6 comments on “This day in jazz – Nick LaRocca born in 1889. The first man to cut a jazz record…or was he?

  1. Indeed, it’s like pinpointing the first rock’n’roll record. Maybe the ODJB made the first “jazz” record, but “hot ragtime” records were being made several years earlier by James Reese Europe’s 363 Infantry Hellfighters among others. Oh, and don’t forget the legend that Freddie Keppard was allegedly offered the opportunity to make what would have been the first jazz recordings in 1915, but declined for fear that his ideas would be stolen by all and sundry!

    • for what it’s worth, there’s no evidence that they intended to call Freddie’s record ‘jazz’ — Pops Foster tells us there were three kinds of music popular at the time, blues, sweet, and ragtime. I believe Freddie was known as a blues player.

  2. Excellent scholarship here, I plan to pillage your information here in my shows, but there is one detail that you omit on the history of ‘jazz’, the word: H.O.Brunn’s “The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band” published around 1960 with the direct participation of Nick LaRocca, including granting Brunn access to LaRocca’s collection of memoriabilia tells us several key legends, and backs them up with documents.

    first, the origin of the name. no one in the music biz could say where the word came from, no one could say more than a guess what it meant, so it wasn’t negro slang, or even New Orleans slang, although it was San Francisco slang in 1912, and far from obscene, it was clean enough to put into a newspaper where it was specifically defined as “pep” and “giniker” (which are Irish slang, but let’s leave that alone for now 😉

    second, the music comes from Chicago, the music *named* jazz. Louis Armstrong tells us that he remembers, as a boy, being blown away by a new young player, Nick LaRocca, who was playing a new kind of thing; Louis later tells us that when he arrives in Chicago to play with Joe Oliver in 1922, the music they are playing is not like it was back home, it is faster, more frantic, not laid back and southern. He tells us (cited in Master of Modernism) that he has to adapt. Flash back to 1917 or so, and a competing record company wants to cash in on this ‘jazz’ craze and so sends an A&R man to New Orleans; Nick produces the telegram, it says, “There is no jazz in New Orleans” and the A&R man comes back with W.C.Handy’s blues band, and proceeds to make a jazz band out of them.

    third is Nick’s own testimony: he says he was unsatisfied with the dixieland beat, so he ramped it up, layed on the syncopation and started playing ahead of the beat, that was, he says, his sound. No improv (just breaks like everyone else) and basically the same music and tunes as everyone else, just ramped up, punked up. His bass player could barely play and he fired the clarinet player who could play and found someone who would just noodle. Then, with this new punked up sound, he gets hired for 6 weeks in Chicago, arrives in winter with no winter clothes and so the promoter finds them some second hand coats, and this is significant: the coats are too big, but they are coats, so the band wears them and in a very short span of time oversized overcoats become the fashion rage among the hipsters who are their fans — you have to be doing something new and youth-oriented to gain a fashion following like that! Nick says, one night, a drunk in the back caught up in the frenzy of their punked up dixie, he yells out, “Jazz’er Up Boys!” and nobody knows what it means, but they like the sound of it, so they ‘hire’ him with free beer to come back every night and yell the same, and it catches on, they start calling themselves “the Dixieland JASS Band” and their infectious enthusiasm turns Chicago on its ear, pretty soon, long before the record, everybody wants to be a jass band, it’s good marketing copy.

    That’s Nick’s testimony, relayed through Brunn but also repeated in his later interviews. Listening to the recordings, it is clear that what he played and what Louis describes back home, Nick isn’t playing what *we* call Jazz, but he is playing something ramped up from what Papa Jack played, it excited the teenaged Louis Armstrong. Given Nick’s story about the craze that he ignited, it is also unsurprising that nearly 2 years later pretty much all the bands in this new genre would sound the same and be calling themselves jazz bands. So the fact of the first *recording* was just a crap shoot, it could have been anyone one of them, and if Nick’s story is true, maybe he did deserve to be first, especially since he was never going to be the best 😉

    And compare this to what we experience in modern times, for example, in the rise of punk rock, from Malcolm McLaren assembling an absurd mix of dock workers under Johnny Litton, to the ‘cleaned up’ versions we saw nearly instantly that tried to mix more musicianship and theatrics while staying true enough to the genre to attract the same youth audience. Although it’s HIS story and the rest is conjecture and circumstantial, I’m inclined to believe Nick’s story.

    • Fabulous piece, thanks so much. We are off in search of Brunn’s book. As has been said about many things in many ways, “This is my truth, tell me yours.” It all goes to prove that there is not really ever ‘the truth’ about anything. All we can ever hope to do is to keep adding nuggets and slithers…

      • Here’s one more bit of circumstantial evidence to back Nick’s version of events: a late-fifties movie staring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, “New Orleans”, tells a similar story to Nick’s band’s move to Chicago, only rather than an invite, it is Louis (who would have been too young at the time) who takes his band north when the WWI stressed, Black-code laden Storyville-closure burdened New Orleans economy tanks; in the movie their promoter friend can’t open a casino because the local gangsters lock him out, so he opens a dance hall and books Louis who arrives with some NOLA cronies and soon welcomes many more. It is an all-star cast in that great tradition of movies where real musicians try to act 😉

        A key scene in the movie goes exactly as Nick described it (remember, Louis was a fan of Nick’s even when he was 15!) the venue is crammed and a (white Irish) drunk trying to get into the club leans over the rail and bellows, “Jazz it up boys!” — according to the story line the moniker is born.

        That scene is chocked full of aging New Orleans originals, so on the movie set every last one of them would have been on the scene when ODJB hit Chicago. I’m certain they’d all know the truth as it happened, and the film is sensitive enough, I’m sure the producers would have listened had even one of the old timers stopped and remarked that this was not where the word comes from. So it’s circumstantial, but still, I think, quite credible.

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