Harry A. Yerkes

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During the decade preceding the transmutation of the word "jazz" from a verb into a noun, a vibrant mosaic of musical ideas and styles made it possible for this new form to germinate, develop, and spread…
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During the decade preceding the transmutation of the word "jazz" from a verb into a noun, a vibrant mosaic of musical ideas and styles made it possible for this new form to germinate, develop, and spread throughout the world, a process accelerated by the increasing availability of phonograph records. Little attention has been paid to certain unsung innovators who participated in this fascinating fomentation, as jazz is thought to have first appeared on records in 1917, bursting suddenly on to the scene like Athena springing fully armed from an aneurysm in the brain of Zeus. Music existing chronologically and stylistically between the categories of ragtime and jazz tends to fall through the cracks, in retrospect. Perhaps the time has come for the world to recognize Harry A. Yerkes, an individual who was receptive to the new music and provided fertile ground for its development, as he led numerous ensembles whose recordings appeared on many of the popular labels between 1917 and 1924.

Yerkes was among the very first Columbia recording artists; his two 1905 xylophone solos were subsequently released on Columbia two-minute wax cylinders. He also performed as a bell ringer, but greater opportunities were in store for him. By September of 1917, Yerkes had secured a position at Columbia as leader of his own ensembles, and producer for many others. Yerkes was, in fact, responsible for setting up Ted Lewis with a steady contract at Columbia. The names of Yerkes' many recording bands are delightfully strange. A very abbreviated list includes Yerkes Marimbaphone Band, Yerkes Jazarimba Orchestra (spelled most often with only one "z" but occasionally with two), Yerkes S.S. Flotilla Orchestra, Yerkes Bellhops, the Novelty Five, and, most famously among early jazz enthusiasts, the Happy Six. The music played by these groups ranged from classical overtures and light-headed mood pieces through topical favorites (plenty of thematic material during the First World War), to something definitely informed by ragtime and pointing the way towards authentic jazz.

Happily unencumbered by bandleader Art Hickman's often revoltingly racist attitudes, Yerkes was on board at Columbia as a producer when W.C. Handy, Wilbur Sweatman, Johnny Dunn, James P. Johnson, and Bessie Smith were encouraged to make records for this label. Yerkes employed remarkable musicians in his ensembles: clarinetist Alcide "Yellow" Nunez, trombonist Tom Brown, pianist Ted Fio Rito, trumpeter Earl Oliver, saxophone star Rudy Wiedoeft, and percussionist George Hamilton Green. He also hired instrumental talent from the Metropolitan Opera House. Crucially influential titles recorded by Yerkes' groups included "Sensation" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, "Louisiana" by Walter Donaldson, "The Sneak" by Nacio Herb Brown, "Tishomingo Blues" by Spencer Williams, several novelty rags by Zez Confrey, "Arkansas Blues," "Ja-Da," and "Singin' the Blues." Yerkes was also among the first to record early compositions by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Maceo Pinkard, and the songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

By 1923, Yerkes seems to have begun to sense that times were changing more rapidly than he'd bargained for. After recording a couple of xylophone solos for Columbia in May of that year, he only produced another two dozen ensemble sides before fading into the woodwork in 1924 as the record market -- and the Jazz Age -- blew itself wide open. Aside from the joys of 78-rpm record collecting, interested persons may hear one digitalized example of Yerkes Jazarimba Orchestra in action. Look for Hits of '21: Ain't We Got Fun? (Living Era CD AJA 5521). And it's only a matter of time before more of Yerkes' recordings become available. A resurgence of interest in this man's peculiarly pleasant music is long overdue and seems inevitable.