An excerpt from

Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal
by John Gilmore

In the autumn of 1916, while troop trains loaded in Montreal for the war in Europe, a shy, bespectacled, twenty-six-year-old Englishman shook hands with his mentor and boarded a Pullman car warming at Windsor station. His destination: Chicago; his destiny: Canadian recording history.

Reginald Thomas Broughton was a professional piano player, though he could scarcely read a note of music. His mentor and musical idol was Willie Eckstein, a classically trained pianist less than two years Broughton's senior who was being touted by his employers at Montreal's Strand theatre as "The World's Foremost Motion Picture Interpreter." It was an opinion shared by enthusiastic Montreal audiences: they had been flocking to the St. Catherine Street theatre for some four years to hear the diminutive and exuberant pianist perform-even when the films themselves were hardly worth the price of admission. When Eckstein took a day off, it was his protégé Broughton who, sporting the stage name Harry Thomas, slipped behind the piano and attempted to disguise the master's absence.

The two men, though dissimilar in temperament and musical training, shared a fondness for two pleasures-liquor and improvisation. Both pianists could spontaneously weave snippets of melody from popular songs and classical masterpieces into an engaging and often humourous musical commentary on the events silently unfolding on the theatre screen. They also shared a fondness for a challenging style of solo piano playing known as ragtime, which had swept North America and Europe a couple of decades earlier after emerging from the pens of formally trained black pianists in the southern and midwestern United States. Together, the pair had composed two rags of their own, titling them, "Delirious Rag" and "Perpetual Rag." Eckstein had written them down; Thomas had committed their precise syncopations and complex melodic lines to memory. Now the protégé was setting off for Chicago, probably with no more than a youthful desire to seek his fortune south of the border; perhaps, but only remotely so, with a letter of invitation from a manufacturer of piano rolls.

The circumstances surrounding Thomas' journey are probably lost to history forever, like so much of the fabric of North America's popular music history. All we know for certain is that a few months later the Q.R.S. Company sent out to music stores its piano roll issue of "Honolulu, America Loves You," a pop song which Thomas had recorded directly onto a master paper roll at the company's studio in Chicago that autumn of 1916. The melody was easily recognizable, but Thomas had coloured the music with ragtime and embellished the performance with improvised passages which were all his own.

A few weeks later he was in New York City, where he recorded "Delirious Rag" and "Perpetual Rag" onto piano rolls for Metro-Art and Universal. He made the four-hundred-kilometre overnight train journey from Montreal to New York at least once more before the year was over, to cut his first gramophone record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. One side of the heavy, brittle 78 r.p.m. disc featured "Delirious Rag." For the other side, Thomas concocted "A Classical Spasm," a ragtime interpretation of melodies by two Polish composers, one of them the widely loved Ignace Jan Paderewski.

If Thomas was pleased with his journeys to the United States and the approximately fifteen minutes of issued recordings that resulted, he was probably unaware of their historical significance. Though Thomas was a white musician who didn't play anything that we would comfortably call jazz more than seventy years later, he was nevertheless the first musician living in Canada to record music played in a style which had been created by black Americans. This was ragtime, a direct predecessor of jazz. Nor could Thomas have known that less than three months after he recorded for Victor, five young white musicians from New Orleans would walk into the same company's studio in New York City and turn the world upside down with a record of their own.