Saxophonist Johnny Griffin grew up in Chicago in the 1930s, and recalled: “… there was always music in the house, jazz, gospel, or whatever. Especially jazz records.”
The invention of the phonograph enabled music to be preserved, reproduced and replayed for the first time. When wax cylinders were replaced by shellac discs, they could be manufactured cheaply in great quantities.
Coinciding with the jazz age, this new technology brought jazz to a mass audience through record players and radios at home and through juke boxes and specialist record clubs.
Here we tell the story of the development of 78 rpm records: The 1920s marked the time when modern music began. During this period, and for the following two decades, these records spread music to the masses and helped popularise jazz worldwide.
The listening revolution
The German-American Emile Berliner patented the flat disc gramophone for recording sound in 1887. This was a technical and commercial improvement on Thomas Edison’s cylinder-based phonograph, patented 10 years earlier.
The first experimental discs were of glass, then zinc, and finally a cheaper plastic material, shellac resin, was used to manufacture records. Added to carbon to produce the iconic shiny black disc, shellac was the main plastic material used for records until vinyl was introduced in the 1940s.
Photograph of Emile Berliner (1851-1929) with the model of his first phonograph machine. Photograph author unknown, image in the public domain.
Early records varied widely in speed from 60 to 120 revolutions per minute (rpm) and in size: 78 rpm became the de-facto standard by 1910 as a compromise between playing time, reproduction fidelity and needle and record wear, though record companies persisted with speeds of 80 or 100 rpm in Europe for some time.
By 1910 10 inch (25 cm) diameter records were the most popular, with around 3 minutes of music per side: 12 inch (30 cm) discs later became popular for longer recordings, with up to 5 minutes per side.
Early recordings used acoustic methods: artists sang or played into large horns that amplified the sound, causing a stylus to vibrate and cut into a wax master. Using this master to control a cutting stylus, shellac records were then produced one at a time.
In 1925, electrical recording was introduced: microphones and electronic amplification drove a stylus to cut a metal master disc, which was used to manufacture discs by pressing into soft hot shellac. The sound quality was much better than the acoustic method.
Domestic record players originally used clockwork mechanisms. Like the recording, but in reverse, sound was reproduced via a needle attached to a diaphragm, modulated by grooves on the record. Sound vibrations were amplified by a large flared horn, or transmitted through acoustic earphones similar to a stethoscope.
Early jazz recordings
Lil Hardin Armstrong recalled the recording of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at Gennett’s New York City studios in 1923. Oliver stood next to Louis Armstrong but couldn’t be heard on the recording. To balance the sound: “they put Louis about 15 feet over in the corner, looking all sad.”
Later that year another jazz pioneer, Jelly Roll Morton made a series of solo piano recordings for Gennett, and in 1924 the company recorded the Wolverines, featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet for the first time – recording was becoming something jazz pioneers wanted to use to market their sound and save it for posterity.
Limitations in acoustic recording technology meant that quieter instruments such as piano, guitar and string bass could not easily be recorded. Brass and woodwind were preferred, which suited the cornet, trumpet and clarinet-led sounds of New Orleans jazz. Sometimes a cow bell or wood block was used in place of a snare drum, which could overload the recording system.
“Livery Stable Blues” is generally recognised as the first commercial jazz recording to be released (by the Victor Talking Machine Company). It was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) on 26 February 1917 with “Dixie Jass Band One-Step” on the other side.
Promotional postcard of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from 1918. By Unknown author – Scanned by Infrogmation. In the Public Domain.
The ODJB were white musicians who had played in New Orleans in Laine’s Reliance Brass Band, a band with African-Americans as well as white musicians until segregation pressures increased.
In 1916 some of Laine’s band were recruited to play in Chicago when the ODJB was formed and then, from January 1917, at Reisenweber’s Cafe in New York City – an engagement extended by 18 months due to their success. This led to them recording for the British-owned Columbia Gramophone Company, though Columbia didn’t release the record as it failed to recreate their popular sound and was not considered commercially attractive.
RCA Victor recorded the ODJB soon after, using an acoustic horn and with the musicians carefully positioned – the drummer furthest away and the pianist the closest – which achieved a better balanced and more authentic sound.
“Livery Stable Blues”, became one of the first hit singles, eventually selling over 1 million copies at a time when most people preferred to buy sheet music rather than records.
