Sundays are normally devoted to boosting for Vivaldi, but today marks a very special anniversary.
Ninety-five years ago today, five musicians from New Orleans walked into a Victor Talking Machine Company studio on West 38th Street in New York City to record in the style they grew up playing back home. Their recording of “Livery Stable Blues” was like nothing else heard on record: its raucous collective ensembles, barnyard onomatopoeia, exuberant (almost sexual) rhythms and sense of abandon brought something entirely new to the popular music scene:
If historical analysis were able to stop there, it would be left with important but uncontroversial facts. Yet like so many other debates, the intervention of a four-letter word has made all the difference.
The particular term used in the group’s name and in the title of the second tune cut that day, the brassy dance number “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step,” would be forever associated with a new movement in American music. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, later renamed Original Dixieland Jazz Band, would come to be credited, accused, denied and reviled as the creators of the first “jazz” record.
An excerpt from Scott Yanow’s description of the ODJB on the All Music Guide sums up the issues surrounding the group:
They were not the first group to ever play jazz…nor was this White quintet necessarily the best band of the time, but during 1917-1923 (particularly in their earliest years) they did a great deal to popularize jazz.
Yanow’s distinction of the ODJB as a popularizer for some style of music associated with “jazz” is key. The first jazz record is obviously not the same thing as the first jazz performance, and the bearer of that latter honor has been lost to time (with possibilities including mysterious, legendary and unrecorded cornetist Buddy Bolden and the self-nominated Jelly Roll Morton). Yet a record, literally a recoded document, and especially one as popular as that of “Livery Stable Blues,” has a cultural significance beyond musicological origins. The ODJB would become the introduction to “jazz,” and whatever that word meant, for millions of Americans and listeners across the world.
Yet the AMG entry also slips in the facts and ideas that have made that introduction so controversial. For starters, there’s the ODJB’s music. Their inaugural recordings unveil a somewhat uptight, “zany” surface that might seem hokey today (and which reveals the origins of “dixieland” as a term for corny, cliché, ersatz jazz). Part of this feel is due to Victor’s insistence on using fast tempos to squeeze as many choruses onto one side of a 78 as possible. As Richard M. Sudhalter points out in his seminal Lost Chords, other ODJB records feature more lyrical textures and careful dynamics. Contemporary technology is also an obstacle to the ODJB’s legacy: even the best restorations are unable to overcome the acoustic recording technique’s favoring Larry Shields’ clarinet, which obscures Nick LaRocca’s cornet lead and effectually obliterates pianist Henry Ragas’ harmonic and rhythmic underpinning.
Yet the elephant in the room for nearly a century has been another little word in the AMG entry. A White group cut what is considered the first recorded example of a style generally accepted as originating and developing in African-American communities. Suffice it to say that the ODJB’s cultural associations and subsequent popularity have not sat well with many commentators. At best, these records are described as a hastily assembled product for mass consumption. They are often dismissed as the mockery of a communal art form by an opportunistic cultural elite, and rarely discussed as a perhaps dated yet sincere artistic expression.
Freddie Keppard, and What Might Have Been...
The issue of whether the group actually improvised might be solved in the multiple takes that reveal the same licks, yet this phenomenon is found on many other recordings by groups of all backgrounds up through the Swing Era (with clarinetist Larry Shields a tried and true “faker” who couldn’t read music). Cornetist Nick LaRocca’s embittered claims of having “invented” jazz and his offensive racial commentary haven’t helped the group’s legacy. The fact that African American cornet firebrand Freddie Keppard had previously refused the opportunity to record is seen as either historical accident, or bitter irony. As for whether these records can be considered the first “jazz” on record, the line between context and content remains blurry. Plus, there’s always the “jazzy” elements of earlier records contending for that title.
Without rehashing musicological arguments or the cultural issues embedded in jazz and therefore American history (a subject best left to researchers with the time, resources and objectivity to guide the conversation), the ODJB’s record allowed them a huge degree of success based on the term “jazz.” That success allowed other “jazz” and jazz (maybe even a few Jazz), groups to enter the public conscience and impact the course of American music. “Tiger Rag,” “Singin’ the Blues,” “Margie” and other numbers from the ODJB book still provide fertile ground for jazz improvisation, and their music still garners admirers as well as detractors.
The only absolute certainty is that close to a century ago, a quintet recorded two songs. In the wake of that fact, all we are left with is our reactions and the sound of those records. It’s important to enjoy one without overstating the other.
"Okay Guys, Let's Make One of the Most Controversial Records of All Time! A One, A Two..."