumeau register, and later takes a break in his upper register. Otherwise, this is a completely arranged performance, including a nifty double-time section that the band executes perfectly. Trumpeter Mares cuts through the ensemble passages with more sensitive execution of Morton’s themes than his band mates, and he has a serviceable break.

February 1926: Ethel Waters premieres a song with writer – pianist Sammy Fain. Unlike so many interracial sessions where a singer of one race joins an ensemble of another race for a perfunctory combination, this is a genuine collaboration between a veteran white songwriter and a great Black song interpreter.

“If You Can’t Hold the Man You Love” (rec. 2/20/1926, written by Sammy Fain & Irving Kahal) – Ethel Waters, vo; Sammy Fain, p. The lyric, by Fain’s longtime partner Kahal, is in Black dialect, but Waters sings it with perfect enunciation, skates over the racial jive, and gets to the heart of the song in its best couplets (“You can’t hold a seal unless you feed him fish / You even got to grant a baby’s slightest wish / And just as sure’s there’s a Lawd above / You can’t hold a man unless you give him love”).

March 1929: Fats Waller’s small band records with Eddie Condon. Condon (speaking through Provizer in the book’s last chapter) claims that this session was an almost completely spontaneous happening, with Fats urging Condon to join his band for the date and singing the players’ parts to them in a taxi on the way to the studio.

“The Minor Drag” (rec. 3/1/1929, New York; written by Waller) – Fats Waller, p; Charlie Gaines, tp; Charlie Irvis, tb; Arville Harris, cl, as; Eddie Condon, bjo. In effect, Condon’s banjo is the entire rhythm section here. He does not solo — but he rarely did, in performance or on record. The tempo here is bright, and Condon never falters in his role as chordal foundation and percussionist. He tastefully lays out during Fats’s solo and even has a couple of flourishes to bring up the heat in the out-chorus. Waller is stunning, as he always was. The other soloists are limp in comparison, although the closing chorus is strong.

May 1929 and October 1929: Lonnie Johnson records duets with Eddie Lang. These acoustic guitar duets are prime examples of the ways in which Italian Americans (who were not truly white at the time, in the minds of many) and Blacks comfortably collaborated.

“Guitar Blues” (rec. May 7, 1929, New York; improvised blues by Johnson and Lang) – Lonnie Johnson, 12-stg g; Eddie Lang (as “Blind Willie Dunn”), 6-stg g

“Hot Fingers” (rec. October 9, 1929, New York; improvised blues by Johnson and Lang) – Lonnie Johnson, 12-stg g; Eddie Lang (as “Blind Willie Dunn”), 6-stg g

The Black guitarist Lonnie Johnson was to the guitar what Fats Waller was to the piano — an astonishing virtuoso who had the gift of endless melody. Eddie Lang (a second-generation Italian American, born Salvatore Massaro) was never Johnson’s equal in technical skill, but his jazz feeling was superb, and his solos were always in exquisite taste. These duets (especially “Guitar Blues”) are recorded very well, and allow the listener to differentiate easily between the two instruments. Lang has the rhythm job in both duets, providing both solid chording and occasional single-note lines. He has a two-chorus solo in “Guitar Blues,” and one chorus in “Hot Fingers,” but he knows better than to try to upstage a genius. Instead, he is sensitive and inventive in his support role. The four months between the sessions demonstrate how familiarity breeds compatibility.

November 1929: Coleman Hawkins records with the Mound City Blue Blowers. Hawk elevates a novelty ensemble (albeit one with stellar personnel) to art.

“(If I Could Be with You) One Hour (Tonight)” (rec. 11/14/1929, New York; written by James P. Johnson & Henry Creamer) – Red McKenzie, comb, wordless vo; Glenn Miller, tb; Pee Wee Russell, cl; Coleman Hawkins, ts; Eddie Condon, bjo, Jack Bland, g; Pops Foster, b; Gene Krupa, dm. This was designed as a feature for Hawkins, and he makes the most of it. Along the way, he elevates the company to some of their best work. The Black New Orleans bassist Pops Foster and banjoist Eddie Condon provide solid support; perhaps there is too much emphasis on the beat, with the addition of guitarist Jack Bland (who often worked with Condon) and heavy-footed Gene Krupa playing drums.

