One hundred years ago this week, five New Orleans musicians made the first recording of a new genre of music unknown to most of the nation.
“Livery Stable Blues,” the first studio number scratched into wax by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, sold more than a million copies and became the first product labeled “jass.”
“It was the hottest thing,” said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Raeburn gave the historic 78 rpm record a ceremonial spin on a Victrola last week for relatives of the band's trombonist, Eddie Edwards.
The recording — made on Feb. 26, 1917, at the Victor Talking Machine Co. studio in New York City, with the "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step" on the other side — sounds quaint today, with its horns that hooted, neighed and mooed to imitate farm animals. Yet it displays the rhythms and the conversational instrumentation that became signatures of jazz.
After the record was released, jazz skyrocketed overnight, as 1920s New York bandleader Paul Whiteman recounted in a later radio interview.
“One moment jazz was unknown, a low noise in a low dive,” he said. “The next, it became a serious pastime of a hundred million people, the diversion of princes and millionaires.”
Though jazz clubs sprouted up in many big cities, attempting to cash in on the new craze, New Orleans was seen as the cradle of the art form.
“When you hear Chicago musicians talk about the first time they heard jazz, they talk about New Orleans musicians,” Raeburn said. “It’s the same in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. All roads lead back to New Orleans.”
Propelled to stardom, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band traveled to Europe, where members gave a command performance for King George V and even played for the victory ball celebrating the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.
Yet Edwards’ grandson, 65-year-old Gary Edwards of Edmond, Oklahoma, said jazz historians and filmmakers occasionally approach him with some wariness because of the controversial braggadocio of the band’s leader, Nick LaRocca, who not only billed himself as the “creator of jazz” but made demeaning remarks about the role of African-American musicians in its creation.
In a 1936 interview in the magazine Metronome, for instance, LaRocca cited the military marches he’d heard as a child as an influence on his music but not the city’s black musicians, who are widely credited as the principal innovators of New Orleans jazz, starting around the turn of the 20th century.
“My contention is that the Negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites,” LaRocca said. “The Negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.”
That’s simply not true, said jazz historian John McCusker, who wrote “Creole Trombone,” a biography of trombonist Kid Ory. “LaRocca claimed that jazz just came from the ether and from the genius that was Nick LaRocca,” he said. “But everyone in New Orleans was playing it by then. They didn’t use the word ‘jazz.’ But they were playing it.”
From McCusker’s research, he knows that other early jazz musicians did, like everyone else, listen to that first jazz record. “But it wasn’t like King Oliver and Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong were all waiting for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to record and point the way.”
Still, the band achieved a special stardom in its hometown. In his 1936 autobiography, Armstrong made specific mention of LaRocca, writing: “Only four years before I learned to play the trumpet in the Waif's Home, in 1909, the first great jazz orchestra was formed in New Orleans by a cornet player named Dominick James LaRocca. They called him ‘Nick’ LaRocca. His orchestra had only five pieces but they were the hottest five pieces that had ever been known before.”
And even if LaRocca was controversial, his bandmates were less so, said Gary Edwards. For instance, despite LaRocca’s claims, his grandfather always said that he’d first heard clarinetist-saxophonist Achille Baquet, a black musician, use an instrument to imitate the sort of barnyard sounds that were part of the “Livery Blues” recording.
Both men, Gary Edwards said, came from humble means: LaRocca was the son of a cornet-playing shoemaker from Sicily and Edwards the son of a New Orleans grocer.
Edwards bought his first Montgomery Ward B-flat trombone as a teenager with the $10 he was given as a reward for returning a lost wallet. As adults, the two men, despite their differences, were close friends and worked together as electricians as well as musicians.
LaRocca’s son, trumpeter Jimmy LaRocca, 77, who now heads up the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, said he avoids discussion of “the racial stuff.” Though his father taught him to play cornet, young Jimmy never saw a stage performance by his father, who worked solely as a carpenter-electrician, having left music after a nervous breakdown in the mid-1920s.
A half-century ago, the two had heated father-son debates about musical assertions. “He claimed this, he claimed that,” Jimmy LaRocca said. “And I didn’t know. Because I wasn’t sitting there at the time.”
While Jimmy LaRocca acknowledges that his father may occasionally have gone too far, he still believes that no one else has evidence as definitive as his father. “There’s lots of word of mouth about other ‘jazz’ musicians,” he said. “But no recordings.”
Yet jazz historian and clarinetist Dr. Michael White says that the beginnings of jazz are well-documented in other ways and were rooted in the struggles of black New Orleanians.
White believes it’s no coincidence that black musicians began playing the music that became jazz in the wake of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which began at the Press Street rail station in New Orleans and ushered in codified segregation.
“Jazz was a real melting pot of black and white ideas. That is what came out in the music,” White said. And in contrast to the societal strictures of the day, jazz symbolized freedom of individual expression, through improvisation, bent tones, vibrato, conversational call-and-response and effects like growls.
“Here was this new music that, by the way it was played, demonstrated what people want in life itself,” White said. “What that 1917 recording does is mark the entrance of that music — jazz — into the mainstream American consciousness.”