This first jazz recording marked a new musical era distinct from other African-American genres, ragtime and blues, first recorded a few years earlier. In the same year more than 25 jazz records were produced by artists and companies, showing how popular it was becoming.
The popularity and national recognition of jazz in the US was growing alongside the growth of record sales. From the paper sleeve of the Frisco Jazz Band’s Edison recording of May 1917: “Just how the Jazz Band originated and where it came from is very hard to say. It hit New York during the winter of 1916-17 and once it got on Broadway it stuck. It is there yet and none of the great ‘Tango Palaces’ can be considered complete without it. Frisco’s Jazz Band is as ‘jazzy’ as they come. It is the newest and smartest thing in modern music. If you have never danced to a ‘jazz’ you have a real treat in store.”
In 1936 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band briefly reformed and filmed a recreation of their first successful recording session shown in this newsreel from the time.
During the 1920s, New York City became the recording capital of the world, with Black Swan Records (the first record company run by African-Americans), ARC Records, Gennett, OKeh, Paramount, and some independent labels recording jazz. Record companies decided which songs to record and release, focussing on the song or tune not the artists.
The first jazz musician to choose his own recording material was Louis Armstrong. His studio groups, known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven, recorded between 1925 and 1928 and popularised many jazz standards just as electronic recording was becoming common-place. He was perhaps the most influential jazz recording artist, achieving many landmarks, including the first notable ‘scat’ singing on “Heebie Jeebies” in 1925.
Songs that became jazz standards of the 1920s included “Sweet Georgia Brown” recorded by Ben Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra in 1925 (the first with a saxophone solo), “Dinah” by Ethel Waters and her Plantation Orchestra in 1925, after Waters had popularised the song on Broadway, and “Bye Bye Blackbird” recorded by numerous artists in 1926.
These were rhythmically sedate compared to the syncopated “Livery Stable Blues” and later faster ‘hot’ jazz recordings. Artists who featured these hot rhythms included Fletcher Henderson with Louis Armstrong in his pioneering 1924 recordings, pianist Bennie Moten, who recorded from 1923, and whose orchestra later morphed into the Count Basie band, Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers from 1926 to 1930, and Duke Ellington and his Jungle Band between 1929 and 1931 (Ellington first recorded with the Washingtonians in 1924).
Important to the success of this new market, these ‘hot’ jazz records were popular with those who wanted to dance at home or in halls as well as appreciate the music. This trend continued through the swing style of the 1930s and 40s and helped maintain jazz at the forefront of popular music.
Black records for white artists
Other bands were close behind the ODJB. Arthur Collins and Byron G Harlan released “That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland” in April 1917, and Borbee’s ‘Jass’ Orchestra recorded two weeks before the ODJB, but their recordings weren’t released until July 1917: both bands were white.
Why were these early recordings by white musicians when the genre was perhaps the ultimate expression of African-American culture at that time?
Record companies ignored the potential of African-American artists, with a few exceptions, notably the recordings in 1913–14 by composer and bandleader James Reese Europe, who was for a time conductor and arranger for the popular dance teachers, Irene and Vernon Castle. A bandleader of orchestral ragtime and proto-jazz, Europe recorded for the French Pathé company, after travelling to entertain British, French and American troops in 1918 with his band the Harlem Hellfighters.
Okeh Race Records catalogue front cover from 1926-30 illustrating the racist approach of early record labels in promoting so called ‘race’ music. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The exclusively white record company executives’ view was that recordings by African-Americans could only be marketed to African-Americans, believed to have limited commercial appeal. It wasn’t until the 1920s that record labels discovered a market, largely among the same African-American community, for ‘black’ or ‘race’ music such as jazz, and which soon extended to other demographics.
The record companies were not looking for well-known artists. What they wanted from a recording singer was good diction and a clear voice. This included white singers imitating what they considered an authentic sounding African-American accent.
“They were making a fortune off these negative portrayals of Black people”, says Bill Doggett, a specialist in early recording history and member of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.
Okeh Records was one of the first labels to break with the status quo by recording African-American artist Mamie Smith singing “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Its success inspired African-American entrepreneur Harry Pace to set up his own label, Black Swan Records in 1921.
