One hundred years ago this month, February 26, 1917, what is generally acknowledged as the first recording of jazz was released. “Livery Stable Blues,” performed by the Original Dixieland Jass Band  was a best-selling record for Victor, but is a problematic “first” as it is a recording of a white band performing an African American genre. There was a copyright lawsuit concerning authorship of the piece. But worse, far from crediting the New Orleans African American musicians they learned from, these young musicians claimed to have “invented” jazz. But it was published at an interesting moment in United States history, as emerging African American genres of blues and jazz were bursting into American consciousness and spreading across the country and then across the world. Efforts to segregate music in the United States — to market music by European American artists to European Americans and to market music by African American artists to African Americans — were defied by African American composers and performers in a variety of ways to get their music to a wide audience.
Among many African Americans there was a desire to move away from musical forms such as spirituals, which were identified with slavery days, and yet they also wanted musical styles of their own. A new sound arose in street and community music of African Americans in the late 19th century. It was usually one singer accompanied by a guitar and characterized by “bent” or “blue” notes, not on the standard scale. These notes likely had earlier origins, as they are found in rural African American work songs. Examples are found in field recordings of African American work songs made as the genre was disappearing: This is “Calling Trains,” by an unknown former railroad worker recorded in 1936 by John Lomax, and “Cornfield Holler” sung by Abraham Powell recorded in 1939 by John and Ruby Lomax. The “blue notes” could best be played on instruments that allowed the creation of “blue” notes such as the guitar (especially slide guitar), wind, and brass instruments. The songs expressed a longing, loss, or desire and came to be called “the blues.” The word “blues” already existed in popular song distribution for sad songs and love songs, so many song titles had “blues” in them long before blues music saw print. To provide an idea of what this early blues sounded like, here is Hattie Ellis singing her own composition, “Desert Blues,” in a field recording by John and Ruby Lomax made in Texas in 1939.
The later 19th century saw a greater availability of musical instruments at more affordable prices, some sold by mail order. The upright piano became an instrument for many home parlors and small musical venues. For African Americans, the upright piano symbolized the affluence they aspired to and some were beginning to achieve.
The popular form of piano music in the late 19th and early 20th century was ragtime, made widely popular by such greats as Scott Joplin. It began do decline in popularity in about 1917. The dance rage of the 19-teens was the foxtrot. While ragtime could be used for foxtrot, the new music composed for it was increasingly popular.
An important African American composer who sought to reach a wide audience as a band leader was W. C. Handy, who is sometimes called “the Father of the Blues.” Early blues recordings of his compositions, performed by white musicians, are often marked “foxtrot,” indicating the dance that could be done to it, and so played faster than was normal for the blues as played among African Americans. This is an example that was wildly popular when it was published in 1914, but not a foxtrot: “Memphis Blues,” played by a white minstrel show group, the Honey Boy Minstrels. The lyrics, also by Handy, reflect minstrel show themes, as the minstrel shows were still an important venue for African American composers to market their works in 1914. The minstrel shows were a problem, of course, because they represented African Americans as caricatures, and both Black and white performers had to perform in blackface. Nevertheless, many African American songwriters and performers chose to work for the shows. A popular form of entertainment from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, these shows were an important part of American entertainment history, and also a source of pervasive negative stereotypes of African Americans.
Ferdinand Joseph LeMott (also spelled LaMoth) was born to a Creole family in New Orleans in about 1890 (according to his baptismal certificate, but other records differ). In New Orleans “Creole” refers to French-speaking African Americans. He showed talent for performing music as a child and became a professional piano player at 14 and came to be known as “Jelly Roll Morton.” Morton began his career playing ragtime. What came to be called jass or jazz emerged from ragtime and other musical influences such as blues, often with additional instruments, such as brass. Morton liked to introduce himself by saying invented jazz. While some have doubted this, his claim is the earliest. He published “Jelly Roll Blues,” in 1915, and this is thought to be the earliest example of jazz sheet music. Morton said that he wrote it earlier, and this is likely true. Performing music live was where his money came from initially — publishing and recording music came later. But publishing sheet music was a way to get his compositions to a wider audience. “Wolverine Blues,” composed by Morton with Benjamin Spikes and John Spikes, provides and example of how jazz was emerging as a genre distinct from ragtime. The recording at the link is by a white band, the Benson Orchestra of Chicago. In this radio program, “American Portraits: Jelly Roll Morton,” Alan Lomax talks about Jelly Roll Morton and plays excerpts from recordings he made of him playing the piano and talking about his life at the Library of Congress in 1938 (27 minutes). Also available is a video of a lecture and concert at the Library of Congress by folklorist and jazz scholar John Szwed and pianist Dave Burrell that helps bring Morton to life, “Mr. Jelly Roll, Mr. Lomax, and the Invention of Jazz” (66 minutes).
Jazz spread, and was performed by both African American and European Americans almost from the time it was conceived. In 1939, folklorists Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook found a singer in Florida who performed both traditional Bahamian music and Jazz in an early style, Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle. This is “Hoist up the John B Sail,” performed as Jazz and, in case your are interested in the traditional song before it was jazzed up, here it is sung by Robert Butler. The accompanist is probably Theodore Rolle on accordion.
