Sweatman, Wilbur (Coleman )
- Mark Berresford
(b Brunswick, MO, Feb 7, 1882; d New York, NY, March 9, 1961). American clarinetist, bandleader, composer, and music publisher. His first professional engagement (c1897–8) was with a “pickaninny” band led by Nathaniel Clark Smith. In 1902 he was assistant leader of P.G. Lowery’s band with Forepaugh and Sells Circus and later that year joined Mahara’s Minstrels band under the leadership of W.C. Handy. In 1903 he formed his own band in Minneapolis, where he made the first recordings by an African American band. Sweatman moved to Chicago in 1908, where he led trios at the Grand and Monogram theaters. In 1911 he made his first vaudeville appearance, and in late 1916 made the first records recognizable as jazz performances. In 1918 Sweatman’s band was signed to an exclusive recording contract with Columbia, their records rivalling those by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He continued to work through the 1920s and early 1930s in vaudeville, and in March 1923 employed Duke Ellington, Sonny Greer, and Otto Hardwick with his act. He provided music for the opening of Connie’s Inn in 1923 with a band that included Coleman Hawkins, and during this period made pioneer radio broadcasts and more records. He continued to lead bands up to the mid-1930s, and thereafter concentrated on band booking, music publishing, and managing musicians’ estates, most notably Scott Joplin’s.
Until recently, Sweatman’s achievements had been undervalued by jazz writers, but with CD reissues and the publication of a biography in 2010, his reputation is undergoing re-evaluation. His long career in vaudeville took ragtime and jazz to black and white audiences alike, whilst his Columbia records of 1918–20 are the first African American jazz records to feature a degree of collective improvisation and embellishment. Importantly, Sweatman’s bands were a nursery for young jazz musicians, most notably Duke Ellington, Sonny Greer, Arthur Briggs, Cozy Cole, Jimmie Lunceford, Claude Hopkins, and Teddy Bunn. He was also an important composer of rags and jazz compositions, most notably “Down Home Rag” (1911).