Latest posts by Vicky Fielding (see all)
- The Stuart Papers: from Neglect and Oblivion to the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle - November 17, 2017
- The Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Centenary of the first Jazz record - September 13, 2017
In New Orleans, Jazz began its history around 1895 with the cornetist Buddy Bolden, whom Adrian Troy called Jazz’s first great exponent. Bolden was depicted by Michael Ondaatje in his 1976 novella Coming through Slaughter as a jazz pioneer, struggling with alcoholic psychosis. Writing in The Times in 1992, Clive Davis also named Bolden the first legendary New Orleans jazz figure – legendary in that unlikely tales surround his mythical status, such as that ‘on certain nights, his playing could be heard miles away.’ Unfortunately, no recordings of Bolden are known to exist and despite the allure of rumored cylinder recordings dating to 1894 we only have the likes of Ondaatje’s novella to evoke the sound of one of the world’s first Jazz icons.
We must jump 21 years, to 1916, before a black artist was approached by Victor Records to make the first Jazz record. However, the musician in question, Freddie Keppard, reputedly turned the offer down because he didn’t want anyone to ‘steal’ his music. Writing in 1996, Davis painted an evocative picture of this, stating that:
It is an all-white band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who are credited with recording the first Jazz record a year later, in 1917. The five white musicians – Nick La Rocca (cornet), Larry Shields (clarinet), Eddie Edwards (trombone), Henry Ragas (piano) and Tony Spargo (drummer) – descended from Irish and Italian immigrants and were reputedly the most talked about jazz band in the city at the time.
There are no contemporary reviews of the recording in Gale Primary Sources, but Iain Lang provided one in 1959, when he recommended fifty records for a jazz collection, selecting recordings for their influence or for landmark moments, and reviewing each. He included the first ‘Jazz’ recording (or ‘Jass’, as it was known in 1917) from The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, with ‘Livery Stable Blues’ on one side and ‘Dixie Jass Band One Step’ on the other. The record became a massive hit, partly down to their leader Nick La Rocca being a ‘master publicist as well as a mean cornet player – [who] delighted in accentuating the wildness of their sound, describing them as musical anarchists.’ ‘“Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it’s the slaying of syncopation”, La Rocca boasted as the record became an instant success.’ Listening to the recording 80 years later in 1997, is a ‘thrilling experience’ claims Phil Johnson, writing in The Independent, who continues;
‘…the energy and the rhythmic drive of the music is astonishing. Importantly, it was first and foremost dance music…Comparisons with the initial shock of hearing punk or jungle might be specious, but if this music can sound so alive, so convulsive and irreverent – complete with braying horns, cock-crowing clarinet and a big bass-drum beat that can still rattle your speaker cabinets – 80 years later, what must it have sounded like then?’
Barry James wrote in the International Herald Tribune in 1997 that from Boston to Shanghai people cranked up their gramophones and danced all night to this new sound, but noticed that The Times were sniffy in their initial review of the band, as the paper reported it was ‘one of the many American peculiarities that threaten to make life a nightmare.’
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band were also the first jazz band to play outside the United States, playing in London in 1919. We know that they played at the ‘Joy Bells’ Ball at the Prince’s galleries on the 23rd April from a Court and Society listing in The Sunday Times and according to Philip Larkin in The Listener in 1962 they played ‘everywhere from the Savoy Hotel and King George V at the Victory Ball to the New York Zoo for a female hippopotamus named Miss Murphy (who promptly submerged).’ Reviewing them again in 1968, Larkin was more critical, suggesting that the band with ‘giddy breaks, each terminated by a Sbarbaro cymbal-crash’ were a ‘flashpoint’ in Jazz history, and that by the time they started recording they were playing with almost ‘comedic’ effect.
A flashpoint they may have been, but they influenced one of the greatest Jazz icons of them all; Bix Beiderbecke. In his article on Beiderbecke in 1997, Fred Turner summarizes the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s style and novelty effects thus; “It wasn’t authentic New Orleans jazz, a music with strong folk roots in the black community, but a shrewd commercialization by five whites led by cornetist Nick La Rocca.”
Although Bix Beiderbecke wasn’t interested in the novelty animal noises the Original Dixieland Jazz Band played on their recording of ‘Livery Stable Blues’, he frequently listened to La Rocca’s cornet style at ‘slow speed’ trying to work how to play the fingering on his borrowed, battered cornet. Although Bix learnt his style of playing based on Nick La Rocca in particular, the ‘character of his phrasing strained directly from the coloured bands in Chicago’, and from both these influences ‘began the making of one of the most idiosyncratic players in jazz history.’
Interested to learn more about the archives featured in this post? Check out our website here.
 Troy, Adrian. Illinois: Cavalcade of The American Negro. N.p.39, 1940. Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5AAZL4
Davis, Clive. “Swinging was not always so groovy.” Times, 23 Dec. 1992, p. 23. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5AQNL0
 Williams, Richard. “Uncharted arias in the search for Buddy Bolden.” Independent on Sunday, 7 Aug. 1994, p. 67. Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5AQFn4
 Davis, Clive. “Something in the air.” The Culture. Sunday Times, 31 Mar. 1996, p. 28[S8]+. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/59meJ5
 Johnson, Phil. “Beyond the pale.” Independent, 26 Feb. 1997, p. 6+. The Independent Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/59mBp2
 James, Barry. “The New Orleans Sound: ‘A Color, an Atmosphere’.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 14 Mar. 1997, p. 9. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/59mdy2
 Mayfair. “Court and Society.” Sunday Times, 20 Apr. 1919, p. 15. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5BNyX1; Larkin, Philip. “The Listener’s Book Chronicle.” The Listener, 31 May 1962, p. 962+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/59ort8
 Larkin, Philip. “Dear Old Dixie.” Daily Telegraph, 11 May 1968, p. 15. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/55Yv84
 Turner, Fred. “Bix.” Smithsonian, July 1997, p. 119+. Smithsonian Collections Online, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5A9y36
 Hibbs, Leonard. “Development of the Jazz Band.” The Listener, 24 Nov. 1937, p. 1160. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/59krr0