August 12, 2001

That Devlin‘ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950.  By Allen Lowe.  Berkeley, CA: Music and Arts Program of America, Inc., 2001.  312 pages.  ISBN: 1-931388-00-8. $19.95 (book only).  Publisher’s website:

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

There has long been a debate about the extent to which recordings, especially those from the early part of the twentieth century, reflect the true state of music during that era.  Obviously, only certain types of music were recorded (to grossly oversimplify, no real “jazz” before 1917, no country music before 1923), and only a limited number of artists were invited to record.  Most ARSC members presumably agree that whatever the limitations, recordings are an essential tool in understanding musical history.  Allen Lowe certainly thinks so, and has built two books around the premise that recordings are the roadmap to musical America.  Moreover, he has accompanied both of those books with enormous CD sets keyed to the text, containing hundreds of original recordings that literally allow you to hear the records he is talking about, as he talks about them.

The first of these magnum opuses was American Pop from Minstrel To Mojo: On Record, 1893-1956 (Cadence Jazz Books, 1997).  That book emphasized black influences on American popular music, and the nine-disc CD set, sold separately, contained 215 tracks dating from 1893 to 1946, many of them rare and fascinating recordings.

Now we have That Devlin‘ Tune, a similarly idiosyncratic history of jazz as seen through its recordings.  This one is supposed to be accompanied by a 36-CD set containing more than 800 recordings (!!), although the CD’s were unfortunately not available for review here.

Lowe’s basic premise is that there were a great many underappreciated and under recognized contributors to the evolution of jazz.  “My hope in writing all this,” he says, “is only that the occasional name will catch the occasional eye of the occasional reader, and deliver one more musician, dead or alive, from the humiliations of obscurity.”  He is not, however, referring to truly obscure musicians, but rather to those not usually associated with jazz–or in some cases, generally denounced as faux-jazz.  Thus in Allen Lowe’s new and greatly enlarged pantheon of jazz influencers we have such names as Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Nora Bayes, Herbert Clarke, Len Spencer, Arthur Collins, Al Bernard, Bert Williams, Paul Whiteman, Ted (“and while we’re on the subject of musicians who get no respect…”) Lewis, Merle Travis and even Doris Day.  This is a laudable goal.  I’m glad someone else has discovered Len Spencer’s 1902 Columbia recording of “On Emancipation Day” (from In Dahomey), with its incredible ragtime piano accompaniment.  These were not jazz artists, but they did meaningfully influence the music.  How much? Of Helen Forrest’s “I’d Be Lost Without You” (1940)  he observes “records like that brought out the best in singers like Forrest who, if they didn’t exactly let their hair down, at least lifted their skirts a little.”

The title of the book, in fact, comes from just such an unlikely source.  Stella Mayhew’s 1910 Edison cylinder of “That Devilin’ Tune” is a recording of a show tune from Al Jolson’s first Winter Garden revue, La Belle Paree.  While syncopated and undeniably “black,” it sounds to me like a fairly typical “coon song” of the period.  However Lowe hears “possibly the first real jazz recording, the first one that swings and shows the freedom of jazz interpretation” (p.39).  To the Edison folks it was simply “her characterization of the hilarious wench whose mad infatuation is for just that one beguiling strain–‘De Develin’ Tune’.”[i]  Readers can listen to the CD and make up their own minds, but it is just this sort of provocative opinion, and citing of offbeat influences, that characterizes Lowe’s book.

Of course Lowe deals with the jazz greats as well, Armstrong, Oliver, Ellington et al.  His comments often include interesting insights, for example in his analysis of the eccentric, enigmatic pianist Thelonious Monk.

The author does sound a little uncertain about some of the influences he cites.  Discussing George Olsen’s very commercial 1920s orchestra, he observes that “the better white dance bands of the 1920s were malleable machines though their music sounded, sometimes, cloying to those used to the more anarchic black groups.”  Olsen’s “Sam the Accordion Man,” though “soft and crooning,” was “unable to contain an almost inadvertent swing.”  As for the band’s moaning vocal trio (Bob Borger, Fran Frey, Bob Rice), they reflect “the very attractive, silky, but deadpan crooning of singers who prefigure the swinging monotone of such later white jazz singers as Mose Allison and Bobby Troup.”  Uh huh.  While some might consider that a bit over-the-top, it nevertheless makes the point that all music influences all other music, at least to some degree, and historians are often rather narrow in what they include and exclude from the tributaries to jazz.

Lowe is a good writer, engaging, knowledgeable, and very, very opinionated.  That in itself is not unusual for the field of jazz, where strongly held opinions are as thick as ‘skeeters on a warm New Orleans night.  But Lowe’s frequent denunciations of prior writers, and his critiques of those he likes and (more often) doesn’t like, become a little tiring after a while.  Even some footnotes are turned into mini-book reviews.  In a reference to William Howland Kenney’s Chicago Jazz (p.263), he says “Kenney is one of those critics who has done excellent sociological research on the jazz milieu but who lacks some essential musical understanding…”  After several sentences criticizing Kenney’s book, he ends by taking a swipe at Strom Thurmond and George Bush, just for good measure.

Hardly any secondary source is introduced without an often-critical evaluation.  Lowe seems to have a particular love-hate relationship with Richard Sudhalter’s controversial Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945.  On one hand his research and analysis is lacking according to Lowe (“his naivete is somewhat shocking for a music historian…”).  However Sudhalter is clearly a kindred spirit, seeking to shed light on previously underappreciated musicians, many of whom Lowe agrees had significant influence on the development of jazz.  This was usually not a matter of whether they were black or white, but rather that they have heretofore been considered as too “commercial.”

Although I usually don’t note the physical aspects of a book such as this, mention should be made of the unfortunately sloppy production standards here.  Early copies were shipped with numerous pages missing; the reader might begin a section on Cliff Edwards, and suddenly find himself in the midst of a discussion of the Original Memphis Five (make sure you don’t get one of those!).  Also, the thin, laminated cover won’t stay flat no matter what you do, curling sharply back as if recoiling from the contents of the book it is supposed to enclose.

The proofing has also been spotty.  Titles and dates are misstated (for example it’s “Sam, the Old Accordion Man,” not “Sam the Accordion Man”, and “De Develin’ Tune,” not “That Devilin’ Tune.”  Also, the Mayhew cylinder is from 1911, not 1910).  Perhaps the most bizarre error is the repeated misidentification of Bert Williams’ partner in the famous theatrical team of Williams and Walker.  In some places (including a section heading) he’s William Walker, in another William Moore, and in still another George Walker.  The latter is correct.

If you can get past the loud opinions and annoying production problems, That Devilin’ Tune is a engaging book, well written and generally successful in its attempt to resuscitate the reputations of numerous recording artists who influenced jazz in one way or another.  The CD set should be an excellent resource as well–if you can afford it.  Lowe cites many specific records and published sources, and you’ll probably find that you will want to check some of them out, as I did.  If you do only that, That Devilin’ Tune will have accomplished its purpose.


[i].”Edison Amberol Records for August, 1911,” Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1911, p.15.  If you can’t afford Lowe’s mammoth CD set, the cylinder can be heard on “Music from the New York Stage,” Volume II (Pearl GEMM CDS 9053-5).

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