February 26, 2017
A Hundred Years Ago Today
On February 26, 1917, a less-than-famous five piece band recorded what was called the first jazz record. The Original Dixieland “Jass” band was comprised of five musicians from New Orleans who formed their band in Chicago in 1916. Their recording consisted of a semi-improvised conversation between trumpet, clarinet and trombone, with rhythm provided by piano and drums.
In a now familiar occurrence regarding innovators and imitators, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, an all-white quintet, was afforded the now historic opportunity to make the first jazz record. Their music was a re-creation of the style they had heard in New Orleans, provided by black musicians such as King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard. According to jazz lore, trumpeter Keppard was offered a chance to be the first jazz musician to record but he declined, believing that his personal style would be stolen easily by way of this new medium of re-created music on wax.
“Livery Stable Blues” is a pale imitation of the real thing. The New Orleans style had been around for a number of years, an offshoot of the joyous music provided by marching bands in New Orleans. It was the first incarnation of swing, and set the stage for many jazz superstars to come, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Bix Beiderbecke. The Victor Talking Machine Company released this record complete with the indication of “Fox Trot,” a popular dance style at the time. The Original Dixieland Jass Band enjoyed modest success both here and abroad, but eventually faded away, like all bands, partly due to the racist and exaggerated statements by their leader and trumpeter, Nick LaRocca, who insisted that he was a key player in the invention of jazz.
Have a listen to “Livery Stable Blues” — you’ll find it quaint and hopelessly dated both in sound and style. Reflecting the title, the instrumentalists imitate barnyard sounds and barely manage to achieve a swinging rhythm. Whatever we think of it, it was a milestone. Victor Talking Machine Company, whose mind was always on profits, felt it worthy of exposure to the public. In the early part of the twentieth century music was mostly spread through live performances. A 78 RPM disc brought home to be played on the family Victrola was always an event. I can picture the adults in the room wondering what is this “jass music” I’m hearing? — and thinking this can’t possibly last. A few decades later they said the same thing about rock & roll.