Otto, Make That Riff Staccato
OkeH Records was founded by German immigrant Otto Heinemann in 1918. But before he founded his record business, Heinemann ran a company which supplied motors to phonograph manufacturers. He expanded to making tone arms, sound boxes and eventually phonograph records themselves. The next logical step would be to record the music and that’s how OkeH was born. The capitalized “O” and “H” was taken from Heinemann’s initials and the name OkeH is said to be derived from the so-called Native American spelling of OK. In fact, an Indian head was stamped on the label’s original logo.
When the label first launched, they primarily recorded a series of marches, concert or dance bands, classical music or corny novelty records like this one below with a woman laughing along with what is assumed to be a male trumpet player…
The Birth of Race Records
OKeh (the label later capitalized the “O” and “K”) had its first hit record with Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues, which has been widely accepted as being the first commercially viable blues record by a Black artist. Until then, Black artists were typically marginalized to being marketed to Black audiences and were under recorded compared to their White counterparts who caricaturized and capitalized on Black music. Mamie’s success inspired the label to launch a “race” records division which exclusively focused on releases by Black artists. This also influenced other labels to do the same and promote, or exploit, Black artists.
The First King of Pop
In 1925, Louis Armstrong recorded a series of sides for OKeh Records that would change music forever—not just American music—but music, full stop. Under the name Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, he redefined the Black American musical landscape (Blues, Gospel and Ragtime) and put it on the world stage, thus creating the template for the world’s first Pop music and Louis became its star. As I’ve said before, he was the Michael Jackson of his time.
Keep in mind that Jazz, though based on Black music, was primarily the domain of White artists. The first Jazz record was recorded by The Original Dixieland Jass Band and Paul Whiteman was dubbed “The King of Jazz”. Though some artists like Joe “King” Oliver—Armstrong’s mentor—had already begun adopting the name “Jazz,” Black artists didn’t commonly refer to their music by that name back then.
“I moved back home with my mother. I was working at Tom Anderson’s Cabaret located on ‘Rampart…Lots of Big Shots from Lulu White’s used to come there…And I was playing the Cornet. We played all sorts of arrangements T’wasn’t called ‘Jazz’ back there in those days They played a whole lot of Ragtime music. We called it Dixie Jazz, in the later years.”
- Louis Armstrong
At this point, hardly anyone remembers the hokey records OKeh made at its inception, if they know of the label at all. With the exception of a few albums by White artists such as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, the imprint has become largely synonymous with Black artists like Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Cab Calloway, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ida Cox and Little Richard.
The Umpteenth Coming Of OKeh . . .
I think it would be fair to say that Black artists have made the most profit for the label and have given it whatever credibility can be derived from a label. Which brings me to question why the label would place as the starting lineup of their most recent incarnation a cadre of all White artists? I’m sure Bob James, David Sanborn, Bill Frisell and John Medeski are all nice guys, but how do you regenerate a label primarily associated with Black music and not have any Black representation on your roster to begin with?
What a way to show gratitude towards the community that gave you life!
So NOT OKeh . . .
According to a quote in Nate Chinen’s piece on OKeh in the New York Times, the label’s new slogan is “Global Expressions in Jazz.” One of the label execs is quoted as saying “What I want to achieve with OKeh is to build a home for jazz and jazz-related music of the highest quality, whatever its origins are.”
“Whatever its origins are…”? I tell you what THE origin is because there is only one: Black American culture. Perhaps the music was better off as “Race” music. At least then it was clear what race it came from.
Maybe OKeh will relive its past by recording a variety of Jazz records before ultimately realizing that a tree without roots cannot survive. I’ll paraphrase Duke Ellington here by saying, “It Don’t Mean a Thing Without That Real Nigga Shit!” #RNS
- Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop