Wilbur Sweatman: Lived Up To His Name

When Wilbur Sweatman (1882-1961) played big time vaudeville in the early nineteen tens, for his big finish he played three clarinets simultaneously. He was one of the very few African American performers of his day whose stature was such that he could play mainstream vaudeville as a solo act. I lead with that entertaining factoid (illustrated here) because it is our primary orientation on this blog, but, impressive as it sounds, it was far from Sweatman’s greatest accomplishment.

If one had to choose from among Sweatman’s numerous distinctions for the most important one, however, the one I would select is his long association and friendship with ragtime composer Scott Joplin. He was the executor of Joplin’s estate when the latter died in 1917, and he inherited Joplin’s papers. Lore has it that Sweatman was also the first person to record the “Maple Leaf Rag”, although the recording does not survive.

Sweatman is also believed to be the first African American to make genuine jazz records, as early as 1916 or 1917. (He was preceded by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which was made up of white musicians who had adopted the style, which had been pioneered by musicians of color in New Orleans area).

In addition to clarinet, Sweatman played violin, organ and trombone. Originally from Brunswick, Missouri he started out playing with circus bands, including those of P.G. Lowery and Forepaugh and Sells. He also worked with various minstrel companies and W.C. Handy’s band. His own orchestra was formed in Minneapolis in 1902. By 1908 he was on to high profile gigs in Chicago, where he made his name with high profile performance engagements and as a recording artist. He composed a number of his own pieces of music, of which the most popular and best known was the “Down Home Rag” (1911). Among the famous musicians to play in his band early in their careers were Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Cozy Cole. 

By the ’30s, the Dixieland and ragtime sounds were considered very old fashioned, but Sweatman continued to perform in Harlem clubs and such like as late as the 1950s. His later decades were taken up mostly with the business end as a publisher and booker.

I love his evocative surname. If a novelist had given a hard-working musician character that name, critics would call it heavy-handed. But I think we all know the name of the sweatiest, hardest working man in show business. And he had the much more quotidian moniker of James Brown.

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.