Even so, Hawkins rises above the stiffness, playing fluidly from almost the first second, with the lovely cascading figures that were a hallmark of his early style in both his intro and his solo. Pee Wee Russell’s clarinet solo is solid, without the eccentricity that marred his playing at times, and drawing some inspiration from Hawk. Even Red McKenzie, the “Blue Blowing” nominal leader of the band, rises to the occasion with an Armstrong-inspired wordless vocal sung through a comb-and-tissue-paper filter. Only trombonist Glenn Miller, who has the final solo, sounds a little uncomfortable.

Trumpeter Bubber Miley

May 1930: Bubber Miley joins an all-star ensemble of white players, including Bix Beiderbecke. Ellington’s star growl trumpeter is featured on this date, but you wait for (and are finally rewarded with) a few precious moments where he and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke share the spotlight.

“Rockin’ Chair” (rec. May 21, 1930, New York; written by Hoagy Carmichael) – Hoagy Carmichael, lead vo; Bubber Miley, tp; Bix Beiderbecke, cnt; Benny Goodman, cl; Bud Freeman, ts; Joe Venuti, v; Eddie Lang, g; Irving Brodsky, p, chimes, 2nd vo; Harry Goodman, b; Gene Krupa, dm. Most of the players in Carmichael’s backup band here are veterans of the Chicago school of traditional jazz. Carmichael’s lyric deliberately evokes the racist stereotype of the white master and Black servant, but it is played lightly here, with Brodsky taking the Black dialect part. (The lyric was properly burlesqued by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden — reversing the racial roles — in its most famous performances.) Bud Freeman has an opening tenor sax break and a short passage later and Tommy Dorsey has a half-chorus of trombone.

All of that is second in importance to the presence of Miley and Beiderbecke. Miley takes the lead in the first chorus, comfortably showing off his growl style. Violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang surround the vocal section, adding a lot of pleasure to this recording. The last chorus begins with a short arranged passage; then Bix has eight eloquent bars on cornet, followed by a quick burst of Miley and a final passage where Bix leads the band in a Chicago-style collective conclusion.

July 1930: Jimmie Rodgers records the ninth in his series of “blue yodel” tunes, with guest artist Louis Armstrong. The Father of Country Music and The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player, together? The significance is obvious.

“Blue Yodel No. 9 aka Standin’ on the Corner” (rec. July 16, 1930, Hollywood; written by Rodgers) – Jimmie Rodgers, vo; Louis Armstrong, tp; Lil Hardin Armstrong, p. The blue yodel tracks are fascinating, because they were crossover records long before the idea was ever floated as a marketing concept. This is a classic 12-bar blues, with a lyric that would suit Robert Johnson as well as it suits Rodgers. Familiar tropes are here, from the lives of poor Black people as well as those of poor whites — harassment by the police, a woman who buys a suit for her man, a woman who comes looking for that man with guns drawn. Lil Hardin’s left hand on the piano is strong enough so that there is no need for Rodgers to play guitar. Armstrong has six bars at the beginning, provides two-bar obbligati to Rodgers throughout the vocal, and takes a full chorus solo. He is Armstrong without compromise whenever he plays, including a hint of double-timing; he is just as much himself here as he was when accompanying Bessie Smith five years earlier. Rodgers’s singing and yodeling sound just as comfortable. Who put up those walls, anyway?

February 1932: Bing Crosby records with Duke Ellington’s band. Bing offers a direct homage to Armstrong and steps up to the challenge of scat.

“St. Louis Blues” (rec. 2/11/1932, New York; written by W. C. Handy) – Duke Ellington, p, arr; Bing Crosby, vo; Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsol & Freddy Jenkins, tp; Tricky Sam Nanton, tb; Juan Tizol, vtb; Barney Bigard, cl; Johnny Hodges, as; Harry Carney, bari; Freddie Guy, bjo; Wellman Braud, b; Sonny Greer, dm.  “White Christmas” it ain’t. The Ellington stars are in excellent form, with characteristic solos by Cootie Williams, Tricky Sam Nanton, and Johnny Hodges (in a nice double-time section). Barney Bigard is also heard, behind Bing’s vocal. Ellington’s arrangement has a hint of jungle music at the top and some interesting harmony in the final chord. Duke introduces Bing floridly but, contrary to expectations, Crosby slides into the lyric in a manner very much like Armstrong, and his free approach to the beat throughout shows real homage to the Master. He sings the first strain in an unfortunate near-Black accent, but gradually becomes more natural, and he gives a final surprise with a few bars of scat in the double-time section that sound like he was listening well to Hodges.

