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All Whose Jazz?

March 2023
2min read

I found it quite disillusioning that Geoffrey C. Ward, in his “Matters of Fact” column (June/July issue), could veer so far from the actual facts. It seems hardly possible, a full twentyfour years after the publication of my book, The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band , that even a careless student of history could echo all the previously printed misconceptions about the first jazz recording.

It is ridiculous to assert so positively that “[Nick] La Rocca and his friends had learned [jazz music] by listening to … the early cornet master Freddie Keppard, after whom La Rocca had patterned much of his playing.” La Rocca had never even heard of Keppard until the Esquire gang of racketeers began to fabricate the mythology of jazz around 1936.

As for the first jazz recording, the files of the Victor Talking Machine Company will reveal that Keppard actually did record in 1917, and that the test record was rejected as “unsuitable for recording.” There was no racial prejudice involved, and in fact, in 1916, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band arrived in New York City, all the top Broadway jobs were held by Negro ragtime orchestras. The ODJB, with its radical new sound, literally drove those groups off Broadway, because the black musicians could not figure out how to play it. They were quickly replaced by white musicians such as Jimmy Durante, Ted Lewis, Vincent Lopez, and Earl Fuller, all of whom put together five-piece “jass” bands.

Just who is Mr. Ward to proclaim that the first jazz record, “Livery Stable Blues” was “really [not] very good”? It was a masterpiece of counterpoint, which is a key ingredient of lasting jazz.

The reason that Martin Williams, the “cultural historian” (to use Mr. Ward’s description) of the Smithsonian, conveniently discarded the first jazz record from his collection of “classic jazz” is that it was produced by white musicians. If there was ever any real prejudice in the jazz world, it was against the Italian-American musicians of New Orleans, who have not been given a fair accounting.

Geoffrey Ward replies: I had not read Mr. Brunn’s book before writing the column that so annoyed him. Now I have. It seems to me to be a work of canted hagiography, aimed at proving that Nick La Rocca and his four young friends “created” Dixieland jazz, and that when the author’s hero suffered a nervous breakdown in 1925 and left the group, “jazz was dead, from the standpoint of a purist.” Nowhere in his book does Brunn discuss which black bands La Rocca might or might not have heard while living in New Orleans, for in Brunn’s New Orleans such bands evidently did not exist. When he lists the musical traditions upon which he believes the ODJB drew—Irish, Italian, French, and German among them—black music and black musicians are not included. I think it is safe to say that this is not a widely held view of the origins of jazz.

The date of the lost test recording Brunn mentions—“Take ‘Em Down” by a “Creole Jazz Band”—was December 1918, nearly a year after La Rocca and his group recorded “Livery Stable Blues,” and jazz historians are not unanimous in thinking Freddie Keppard was on hand even then; among the doubters is Professor Larry Gushee, the author of the encyclopedic liner notes for the Smithsonian’s album The Legendary Freddie Keppard . In any case, I did not say “racial prejudice” kept Keppard from recording first. According to the traditional story the most likely cause for his fatal reluctance seems to have been professional paranoia, the same obsessive worry about being copied that led him to play in public with a handkerchief draped over the valves of his cornet so that potential rivals could not figure out his fingering. (My source for this detail is a published interview with another New Orleans cornetist whose music I commend to Mr. Brunn—Louis Armstrong.)

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