Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture
About 325,000 jazz performances have been recorded for commercial release in the twentieth century, according to the Institute for Jazz Studies, at Rutgers University. Plus thousands more have been taken from radio and concert events. Unknown billions of jazz records have been sold. But it was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) that made and sold the first jazz records seventy-five years ago this month (now reissued in a diamond-jubilee edition by RCA Bluebird).
There is a special badge of immortality we pin on those who are the first at something important. They don’t have to be the best, the biggest, or the most enduring. Being first is enough, as long as what they’re first at comes to count for something. Sometimes we know from the start it counts. When the Spirit of St. Louis bounced onto Le Bourget Field in 1927, our sense of time and distance changed.
More often, however, an act of primacy is not so clearly understood. It comes and goes unmarked. When recognition finally does strike, it takes the historian to go back, locate the moment of invention, and anoint it with a retroactive immortality.
No reputable historian has ever claimed to locate a moment when jazz was invented. The best that can be said is that it simmered and stewed in a period of New Orleans prehistory that wound back deep into the nineteenth century. It was a folk music. It passed by ear, not by text, and it traveled no farther than its players were inclined to take it. It was a regional music, almost ethnic.
Before radio, television, and records, popular music moved on the back of migration. The process was slow. It is perhaps more than a coincidence of historic juxtaposition that the crucial breakout of jazz from the Mississippi Delta took place in the second decade of this century, during that massive internal shift of population known as the black migration. Boll weevil plagues and floods were blighting the Southern cotton economy at the same time Northern industry needed cheap labor. The main route north was not the Mississippi but the Illinois Central Railroad, a nine-hundred-mile line between New Orleans and Chicago.
By 1916 the dispersion was under way. Musicians, white and black, were playing jazz in local New Orleans bands. Outof-towners were often astonished at what they heard. One of them was a visiting Chicago club booker called Harry James (no relation to the bandleader), who took a liking to a stocky, straight-talking cornetist in the Johnny Stein Band named Dominic James LaRocca. People called him Nick for short. He was all of twenty-five and had the best and worst instincts of a carnival barker. James had the idea that this whooping, braying, rattletrap music called dixieland could be a sensation up North. So he did a deal, and on March 1, 1916, “Stein’s Band from Dixie,” with LaRocca playing cornet, opened in Chicago at Schiller’s Café on East Thirty-first Street. Jazz had joined the migration north.
Stein’s Band was an instant, blaring hit. Naturally his musicians decided they deserved more money. Management didn’t see it that way, of course, and Stein didn’t press the issue. So his place in history passed to LaRocca, who persuaded the trombonist Eddie Edwards and the pianist Henry Ragas to quit the band and follow him. They promptly got work at the Casino Gardens, on Kinzie and Clark streets. Tony Sbarbaro joined on drums, and Larry Shields on clarinet. By November the charter membership was in place. And the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was poised for a date at Victor and the leap that would take jazz from the hinterlands to the mainstream. The 1917 recording ledgers at Rockefeller Center show the time and place: February 26, 1917, at Victor’s New York studio, probably at 42 West Thirty-eighth Street.
In a century that was inventing mass production, recording was what counted. Had jazz stayed in New Orleans, or even Chicago, the language of American music might sound vastly different today. That it reached New York and got recorded marks the beginning of its real history and its extraordinary impact on the de-Europeanization of American popular music.
LaRocca and his men hit New York in January. At Reisenweber’s Restaurant at Eighth Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street, they introduced a trunkful of numbers that are still heard at jazz festivals today: “Tiger Rag,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” “Sensation Rag,” and plenty more. Most of these tunes had been part of the local and more or less anonymous repertoire of New Orleans. But no one in New York knew that. So LaRocca not only said he wrote them all but claimed he had invented jazz. The press ate it up.
So did Columbia Records, which was the first to get the ODJB under contract and into the studio. The company knew nothing about jazz, of course. Who did? But it understood a hot item when it saw one. Two pop tunes were cut in the Woolworth Building on January 20: “At the Dark Town Strutters Ball” and “Indiana.” But it was a false start. The Columbia management was so shocked by the sheer violence of the music that it deemed the discs unreleasable. The musicians were paid fifty dollars each and sent home, the masters were interred in the vaults, and the privilege of launching the history of recorded jazz moved to the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Three and a half weeks after the Columbia debacle, LaRocca and company recorded two original pieces, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One-Step.” It was not an easy job. Electronic recording, microphones, and control panels were still eight years away. Charles Souey, the Victor engineer, had never faced such an unwieldy mixture of colliding sounds. He experimented endlessly with positioning and balance. Ragas ended up playing closest to the horn. Then came Shields, Edwards, LaRocca, and finally Sbarbaro, who banged his cymbals, snares, and wood blocks about twenty-five feet away. Victor released the records on March 1, and they quickly became a national sensation. One month later America entered World War I. Times were changing.
The ODJB was almost all shock and not much substance. It didn’t last. But it served its purpose superbly well. Shock was precisely what jazz needed to crash the barricades of American life. The ODJB caught a sound in the air, surged briefly with a roar, then stalled out. But that brief roar ignited a sense among millions of people that American music—both classical and popular—might have a voice of its own that owed nothing to its European “betters” or to vaudeville traditions.
The ODJB made its last important records in 1923. It was by then a mostly spent force. But that was all right because King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra all made their very first records that year. The cats were out of the bag. Before the end of the decade Benny Goodman, Count Basic, and Benny Carter had begun recording careers that would thrive for more than fifty years. (Carter is still going strong.) The subsequent story of jazz recording is well summarized in Brian Priestley’s recent book Jazz on Record: A History , from Billboard Books.
For the ODJB there would be one brief encore period in the middle 1930s and a final valedictory at Victor to remake their old tunes. They sounded better than the originals, even if the sensation was gone. Old-timers hoped there might be other reunions, but the musicians were unable to sustain fulltime careers. One by one they retired, then died. Larry Shields was the first to go, in 1953, and LaRocca died at seventy-one in 1961.
For seventy-five years now recording has captured a transitory performing art, given it the permanence of a scored composition, and allowed it to multiply in the human spirit. Today the American Jazz Orchestra under John Lewis and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under Gunther Schuller and David Baker regularly perform concerts based on recordings. Records permit Wynton Marsalis to commune with Louis Armstrong, Scott Hamilton with Ben Webster, Christopher Hollyday with Charlie Parker.
The musicians who influence contemporary music today are not all contemporary. Jazz on record moves not only across space but through time. When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded in 1917, jazz stopped being purely a music of the moment. It became also an undying procession of moments.