Reminiscing in Tempo: Memories and Opinion/Volume Three: What recording session do you wish you could have witnessed?

February 4th, 2006

I’ll be greedy and ask to be at the Louis Armstrong Hot Five sessions of December 4, 5 and 7, 1928. If I am allowed only one day, make it December 5 and the session that produced “Weather Bird.” I want to be there when Armstrong and Earl Hines create their wild duet, a living metaphor for the independence, interdependence, imagination, musicianship and mastery of time that add up to jazz; a metaphor for what jazz is.


Weather Bird







That is a good question. I would say that almost any of the Impulse dates of the John Coltrane Quartet during the 1960s would’ve been great to hear. The reason is that the recordings of this group were so different from the live performances, many of which I witnessed. It would’ve been great to see how Trane changed the atmosphere in the studio to accomodate his objectives.



After The Rain









I think without question, the session I wish I could have witnessed is Kind of Blue. Like many musicians and fans, that record has always been an inspiration for me. I don’t know how many copies I’ve worn out.


Blue In Green




It’s all Miles dates for me. From Kind of Blue, to Nefertiti, Amandla and beyond. If I were to pick one session (actually sessions) it would be the Plugged Nickel. Even before reading Wayne Shorter’s book (Footprints) I found fresh energy and heavy inspiration from the playing of the entire band, especially Wayne. I have gained even deeper admiration for that particular period of ‘the quintet’ since reading about the process that was involved in the evolution of the music. Thanks to the band’s fearless approach to harmony, rhythm and interplay, jazz was given a fresh life and a wild new open range of territory to explore. As an improviser fortunate enough to be playing with like-minded players, I often refer back to the Plugged Nickel sessions to get a taste of what is available. Of course, as a trumpet-player brought up on Louis Armstrong, there is nothing like a good hit of Pops to make the day complete. Any session of Louis and his pals would have been a hoot for sure!





As a historian, I am always interested in beginnings, those events from which so much that we know, treasure and take for granted sprang. If some time machine could transport me back (temporarily, please!) to the summer of 1890, I would quickly get myself to the modest storefront offices of the New Jersey Phonograph Company, 758 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey, to witness the first commercial recording session by a black artist, and the making of the first hit record by a black artist during the first decade of the record industry.

This seminal event has so fascinated me that I tried in my book Lost Sounds to imagine what it might have been like. The singer, an itinerant street musician from New York City named George W. Johnson, had been recruited by an ambitious young, white part-time employee named Victor Emerson. Emerson, 24, knew that the company was about to go under trying to sell the new-fangled phonograph as an office dictating machine, so he convinced his bosses to let him make a few musical records to see if they could sell some of those. Why, in those rigidly segregated times, was one of the very first people he brought in a black man? Johnson was nearly twice his age, a genial, older man (for those times), who starred nowhere but on street corners, whistling and singing for coins. Who chose the two songs he would sing, a silly novelty called “The Laughing Song” and a rather demeaning but also jovial minstrel tune called “The Whistling Coon”?

And how did this first attempt by a rank amateur to make some musical records by a black man to sell to white people actually unfold? There was no real studio, just a few Edison machines that recorded acoustically on wax cylinders, one at a time. Johnson would have to sing loudly into a funnel-shaped horn, hoping that the sound waves would cut deeply enough into the soft wax to produce a audible impression. And, since there was no way of duplicating the resulting cylinders, he would have to sing the same songs over and over again to create enough copies for Emerson to sell. (Maybe I wouldn’t stay for the whole day.)

Was this choice of a middle-aged street busker to be the “first black recording artist” a happy accident? And was the choice of those two songs random? Emerson was either very lucky, or very smart. Johnson’s two tunes, recorded by him over and over again, became the two biggest sellers of the 1890s, black or white. They were heard across the country and into the next century. They showed that whatever else white America thought of Negroes, they could certainly sell records, opening the doors first for a number of black quartets to record, then for established entertainers like Bert Williams and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and eventually for early jazz musicians like Jim Europe and Wilbur Sweatman.

And all that started in a cramped little room at 758 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey. I wish I could have been there.


Laughing Song






Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)


photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...


Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”


NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.


Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 7 of the narratives are “Torn from Its Moorings", "Watching the Sea" and "Plantations" (featuring west coast stories of Ornette Coleman and Billie Holiday)


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #138

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Shortly following their famed 1938 Carnegie Hall performance, Benny Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa left the band to start his own. Who replaced Krupa?


photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Book Excerpt

The introduction to John Burnside's The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton University Press – is the author's fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli


photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured


photo Bret Stewart/Wikimedia Commons
“Afterwards — For the Spring, 2020” — a poem by Alan Yount

Book Excerpt

A ten page excerpt from The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh that features correspondence in the time frame of June to August, 1953, including those Porter had with George Byron (the man who married Jerome Kern’s widow), fellow writer Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, his secretary Madeline P. Smith, close friend Sam Stark, and his lawyer John Wharton.


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Book Excerpt

This story, excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan, describes how Berlin came to write his first major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and speaks to its historic musical and cultural significance.

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, producer Tom Dowd talks with Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums author Michael Jarrett about the genesis of Herbie Mann’s 1969 recording, Memphis Underground, and the executives and musicians involved


photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”


The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive