May 14th, 2012

What’s a Spasm Band?

By Bart J Helms

In the early days of the 20th century, “spasm band” referred to a group of street performers who played in a hot style on whatever instruments they could wrangle. <em>The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz</em> quotes New Orleans musician Danny Barker as saying that spasm bands

played all sorts of gadgets that produced sounds: musical saws, washboards, spoons, bells, pipes, sandpaper, xylophones, sets of bottles (each with a different amount of water), harmonicas, jews harps, one string fiddles, guitars, small bass fiddles, tub basses, kazoos, ram horns, steer horns, bugles, tin flutes, trombones, and many others… These performers and musicians were welcomed by the patrons in the joint, although the first time it was mainly out of curiosity.

The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (pictured above) may have been the first. In the late 1890s, Emile “Stalebread” Lacoume was a newsboy who attracted customers by playing harmonica and eventually by leading a band of neighborhood kids. Cheese box banjo, soap box guitar, a barrel bass strung with a clothing line, and a primitive contraption kit with random home-assembled percussion. These items sound more like the instrumentation of a jug band than the first jazz band, but the Razzy Dazzy kids are sometimes credited as the originators of jazzed up tunes. In one unlikely story adults stole the band’s name, and when the kids protested, the adults renamed themselves the “Razy Dazy Jazzy Band.” Nobody’s found a definitive origin for the word jazz, but this story is sometimes used to suggest a kinship with spasm.

Over the years, many have tried to indentify the one single element that makes jazz jazz. Everyone agrees that jazz overlaps with other American musical traditions, but many suspect that has some secret ingredient, the presence or absence of which makes a thing definitively jazz or not. Jelly Roll Morten thought it was latin rhythm. The revivalists of the 1940s thought it was group improvisation. When west coast jazz appeared, some said it’d lost the claim to jazz by losing touch with the blues, but at the same time others criticized artists like Cannonball Adderley for relying too strongly on blues licks. If I had to pick just one element, I’d be tempted to point to the jazz musician’s sense of humor and a particular adventurous approach the music. The spasm bands had this. So might have early black brass bands and dance bands in New Orleans who played the standards repertoire of the time with individual flare and the rhythmic shifts that would eventually be named swing.

Humor has a constroversial place in jazz history. Early jazz was considered novelty music by record companies, music publishers and white audiences. Had they not inspired musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” might have lived forever on the shelf next to novelty “hillbilly” records of the time.

Some historians view the humor of early jazz as an impediment to its destiny as a supreme form of self-expression. I don’t think that view can be supported when you listen to the joy and life present in the following recordings.

I wonder whether the comb and junk percussion on that Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers clip were inspired by stories of spasm bands past or if the musicians learned to express themselves on hand-crafted instruments all on their own.

As corny as some early jazz humor sounds now, it’s worth remembering that this was the style at the time. It wasn’t old-fashioned yet: it was new, daring. Many like to imagine a direct, unbranching line between early jazz, the more harmonically adventurous big bands, and bebop, but not every musician followed that trajectory. Clifford Hayes, recording in the late 20s, found a lot of use for those old spasm instruments in his various jug bands – which often sounded as much like King Oliver as other jug bands of his day.

I love Billie Holiday’s bleaker songs and Duke Ellington’s innovative suites, but jazz is large enough to accommodate more without losing it’s integrity.

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