It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that their emergence co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.
It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were made in New York on 26 February, 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on 7 March 1917 which became a million-seller. So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult. Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB) were, indeed, from New Orleans — the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white. It is generally accepted that jazz is primarily an African-American art form, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by African-Americans?
Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddie Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded ODJB for the first time. Shortly afterwards black or Creole jazz groups led by Kid Ory (1922), King Oliver (1923) and Jelly Roll Morton (1923) began making records, which are generally considered far superior to ODJB’s efforts.
The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians has stolen from them. La Rocca’s racism has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which ODJB are down-graded as little more than a comedy act who struck lucky and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.
Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleans performers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”
So was ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology — something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 — all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the rickety-tick rhythms and novelty-effects of the ODJB simply do not.
And yet ... the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive musician, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to stay active in jazz into the 1950s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbecke; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend — and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”
And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson ... and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (i.e. the ODJB version of the tune). So, although I’m no great fan of the ODJB, I have to acknowledge their place in jazz history — and, in any case, who am I to gainsay Louis Armstrong?