Recording these new musical genres for wider distribution was a challenge, because those who controlled the recording industry, who were mainly white, felt that blues and jazz should be performed by white musicians. Recordings by African American musicians, by their standards, could only be marketed to African Americans and so received more limited distribution. Segregated society also made it difficult for Black and white musicians to perform and be recorded together, although this did happen in informal settings. So our early recorded examples are mainly of all-white musicians and singers. All-Black groups were recorded for distribution to African Americans. Composers and arrangers could be African American and have the record distributed widely if the performers were white. A problem of the time was that many white musicians and singers did not understand the “blue notes” and the minstrel shows of the time that made fun of African Americans, presenting them as caricatures in blackface, meant that singers who tried to sing as if they were Black often were not acceptable to African American composers. Sheet music had similar problems, as the minstrel show caricatures as illustrations. Sheet music by Black composers was also less likely to be marketed to or purchased by European Americans. So what were African American songwriters to do if they wanted their music to reach a wide audience?
There were a few singers who were sought out by African American songwriters because they were able to sing the blues convincingly. Marion Harris, a singer we know little about, was attractive, popular, and could sing the blues and jazz. She was probably from Chicago, and may have learned the blues there. This is a World War I era recording of her, not only singing a jazzy song, but also reciting a toast. Toasts are an African American poem usually recited by men, and a precursor to rap. Composer Turner Layton and lyricist Henry Creamer had a cause expressed in this song. They wanted Americans to know that African Americans were going to war for their country and doing a good job. It would not do for the song only to be heard by African Americans. They used music and humor to get their message across. So here is this amazing recording, “Goodbye Alexander, Goodbye Honeyboy” (1918).
Henry Creamer and Turner Layton also produced sheet music intended for wide distribution. “After You’ve Gone” has a picture of a white woman on the cover, in order to be acceptable on the parlor piano of European Americans. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Creamer did not put his photo on his sheet music which probably was another a marketing tactic. In this recording “After You’ve Gone” is sung by Marion Harris.
Alliances formed between composers and lyricists in order to get African American music to the people in a form that did justice to the genre. For example, Spencer Williams worked with a white lyricist, Roger Graham, who was also a record producer, and singer Marion Harris to record “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much,” (also known as “I Ain’t got Nobody”).
Jewish American artists, who had experienced discrimination and experienced or heard stories of pogroms and purges in Europe, were especially likely to sympathize with the cause of African American artists. Belle Baker, born in New York to a Russian Jewish family, was a versatile performer who could sing ragtime and blues. The song “Jubilee Blues” (1923) was composed by another Jewish American, Maurice Abrahams, with lyrics by Henry Creamer. Al Jolson, a Jewish immigrant who famously performed jazz and blues on the minstrel stage during this time, was also an advocate for the African American performers he worked with. If he was on the stage, everyone got paid equally.
In spite of bias by record producers of the time, some African Americans artists did cross over and become popular for white audiences. It shouldn’t be surprising, since European Americans could see African Americans perform on stage and there was a demand for this music. But recordings and sheet music were items brought into the home, and this led to an expectation by publishers of a more restricted audience. One of the most successful singers whose recordings became widely popular was Ma Rainey. Bessie Smith was another who in many ways an heir to Rainey and was a success with all audiences. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle made waves by performing in suit and tie on minstrel stages without blackface. They hoped to help a transition to a more respectful treatment of African American performers at the end of the minstrel show era. But instead they became an exception to the rule. They did make records some of their own performances that were widely sought after. For example, here are Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle performing “Sweet Henry.”
The period when efforts were made to segregate music, and when white musicians “covered” African American music and song for marketing to European Americans, continued into the middle of the twentieth century when rock and roll collided with discrimination and a growing segment of the public, of all ethnic groups, began to protest. Today some feel that some attitudes and practices of that era persist, affecting opportunities for performers and composers of color. This article provides only a short introduction to the beginning of the story, illustrated with examples available from Library of Congress collections online. There is much more to tell. See the resource links below to continue exploring.
- “Jass” was later spelled “Jazz.”
- This item is presented online by the Association for Cultural Equity. The recording is part of the American Folklife Center’s archive. Alan Lomax’s interviews with Jelly Roll Morton have been published as, Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress recordings by Alan Lomax. Rounder Records, 2005.
“African American Song,” an article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.
“Blues,” an article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.
Hall, Stephanie. “John Wesley Work III: Documenting Musical Change,” Folklife Today, February 26, 2014. This article includes discussion of the emergence of African American Gospel music.
Hall, Stephanie. “Trench Blues”: An African American Song of World War I,” Folklife Today, November 23, 2016.
“History of Ragtime,” an article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.
“Jazz,” an article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.
McKinley, Sharon. “Sheet Music Spotlight: Shrapnel Blues Edition,” In the Muse: Performing Arts Blog, February 24, 2016.
Stefano, Michelle. Chicago Blues and Jazz: Selections from the American Folklife Center’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, (Story Map) 2020. [Added February 2021]
Szwed, John. Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Szwed, John. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. Hachette Books, 2000.
Szwed, John and Dave Burrell. “Mr. Jelly Roll, Mr. Lomax, and the Invention of Jazz,” concert and lecture, 2006. (Video, 66 minutes)
Swed, John and Stephen Winick. “Jelly Roll Morton in Washington,” discussion, 2017. (Video, 1 hour and 22 minutes)
Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis. University of North Carolina Press, 1994 (first published 1977).