The Versatile Four

I’ve posted a few examples of Jazz drummers recently, so I thought you might be interested in this, a rare recording of performance from the (pre-Jazz) Ragtime era that provides a good example of where  Jazz drumming came from. This track was recorded in London way back in 1916 and it’s remarkable for the clarity with which you can hear the drums, which in those days usually proved very difficult to capture.  The tune, Down Home Rag (written by Wilbur C. Sweatman) was a big hit at the time and remains in the traditional jazz repertoire to this day. It’s played by The Versatile Four an almost legendary ragtime band that I know very little about other than the personnel: Tony Tuck (banjo; born 1879 Virginia); Charles W. Mills (piano; born 1883 Illinois); Gus Haston (banjo, vocals; born 1880 Missouri); and  Charlie Johnson (drums; born 1885 Kentucky). I’m not sure who it is who blows the whistle, but it may well be the drummer.

Charlie Johnson’s playing of the drums may sound very old-fashioned and a bit staff to ears accustomed to the swinging style of the jazz era, and he no doubt used a very crude kit, but this recording shows what an absolutely superb musician he was. You can also clearly hear the influence of the sort of drum patterns used by military marching bands. As well being an interesting piece from the point of view of music history, the drummer suffuses this high-energy performance with a sense of knockabout fun that is guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most crabbed face!




6 Responses to “The Versatile Four”

  1. Michel C. Says:

    I can only imagine what he could have done with a full set of drums.


  2. telescoper Says:


    • telescoper Says:

      Jazz definitely has roots in ragtime (and the blues), and of course the boundaries between different musical categories are always blurred, but one of the key elements of Jazz is improvisation, which is absent in ragtime.

  3. Amanda Emery Says:

    With the greatest respect I have to correct you on a point. The Drummer in the signed photo (of which I have a copy) Was not Charlie Johnson but rather George Leonard Archer. My Grandfather.
    The signature matches his passport applications I have copies of too.

  4. The 4 were pretty much ragtime tending to Jazz in this incarnation with banjos. At the end of WWI, they returned to the states and found themselves sounding too old fashioned to make money, and they returned to Britain, with the banjoist replacing their banjolins with SAXOPHONES. They were ragtime blending into jazz and then jazz

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