How Did We Get Here From There?

When sound recording first appeared in the late 1800s, courtesy of Edison, the recording approach was a mechanical event rather than electronic. A musician would stand close to a cone shaped devise that funneled sound from the instrument through a large bell opening to a diaphragm in the neck of the cone. A needle was attached to the diaphragm. The sound vibrations from the instrument, injected at the large bell opening, caused the needle to vibrate. The vibrating needle made an imprint on a wax cylinder.   This imprint was the recording.

To hear the recording, a firm casting was made of the wax cylinder for playback. The firm cylinder was mounted and spun on a spindle with a needle gently pressed onto the casted cylinder. This physical connection would vibrate the needle, cause the diaphragm to vibrate. The diaphragm move air within the acoustic horn creating audible sound. Edison made it possible to record a few minutes of low fidelity (or a narrow frequency range) music which could be played back at a modest volume.

These early recordings were popular with everyone, but their presence did not put any musicians out of work.  Edison recorders and players were expensive and not found on every street corner. Musicians filled a demand for live music; they played at dance halls, stage shows, large high-end restaurants, and movie theaters. As a result of the strong demand for music, few musicians were unemployed.

Radio had a powerful impact on musicians in the early-1920s. When musicians found work due to radio, it soon became obvious that that people could listen to radio at home rather than go out in the evening to see a performance. In fact, many people were able to listen to music in their homes from venues they could not afford to visit (consider the impact of the Grand Ole Opry on rural farm communities). Some restaurants stopped having live music and simply turned on a radio.

In the mid 1920s it was possible to attend multiple movie theaters, see the same movie, but have a totally different experience based upon the skills of the live musicians.  Theaters with modest revenue could not afford the elite musicians. The better theaters with many customers had the revenue to afford impressive musicians. Thousands of musicians were employed in every city in the nation. They delivered entertainment at any establishment that needed music.

However, the era of live music was forever changed when the movie The Jazz Singer first appeared in the late ’20s.   The traditional role of movies with live music was coming to a close. Movie sound tracks were the new norm.   If you lived in Hollywood and knew people in the movie industry, it was possible to support a family by recording soundtracks for movies.   However, for the thousands of musicians in every city and town across the land churning out hours of music to support the silent movies, their jobs came to a halt as the theaters retooled for talking movies. In this regard, the advances in technology driven by talking movies, recording equipment, and radio clearly modified the nature of live music and the availability of jobs for musicians.

“The one radio voice that I listened to above others belonged to Ella Fitzgerald. There was a quality to her voice that fascinated me, and I’d sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” — American actress and singer Doris Day speaking about Ella Fitzgerald