Sphynx (by J. Bernie Barbour, 1919)
Here’s a solo piano piece I’ve been working on with some interesting history…this one was unearthed by my partner in crime David Horniblow (clarinet player in the Dime Notes and bass saxophonist in the Vitality Five). It was recorded in London in 1920 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which was of course the first band to make a jazz record in 1917. Now, we can debate all day the “legitimacy” of the ODJB and their many musical strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not their 1917 sides were the first real jazz records. Certainly other African-American bands were more deserving of being the first recorded bands and the ODJB were not high-quality improvisers, but their music does have a unique feel and plenty of vibe to go with the history. They travelled to the UK in 1920 and while there made a number of great records including this one of “Sphynx”, one of many tunes from the teens and 20s which capitalized on the fascination of the early music publishing and record industries for “exotic” sounds. The tune was actually written by J. Berni Barbour, better known for his tune “My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll,” which has become a bit of a classic amongst connoisseurs of “dirty” early jazz tunes! In addition to that tune, Barbour was the first African-American to open his own publishing business. And this piece of his was recorded by the ODJB, the prototypical white jazz band – a pretty early and interesting example of integration in the industry. Here’s the ODJB’s version from the London recording session in 1920:
We began playing this piece with the Vitality Five a couple of years ago, and it struck me that it might be interesting to reduce their band version to a solo piano version since it has a lot of cool textures and melodies. Inspired by the great New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s belief that a pianist should always attempt to imitate a band, I figured I’d have a stab at this one. The recording from a concert in Inverness, Scotland this year.