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Sounds From The American Past

July 2024
5min read

One day in 1917, five young white musicians from New Orleans composed the very first jazz record ever offered for sale


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.

In fact, only the Smithsonian could have compiled a Keppard album; his scattering of recordings were made for several competing labels. The Smithsonian Classic Jazz set has sold more than a million copies, something multi-record albums almost never do, and perhaps inspired in part by its success, all the major companies have lately ransacked their vaults in search of old material that can be repackaged for new listeners. But the Smithsonian retains an advantage over even the largest of the record companies. Because Williams and his collaborators work for a public institution, they have persuaded companies otherwise barely on speaking terms to contribute music to the same album. By my quick count, twenty-one labels are represented in the Classic Jazz collection—Columbia lying down with RCA Victor, groove to groove.

Nor has the Smithsonian team been content to reissue familiar material: of the fourteen cuts on Pieces of Eight , a collection of characteristically high-baroque musings by the pianist Art Tatum, only five have ever been heard on long-playing records before, and five have never been previously issued—including three tunes played for friends at a party and an especially shimmering version of “Exactly Like You,” recorded by an amateur enthusiast at a long-vanished Milwaukee club called Frenchy’s Pink Pig.

Jazz is American because it is improvisational.

A recent release in the series is another six-disk compendium, Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties . There have been other such collections, put together by commercial outfits and usually aimed frankly at the nostalgia market—Americans of a certain age will never get over their fondness for the pulse and lilt of the music that set them dancing during the Depression. But here again the aim is musical excellence: among the eighty selections chosen by Williams and the composer-conductor G’fcnther Schuller are performances by such celebrated bands as Ellington’s, Count Basic’s, and Benny Goodman’s, as well as others by orchestras of which most of us probably have never heard—Jesse Stone and His Blue Serenaders, Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.

Martin Williams promises more records to come. If they are as rewarding as those already in print, they should brighten the life of anyone even remotely interested in how American music is made—and add greatly to the hilarity thereof.

(The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings also includes albums devoted to classical and country and western music and the American musical theater. For a catalog, write to Smithsonian Customer Service, P. O. Box 10229, Des Moines, Iowa 50336.)

THERE is PRECIOUS little hilarity in The Way It Was: The Sixties (CBS 38858), a three-record chronicle in sound of that doleful ten-year span. Produced by Fred W. Friendly and Walter Cronkite and narrated by Cronkite in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear It Now albums, it is an idea whose time has gone, I’m afraid. Sound portraits of earlier decades could be wonderfully evocative: World War II, for example, was for most noncombatants a war of radio voices—Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Roosevelt, Murrow himself, coolly reporting the blitz from a London rooftop.

But television has changed all that. We remember how events looked at least as much as we remember how they sounded, and a portrayal without pictures just seems inadequate. Morley Safer’s “CBS Evening News” report on the destruction of the South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne in 1965 gave a good many of us our first taste of real ambivalence about that troubling conflict: the sight of weeping villagers watching, helpless, while Americans—Americans!—methodically flicked cigarette lighters to set their thatched homes on fire was unforgettable. Yet as heard here, unaccompanied by film of the orange flame swirling above the disappearing village, Safer’s piece only confuses.

There are some genuine surprises on these records— Sputnik ’s mocking chirp; the jubilant stutter of rams’ horns blown by Israeli troops in Jerusalem at the end of the Six Day War; the heroic swoop of Mahalia Jackson’s voice electrifying the March on Washington even before Dr. King began his dream. But the rest of the material is all too sadly familiar and—except for a nice sampling of John Kennedy’s wit and a selection of the staticky countdowns that got us to the moon—uniformly dispiriting. It is all here if you want it: Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Watts, Chappaquiddick. Us at our worst. Having lived through the decade, I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it again.

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