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The Diamond Jubilee Of Jazz
Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
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.