With his business partner WC Handy (the ‘Father of the Blues’), Pace published sheet music by Black composers (including Handy), but recognised the potential of making and distributing music for the African-American market. Pace promoted the company in Black newspapers with the slogan:
“The only records using exclusively Negro voices and musicians”.
Black Swan Records promoted African-American musical genres beyond blues and jazz. Its hit with Ethel Waters’ “Down Home Blues” using acoustic technology sold over 100,000 copies. Pace collaborated with bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who acted as his musical director, and artists such as jazz stride pianist James P Johnson.
So as not to rely on white-owned recording and pressing companies, Pace acquired his own facilities, which resulted in Black Swan having huge debts. He reissued recordings by white artists under Black pseudonyms, but its stars such as Waters and Henderson left as competition grew (and profits fell). Black Swan released its last record in 1923 before selling its catalogue to Paramount.
Among the first Black musicians to make a jazz record were pianist Charles Prince’s Band. He had recorded the blues numbers “Memphis Blues” in 1914 and Handy’s “St Louis Blues” in 1915, and in April 1917, his band recorded “Hong Kong”, referred to as a ‘Jazz One-Step’. There was also Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jass Band, and the Six Brown Brothers in the summer of 1917, though there is debate whether these are jazz or its older cousin, ragtime.
The 28 songs recorded by King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in the Gennett session of 1923 were perhaps the first authentic jazz recordings by an African-American band. They were also the first by Louis Armstrong.
The 1923 recording of High Society by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Video from erwig films YouTube channel.
Spreading the word
Before the 1920s, the music business was dominated by song publishers and popular entertainment such as vaudeville in the US and music hall in the UK. Sheet music and piano rolls outsold records of the same song as music was mostly played by people, not record players.
Record sales grew steadily from 4 million per year around 1900, to 30 million a decade later, and over 100 million by 1920. However, live music remained the main income for musicians, and songwriters were paid little or nothing from record sales and benefitted more from sheet music and performance royalties.
Despite the popularity of recordings during World War I, only a limited selection of classical and popular music was released, mainly due to the limitations of the technology. More styles were recorded (including jazz) once electronic recording technology was adopted.
In the early 20th century, records were produced by a few labels such as Victor, Edison’s National Phonograph Company and Columbia in the US, and Pathé, Parlophone and His Master’s Voice (HMV) in the UK. This was partly due to the control afforded by their ownership of patented technologies, such as recording speed and methods.
Before 1917, jazz was heard mainly in New Orleans, then later in Chicago and other metropolitan centres. Jazz records gave examples for musicians to listen to and learn, and helped the music spread.
Gennett was an early adopter of jazz and other folk-based American styles. Their philosophy was to record whatever sold, including new trends such as jazz: they allowed artists to express themselves with minimal direction.
Many records in the 1920s were sold by mail-order catalogue to rural US communities, far away from city department stores. This new form of distribution allowed remote listeners to hear different artists and styles for the first time.
However, following the introduction of radio broadcasting in the 1920s and the affordability of home receivers, radio entered the home entertainment market and challenged records as a means of getting music to the masses.
Initially, playing records over the air was outlawed in the US so work for musicians wasn’t threatened. The better sound quality and choice of radio over recordings resulted in a fall in record sales in the early 1920s. However, this prompted improvements in recording technologies, so records once again became the preferred domestic technology and sales grew again until the economic depression in the 1930s when sales of records and record players plummeted.
The first recording markets to suffer this fall included the so called ‘race’ markets of blues and jazz, and many metal master discs from seminal recordings were sold for scrap by record companies struggling to stay in business.
During the 1930s, swing music became popular in clubs, on records, radio and jukeboxes. Jukeboxes had become popular in the US after the end of prohibition in 1933, as records were a cheap, easy way to provide music for bars and clubs. A year later, the new label, Decca, began selling records for just 35 cents, compared to the previous 50 cents, starting a price war that made records more affordable for a mass audience and increased sales.
By 1940, challenges to US restrictions on broadcasting recorded music meant that music on radio could include recording by well-known artists. As a result, the American Federation of Musicians threatened to strike and, in 1942, announced a recording ban. In 1944 the major labels and broadcasters reached a deal to compensate musicians and records became the major source of all types of music on the radio.
