How Not to Relaunch the 'Race Records' Label of Ellington and Armstrong

OKeh Records, the jazz imprint that once made history by releasing works by pioneering African Americans, has returned—but with almost no African-American artists.
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Update, May 7: In a Q&A with John Murph, Wulf Müller and Chuck Mitchell have responded to the issues raised in the below essay.

OKeh Records could have a new race problem—a peculiar predicament considering that the imprint became a powerful "race records" label in the 1920s, when it started releasing music from such black jazz pioneers as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

During the 1920s and 1930s heyday of "race records," OKeh and other labels such as Emerson and Vocalion released blues and jazz 78 RPMs recorded by black American artists, specifically targeting African-American consumers. While the moniker "race records" said more than enough about the United States' cruel segregation lines, those labels provided greater recording opportunities for many black musicians.

After folding in 1970 then reviving in 1994 with distribution under Sony/Epic and then deactivating again in 2000, Sony Masterworks has resurrected OKeh Records once more. In a January press release, Sony Masterworks proclaimed its focus on "global expressions in jazz," regarding the talent roster while also trumpeting OKeh Records' illustrious jazz and blues history. In the release, Wulf Muller, Sony Classical's executive jazz A&R marketing consultant, stated that "OKeh's tradition as a label for great improvised music of its time, its connection to some of the most influential artists in the genres of jazz and blues, made it the perfect label for us to use."

When it announced the kick-off lineup, OKeh Records included pianist John Medeski, guitarist Bill Frisell, a duo project from alto saxophonist David Sanborn and pianist Bob James, and Tunisian oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef. The signing of Dominican pianist Michel Camilo was later announced, signaling more "global perspectives." But with all the label's self-promotional references to jazz and blues, how did black American artists get left out?

The conspicuous absence of black American artists from that initial batch infuriated noted trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Nicholas Payton so much that he questioned OKeh Records' cultural integrity in a blog post entitled, "Why Jazz Is So Not OKeh . . ." He gave a brief history of the label, which was founded in 1918 by German immigrant Otto Heinemann, who initially released whimsical, if forgettable, kitsch before focusing on jazz and blues after nailing a surprising success with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." Not only was it a hit record, "Crazy Blues" was the first recorded blues song by an African American. From there, OKeh Records recruited Clarence Williams in 1922 to function as "race" recordings for its New York studios, and began building its legacy with an array of black stars ranging from Sidney Bechet, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Ida Cox to Little Richard, Major Lance, and Curtis Mayfield. After Payton's cliffs-note account of OKeh Records and its omission of any black American jazz artists in its new lineup, he quipped: "What a way to show gratitude towards a community that gave you life!" Four months after OKeh Records' reactivation, there have been no press releases announcing the release of any black American jazz artists. That said, DL Media did confirm that that the label has signed tenor saxophonist Craig Handy. As of this writing, though, there's been no announcement made about his forthcoming disc. Handy's presence may be a sign that the label may one day live up to its historical legacy, but if OKeh Records doesn't quickly sign more black American jazz artists, it'll remain open to accusations of tokenism.

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John Murph is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for The Washington Post, NPR, The Root, JazzTimes, and DownBeat.

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