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The First Jazz Recording: One Hundred Years Later

Today's post is by David Sager, Reference Assistant in the Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

Picture of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from the May 1917 Victor Supplement.

Picture of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from the Victor Supplement of May 1917.

A momentous happening occurred on February 26, 1917 at the Victor Talking Machine Company, although no one quite suspected so at the time. Among the artists to be recorded that day—consisting of operatic baritone Reinald Werrenrath and tenor Lambert Murphy—was a five-piece dance band from New Orleans who had made quite a hit playing their raucous music at the classy Reisenweber’s Restaurant on Broadway. The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was as startling in name as it was musically.

The release of the recording was officially announced in the May 1917 Victor Supplement, which listed newly-issued recordings. From the looks of the cover and first few pages, there was nothing to indicate anything but the usual established staid artists and selections, and perhaps a few jaunty fox-trots played by its most popular orchestra led by Joseph C. Smith.

A turn of the page and suddenly there appears an instrumental quintet known as the Original Dixieland Jass Band – ODJB. Although they are wearing suits, their pose is irreverent compared to the other rather prim photos; their posture-terrible. The unapologetic Victor copy reads:

The Jass Band is the very latest thing in the development in music. It has sufficient power and penetration to inject life into a mummy, and will keep ordinary human dancers on their feet till breakfast time. Livery Stable Blues in particular we recommend because, on the principle that like cures like, this particular variety will be a positive cure for the common or garden type of “blues.”

Label of Victor 18255, side A, "Dixie Jass Band One-Step"

Label of Victor 18255, side A, “Dixie Jass Band One-Step”

The band, in its nascent form—and known as Stein’s Band from Dixie, led by drummer Johnny Stein—arrived in Chicago in March of 1916 to fulfil an engagement at a dive known as Schiller’s Café. As the story goes, an inebriate in the crowd yelled out to the band, excitedly, “Jass it up, boys,” and New Orleans-style of ragtime got a new name. The tale, while fanciful, has a ring of truth to it: the word “jass,” with various spellings had been kicking around the Barbary Coast, New Orleans, and the southwest for at least a decade. Its connotations were often vulgar; it’s more polite meaning meant “with pep” or “lively.” The raucous band was a huge hit and filled Schiller’s to capacity every night. According to the band’s biographer, H. O. Brunn, Broadway star Al Jolson heard them and enthusiastically sent his agent, Max Hart, to give a listen. Hart arranged a New York engagement for the band. With some changes in personnel, and a new name, the Original Dixieland Jass Band came to New York, to begin an engagement at the far classier Reisenweber’s Restaurant.

The band was now composed of Nick LaRocca, cornet; Eddie Edwards, trombone, Larry Shields, clarinet; Henry Ragas, piano, and Tony Sbarbaro, drums. Only five men, but what a din they created! Many who heard them for the first time could not appreciate the band’s exquisite counterpoint and characteristic New Orleans swagger. But the Victor company, whose musical policy was on the conservative side, knew a good bet when they saw and heard one. “Saw” is the operative word, because it was the ODJB’s immense popularity with young dancers that gave the Victor execs confidence that the band with the strange name, playing the strange music, would be a good seller. It is doubtful that the Victor execs thought much of the strange music.

Label of Victor 18255, side B, "Livery Stable Blues."

Label of Victor 18255, side B, “Livery Stable Blues.”

Making phonograph records by the mechanical or acoustical process was a tricky proposition; louder was not necessarily better, and certain instruments, such as a bass drum, could easily ruin a recording. In an interview with H. O. Brunn, Nick LaRocca, the band’s cornetist, recalled that Victor’s head recordist (recording engineer), Charles Sooy, took special care at placing the musicians around the recording horn. For their first selection, “Livery Stable Blues,” Sooy painstakingly adjusted the band’s placement in order to successfully capture Sbarbaro’s wildly resonant bass drum.

The band’s recording, the first by something called a “Jass Band,” magnified the sensation they already created in Chicago and now in New York. Poor imitations popped up everywhere, in cafés, dance halls, and on record. Victor followed up, not only with further ODJB recordings, but by a number of the impostors.

The ODJB musical style has received quite a lot of criticism over the years. Critics complain that the band was stiff, playing in a rhythmic manner closer to ragtime than jazz. However, listening side-by-side to their recordings and to those by followers such as Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, one can immediately hear that in the musical context of the time, the ODJB was not only quite good, but played something instantly recognizable as New Orleans-style jazz. Notice that Nick LaRocca’s cornet is anything but stiff, especially when contrasted to that of Fuller’s cornetist Walter Kahn.

Label of Victor 18255, side A, "Li'l' Liza Jane" by Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band.

Label of Victor 18255, side A, “Li’l’ Liza Jane” by Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band.

The ODJB’s localized popularity catapulted them to fame. They soon found themselves on the vaudeville stage and then a tour of England. By the mid-1920s, when their popularity had waned, the New Orleans-style of dance music that they introduced to the world at large, had grown and proliferated. In the ensuing years their initial forays into the recording studio have been criticized; their genuineness brought into question. What stands out, however, is their music is not only recognizable as jazz, but boldly shines in comparison to that of their contemporaries.

While novelty-imbued and raucous, their music was deliberate, rehearsed and well-executed. And, whereas the ODJB did not invent jazz, nor were they the first to introduce it up north, they did create it for the first time ever on a phonograph record, one-hundred years ago.

Note: The recordings in this post are from The National Jukebox. Visit the site to hear many, many more recordings from the first three decades of the twentieth century.

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