This island nation
Ragtime had been popular in the UK before World War I, but in a 1934 review, journalist Eric Ballard remarked “In the summer of 1919 England suddenly awoke to the fact that such a thing as jazz existed” .
In 1919, two groups arrived in Britain: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The success of these bands (including performances for royalty) is seen as the catalyst for Britain’s interest in jazz. This fascination grew slowly and critical reviews were often polarised by this challenge to the status quo of orchestral dance music. In turn this led to a growth in jazz record sales in the UK.
The Southern Syncopated Orchestra in a London venue circa 1920. The orchestra played a range of music styles including jazz and included a 22 year old Sidney Bechet on lead clarinet.
Photograph author unknown. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Although American jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed in Britain during the 1930s, in the 1920s the dominant source of jazz was the gramophone. Recordings were usually reissues of previous recordings made for the US market. There was often a few months delay in recordings reaching the UK, but sometimes this extended to several years, and record releases in the UK were sporadic.
One specialist record company, Edison Bell, based in Peckham, South London, had an arrangement with the pioneering jazz label, Gennett. Others who had similar arrangements to re-issue American releases were His Master’s Voice, Columbia (which dominated the early jazz record market in the UK) and their sister company Regal.
In the 1930s jazz had begun to be heard in British ballrooms. Some dance band musicians became skilled jazz players, mainly by listening to records by American artists. They typically earned their living in dance bands, playing jazz only ‘after hours’ in jam sessions. As enthusiasm grew, British bandleaders began to introduce improvisations, and dance records by Ambrose, Lew Stone, Ray Noble, Roy Fox and others are often spiced with so-called ‘hot’ solos.
A long-running feud between the US American Federation of Musicians and the UK’s Musicians Union resulted in a reciprocal ban on musicians playing in the other country. The dispute came to a head when Duke Ellington was allowed to play in the UK in 1933, while the British Jack Hylton Orchestra was banned from the US.
As a consequence, all bands were blocked from performing in both countries until 1956. During this period, the UK, deprived of US jazz musicians, had no option but to listen to their favourite artists on radio or records.
During 1940s war-time Britain, record collector, broadcaster and writer Brian Rust recalls:
“The home defence rules, the black-out, the lack of petrol, and the unreliable wireless programmes, meant it [records] was the only way of hearing good music. The circulation of Gramophone (home to much important early jazz writing) doubled during the war.” 
In the UK, radio helped satisfy the appetite for jazz from the 1930s, using recordings as well as live performances from mainly British bands. In 1940 the BBC started its first regular jazz programme, “Radio Rhythm Club” (RRC), which helped popularise swing music. RRC broadcast records as well as live performances and jam sessions.
Magazines such as Radio Pictoral helped promote the new dance music now made accessible on the BBC. The front cover shown opposite is for the first edition on 19 January 1934.
Jazz record sales in the UK were helped by reviews in music journals and by John Hammond’s dispatches from America in Gramophone and Melody Maker in the early 1930s.
Gramophone was the first magazine to review records in the UK when it was launched in 1923. Rhythm was published in the UK from 1927 as a magazine for drummers and banjo players, and in the early 1930s became the UK’s main jazz record reviewer – it was subsumed into Melody Maker in 1935, which then became the jazz enthusiast’s home for reviews of new releases.
Another journal to include jazz record reviews was Hot News. It appeared in April 1935 and had evolved from the short-lived Ballroom and Band. It too folded after six months (both were edited by Eric AC Ballard who also provided record reviews as well as his series ‘From Dixieland to the Duke’, an annual review of UK jazz records). Many other journals followed suit and had record reviews, including early publications such as Tune Times and Musical News and Dance Band.
Of more than 300 early UK recording companies, most were based in London and operated until the 1950s. Many had jazz series for collectors, including HMV’s ‘Hot Rhythm Records’ from 1932 and ‘Swing Series’, Columbia’s ‘Swing Series’ from 1928, and Parlophone’s ‘Rhythm Series’ and ‘Swing Style’ series. Decca’s subsidiary Vocalion had its ‘S’ series of jazz and blues releases from 1936 until 1940.
Brunswick was one of the first British labels to release jazz records from as far back as 1924, and started its ‘Classic Swing’ series in 1936. As well as imported American jazz labels there were also specialist UK companies such as Jazz Parade (Humphrey Lyttelton’s independent record label), Jazz Collector, London Jazz and Jazz Today.
