Sounds From The American Past

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ONE DAY IN FEBRUARY of 1917, five nervous young white musicians from New Orleans positioned themselves in front of the wide mouth of a recording horn in the New York studios of Victor Records. They called themselves the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and they were newcomers to Manhattan. No one knew quite what to make of their music—the band was billed opaquely as “Untuneful Harmonists Playing ‘Peppery’ Melodies”—but they had pulled big crowds into an Eighth Avenue restaurant called Reisenweber’s, and that was all recording executives had needed to sign them up. The leader and cornetist, an Italian cobbler’s son named Nick La Rocca, stomped off two tunes: “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” and “Livery Stable Blues.”

These composed the very first jazz record ever offered for sale, and before it reached the stores, the Victor sales department felt some explanation was necessary: “Spell it Jass, Jas, Jaz, or Jazz, “the catalog said, ”… ajassband is the newest thing in the cabarets, adding greatly to the hilarity thereof. ”

A million copies were sold. Despite its name, there was nothing very original about the band’s music. La Rocca and his friends had learned it by listening to black bands back home, including that of the early cornet master Freddie Keppard, after whom La Rocca had patterned much of his own playing. (In fact, tradition holds that Keppard had been asked to record first but declined, fearing that someone would “steal his stuff.”) Nor was the music really very good: one of the things people especially liked about “Livery Stable Blues” was the way La Rocca could make his horn whinny like a horse.

That is why neither of the tunes recorded that February day appears in the superb six-record Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz , the first in the distinguished series of reissues that has been released over the past eleven years as part of the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings. “Our only criterion in putting together that album was excellence,” says the critic and cultural historian Martin Williams, who directs the program. “We want always to be historically accurate in everything we do, but our first goal is to demonstrate how extraordinary the music is.”

The Smithsonian series does that, spectacularly.

Surely no segment of our culture has been so consistently misunderstood. Jazz is not anthropology or sociology or even show business, though it is infused with elements of all those and more. Instead, it is art, and profoundly American. It could have happened nowhere else. It is not African, but it is a predominantly black creation—only a handful of its innovators have been white—and the fact that it flourished within a society that required its earliest practitioners to wear funny hats and give their groups demeaning names is a testament to human tenacity and the impulse to create. Finally, jazz is American because, as the critic Albert Murray has argued, it is primarily an improvisational art, and ours is an improvised country. We make ourselves up as we go along.

The Smithsonian series never loses sight of those facts. Its two-record album devoted to the modern trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, for example, is subtitled The Development of an American Artist and augmented with authoritative liner notes that treat his work with the care and dignity it deserves: no one listening carefully to these records will ever again remember Gillespie primarily as the eccentric-looking fellow with the canted trumpet whose cheeks swell alarmingly when he plays. Similarly, too many of us now recall Louis Armstrong as we last saw him, a mugging crowd-pleaser in his final failing years, his distinctive singing allowed to overshadow his trumpet. The six Smithsonian records given over to his early recordings should redress the balance; they trace the growth of the soaring, grandiloquent trumpet style that forever altered the course of modern music.

Eight records in the series concentrate on the work of Duke Ellington, whom Williams believes was not merely the greatest of all jazz composers but the “greatest American composer, period .” Anyone who wants to quarrel with that judgment must first make his or her peace with the astonishing output included here, pieces all recorded by Ellington’s orchestra between 1938 and 1941.

Lesser-known musicians have received attention as well, among them the fatally reluctant Freddie Keppard, who finally was persuaded in 1924 to come into the recording studio. Only the Smithsonian would have bothered to devote an entire record—and eight pages of densely printed notes—to Keppard. He made just a few sides, but by the time he did so, tuberculosis and too much alcohol had undercut his talent, and Armstrong and others had moved the music far beyond him. Nonetheless, the distant, jumpy sound of his horn is the closest link we have to the bands of the ragtime era.