Dan Kildare

The work of the African-American pianist and bandleader Dan Kildare is an important example of the end product of this cultural syncretism. Born in Jamaica in 1879, Kildare emigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and made a name for himself in the New York music scene. In 1915, Kildare traveled to Great Britain with six other African-American musicians, including his brother, Walter.

The date that jazz emerged as a singular genre of music has long been disputed, but the band that Kildare brought to Britain can be considered one of the earliest jazz bands. This being said, Kildare’s ensemble would be considered an atypical jazz band by today’s standards. Kildare played piano and there was a bassist and drummer, but the instrumentation also consisted of a cello and two banjos. As the name of the audio collection that includes Kildare’s music suggests, his band was one of “The Earliest Black String Bands.” The band also adhered to the usual performance style of early jazz. As Robert Graves and Alan Hodge note, early jazz relied on exaggerated rhythm, the use of banjos, and the presence of noisemakers like whistles and, is the case of Kildare’s ensemble, wood blocks.

While in Great Britain—mostly London—the band performed many early jazz hits and recorded classics like W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” While definitely incorporating the musical aspects of early jazz, Kildare and his band also relied heavily on elements that were commonly found in British songs of the time. The vocal part in Kildare’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues” bears a particularly strong resemblance to the style of British vocalists. One hears this resemblance in the heavy use of vibrato that gives the singer’s voice a fluttering quality. For a great example of this vocal effect, one only needs listen to the first phrase of John McCormack’s 1914 recording of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Kildare obviously knew the preferences of his British audience, as compared to that of his previously American one. Despite his American identity and musical upbringing, Kildare is performing British music.

Kildare’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues” is written for an ensemble consisting of vocal part, banjo, banjoline (a kind of banjo), piano, cello, and woodblocks. The version starts with the melody being doubled in the vocal part and banjo. The recording quality of music in the 1920s was such that a singer’s voice would need to project a high level of volume to be heard. This is why it would have made sense for the melody of the singer to be doubled by an instrument. While the singer and banjo player are performing the melody, the banjoline is performing both chords and a somewhat contrapuntal melodic line. The cello is adding longer bass notes to support the overall sound. The sound of the piano is extremely difficult to hear, and this, too, is a product of the poor recording quality. At one-third of the way through the piece, the vocals cease and woodblock enters, playing a kind of tap dance rhythm. To today’s listeners, Kildare’s arrangement of the song would sound frenetic if not chaotic.

It was this poorly recorded, chaotic music that was able to catch and hold the British public’s attention. Throughout the 1920s a series of American jazz bands would copy Kildare and make the trip to Great Britain. It is difficult to measure the effect that the importation of jazz had on the musical culture of Great Britain. What is irrefutable, however, is that the rise of jazz had definitely awakened a musical fervor that had, up until this point, lain dormant in Great Britain. Looking back in 1962, writer J. B. Priestley wrote that “it was as if we had been still living in the nineteenth century and then suddenly found the twentieth century glaring and screaming at us.”