Records of the 1930s were listened to and discussed at rhythm clubs around Britain. These were started in London in 1933 by Eric Ballard and spread around the county to become a federation. The clubs played, reviewed and debated the latest records and sometimes hosted invited musicians.
They enabled those who couldn’t afford their own records to listen to new or classic recordings, at a time when live jazz was hard to find. The federation, unable to maintain sufficient support and often at odds with established reviewers, dissolved in 1937.
‘Impressions on the wax’ was a regular record review in the British journal Tune Times in the 1930s.
Jukeboxes arrived in the UK towards the end of World War II, by which time other competing vinyl technologies were taking over. They were important in the UK as Rock and Roll became popular in the 1950s and later supported the traditional jazz revival.
The end of 78 rpm recordings
Limitations in the recording and manufacture of 78 rpm records included needle scratch (caused by the high playing speed), a maximum of 5 minutes recording on a 12 inch disc, shellac’s fragility and relative low density of recording grooves. These restricted the duration of recordings and meant that records degraded over time.
During World War II, shellac became difficult to obtain as it was used to make explosives, and US consumers were even requested to donate broken or unloved shellac records for recycling – thus hastening the replacement of shellac as the plastic of choice for records.
After World War II, new formats gradually replaced the standard 78 rpm record: the 33⅓ rpm (often referred to as 33 rpm) and 45 rpm. The 33⅓ rpm LP (‘long play’) format was developed by Columbia Records and marketed from 1948. RCA Victor developed the 45 rpm format and launched it in 1949, in response to Columbia’s innovation.
10 inch 78 rpm records remained the popular recording standard until LPs were introduced, with up to 20 minutes per side. Until this time records were not distinguished by the speed of operation as all operated at 78 rpm.
The 78 rpm record format was produced beside the newer formats in the UK into the 1950s and in less-industrialised countries, such as India, into the 1960s. As late as the 1970s, some children’s records were released at 78 rpm.
The trend away from 78 rpm technology was mainly driven by the market desire for a longer play, but the new vinyl technology also had advantages of: less surface noise, greater groove density, greater physical resilience, lower weight and lower cost.
The LP led to the concept of an album on two sides of a record. This replaced the 78 rpm physical ‘album’, with a number of related records in a series of covers bound into an album. From the 1950s onwards the baton had been passed from the 78 rpm recording technology to the new 33 rpm alternative.
The album “Bird Blows the Blues” by Charlie Parker, released in 1950 by the Dial record label is recognised to be the first jazz long playing (LP) record.
The great irony
At the core of jazz is improvisation, so jazz performances are fundamentally transient.
Before the age of recording, extemporised rhythms and melodies meant that no two jazz performances were the same – after records became available, a one-time improvised performance could be captured and endlessly repeated.
So, for jazz popularity to be aided by the parallel development of a recording technology is an ironic twist of historic circumstance. 78 rpm records captured the musical essence of the jazz and swing eras and helped transform jazz from an African-American folk art into a global source of popular entertainment.
You can listen to a wealth of historic jazz recordings on the SoundServer computer terminals available at the British Library, as well as access a proportion of their music online via the British Library Sounds website.
- Record progressions: Technology and its role in the development and dissemination of jazz, A thesis presented to Ohio University, Greg A. Surber, November 2009.
- Difference between 33, 45 and 78 records?, Victrola
- The history of 78 rpm recordings, Yale University Library
- Recording and playing machines, Europeana exhibition, 2015
- The history of recorded jazz, Richard Havers, 20 February 2021, Udiscovermusic
- History of the record industry, 1920s–1950s. Part two: Independent labels, radio, and the battle of the speeds, A Voice, 8 June 2014, medium.com
- A critical reassessment of the reception of early jazz in Britain, Catherine Parsonage, Popular Music, vol. 22, no. 3, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 315–36
- Hot jazz and air raids: The start of record collecting in the UK, JP Robinson, 20 December, 2016
- A history of jazz in Britain 1919–50: Chapter 8. Pundits, Record Companies and Rhythm Clubs, Jim Godbolt, Northway Publications, 2010, pp123–150
- From Dixieland to the Duke: A history of recorded jazz., Eric AC Ballard, Ballroom and Band, Vol.1, No.2, December 1934, p.9