It was on this day in 1889 that Nick LaRocca was born in New Orleans. LaRocca became a cornet player and later led the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a band that cut the first ever jazz record, at least that is the commonly held view.
All too often, the history that is passed down through time is less than accurate. As the popular truism goes, ‘History is written by the victors’, and the history of jazz no different. Most will tell you that The ODJB was the first band to record a jazz record. This is not quite true on a number of counts.
The ODJB were white musicians who played together as Papa Jack Laine’s Reliance Brass Band in New Orleans. Laine was a drummer and his band always included black as well as white musicians. In 1916, a Chicago promoter recruited LaRocca and some of Laine’s band to go north to play at the Hotel Normandy. Later they played at the Casino Gardens where Al Jolson heard them, which secured them a gig in New York City at Reisenweber’s Cafe at Columbus Circle in January 1917.
This in turn led to the British-owned Columbia Graphophone Company recording the band but they found their playing so unappealing that they rejected the idea of issuing any records. Soon after the ODJB recorded for RCA Victor in New York City on 26 February 1917. The challenge for Victor was to make a recording through the huge pick-up horn that actually sounded like the music they heard when the band played. Their novel solution was to place the musicians at various distances from the horn, the drummer being furthest away and the pianist closest. The challenge of capturing a true representation of a jazz performer, or any other performer for that matter, continued well into the hi-fi age.
Victor released “Dixie Jass Band One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues” in May 1917, a dance number and a blues tune that to our ears may not sound like jazz as we know it. They billed the OCJB as The Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band on the record and recorded frequently during 1917 and 1918. By this time they had changed their name to The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and partly through their success and partly because they told everyone it was the true, they became accepted as the first group to ever make a jazz record.
The truth is that there are a number of other artists that could make a claim to be the first to record a jazz record. There was Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan who released “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland” in April 1917; it’s just as jazzy as the ODJB. Borbee’s ‘Jass’ Orchestra recorded two songs nearly two weeks before the ODJB but they did not get released until July 1917. Like the ODJB, both of these artists were white.
Among the contenders for the first black musicians to make a jazz record was Charles Prince’s Band. He was a pianist who had recorded both “Memphis Blues” in 1914, and then in 1915 he became the first to record a version of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. In April 1917, Charles Prince’s Band recorded “Hong Kong”, a ‘Jazz One-Step’. And two months later, they put down several more jazz sides including “New Orleans Jazz”. Not to be outdone, W. C. Handy’s band were recording jazz records in September 1917. There was also Wilbur Sweatman and his Jass Band, and the Six Brown Brothers who recorded “Smiles And Chuckles – A Jazz Rag” in the summer of 1917. There is debate as to whether some of these records are jazz or ragtime.
‘Just how the Jazz Band originated and where it came from is very hard to say. It hit New York during the winter of 1916–17 and once it got on Broadway it stuck. It is there yet and none of the great “Tango Palaces” can be considered complete without it. Frisco’s Jazz Band is as “jazzy” as they come. It is the newest and smartest thing in modern music. If you have never danced to a “jazz” you have a real treat in store.’ – From the paper sleeve of The Frisco Jazz Band’s Edison recording from May 1917
The Frisco Jazz band was just one of many bands to record jazz tunes during 1917. From then on, the proliferation of jazz recordings and in particular jazz dancing spread through the United States and over to Europe. By the spring of 1918, American officers on leave in Britain from the trenches in France were showing off, as reported in the newspapers, what was called the Jazz Trot. It was, according to one Mayfair club hostess, ‘Healthy and harmless. Half the brides of Mayfair have met their men at dance teas.’ Before the year was out, it was announced in a British paper: ‘Sixty-three men of the United States Navy will present an entertainment which they officially describe as a “musical mush-up” at the Palace Theatre tomorrow night. They will have their own orchestra and jazz band.’
The arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band on a liner at Liverpool on 1 April 1919 was a case of perfect timing. The fashion for jazz dancing, the band’s assertion that they were the ‘originators of jazz’, their performances at the London Hippodrome and even an audience before King George V, meant that they were guaranteed publicity. Yet again, they may not have been first. Recently an advert for Dawkin’s Famous Coloured Jazz Band appearing in Scotland in March 1919 has been found; this was a group of West Indian musician’s led by Oscar Dawkins, a drummer. Also, ‘The Jazz Seven, the sensation of London and Paris’ was playing at the Alhambra Theatre in Leith, Edinburgh’s port area in March and by late April, the American Varsity Jazz Band was also in Britain.
In general, for British audiences and many people outside of New York and Chicago, there was little understanding of where jazz came from or what it was all about. What everyone cared about most was that it was ‘the next big thing’. The sound of America spread across the Atlantic quicker than many thought it might.