November 1933: Billie Holiday records with Benny Goodman’s band. Two kinds of swing in uneasy combination as Billie makes her recording debut.

“Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” (rec.11/27/1933; written by Alberta Nichols & Mann Holiner) – Benny Goodman, cl; Billie Holiday, vo; Arthur Schutt, arr; Charlie Teagarden, tp; Jack Teagarden, tb; Buck Washington or Joe Sullivan, p; Dick McDonough, g; Artie Bernstein, b; Gene Krupa, dm; etc. A curiosity rather than a milestone. The reports of the artistic friction at Billie Holiday’s first recording session (see the Wikipedia article) point to the reasons behind the performance’s discomfort but, for me, the primary reason for the tension is the differing approaches to swing that are on display. Holiday’s very flexible approach to the beat, often lagging behind it, is challenged by the fast tempo and by the Goodman band’s own aggression, hitting the beat strongly in rhythm and riffing. Only Jack Teagarden has an approach to playing that could possibly have been sympathetic with Billie’s, and he modifies his own style to fit in with Goodman’s.

January 1935: Red Norvo pioneers small group swing with Bunny Berigan, Chu Berry and Teddy Wilson.

“Blues in E Flat” (rec. 1/25/1935; credited to Norvo, but possibly a head arrangement) – Red Norvo, xyl; Bunny Berigan, tp; Jack Jenney, tb; Johnny Mince, cl; Chu Berry, ts; Teddy Wilson, p; George Van Eps, g; Artie Bernstein, b; Gene Krupa, dm. Of the four tunes recorded at this interracial session, only this medium-tempo blues is relaxed enough to include here. Norvo was combining players drawn from Benny Goodman’s band with tenor player Chu Berry, who was playing with Teddy Hill at the time and was soon to join Fletcher Henderson.

Berry was a rising star in jazz at the time and he has a featured spot in this performance. Norvo was an exponent of the xylophone, but he never was able to raise that instrument beyond its “novelty” heritage. It sounds brittle here, where the context calls for smoothness. That brittleness is the primary reason why the vibraphone eventually became an important jazz instrument, and why Norvo himself switched to it. This session looks very much like the small groups organized for recording sessions beginning in 1937 by vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. They were often interracial, often drew their players from name bands, and tended to be focused on solos rather than arrangements. They often radiated camaraderie. This session needs what those Hampton dates had. The highlights here are Berry’s fluid solo, a strong solo by Teddy Wilson, and a characteristically Bixish solo from Bunny Berigan.

Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included 10 years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.

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  1. Steve Provizer on January 24, 2024 at 1:55 pm

    Steve-Thanks so much for your generous review. Your choice of tunes worthy of elaboration is great. The review as a whole expands on the idea for the book in the first place: to inspire people to check out this relatively unexplored corner of jazz history. If I may point people to a websote where I post photos, info, audio and video on the subject:

  2. Gerald Peary on January 24, 2024 at 6:24 pm

    What an unusual and truly wonderful review, a beautiful appreciation of what sounds like a great book followed by your own brilliant mini-book addendum. A two-in-one treat!

  3. Allen Lowe on January 29, 2024 at 5:53 pm

    Sounds like a great book and in the review is written beautifully. The only quibble I have is with the reviewers comment that Russell’s solo with Hawkins is not marred by some of his eccentricities.It was Russell’s eccentricities that made him great. Also, I would note that an even more interesting session than Jimmie Rodgers’ recording with Louis Armstrong is the one he made with Clifford Hayes’ string band.

  4. Allen Lowe on January 29, 2024 at 6:06 pm

    Sorry, but I need to add that I’m not sure the review is correct in saying that mixed racial sessions lagged until the post-bop era. I think of the bop era as something like 1945 to 1952 or 1953, and there were a lot of interracial sessions in that period. So they didn’t lag until the post-bop era. I think, unless I am misunderstanding the reviewer.

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