In 1917 the first jazz recording was made, and to everyone's surprise it became a huge popular success. This edition of Riverwalk Jazz celebrates the musicians who made that hit record—the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, affectionately known as the ODJB.
"Livery Stable Blues" label. Image in public domain.
It's hard to imagine a time when jazz was not a part of the American experience. Even now, more than 100 years after the mythic Buddy Bolden blew his horn in New Orleans, arguments are as heated as ever as to when and where jazz was born. Nonetheless, at least one fact remains unchallenged in jazz history. Almost a century ago, five extroverted white jazz musicians recorded two numbers for the Victor Talking Machine Company on February 26, 1917—and “Livery Stable Blues” with “Dixie Jass Band One-Step” on the flip side is recognized as the first commercially released jazz record in history. The silly, if not downright crude, “Livery Stable Blues” took off like a rocket and launched a cultural revolution.
Frequently dismissed as white musicians of little merit who cashed in on black music, recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nonetheless hold their own some hundred years later. Calling themselves ‘The Creators of Jazz,” at a time when the new music was literally coming up out of the ground all over the country, did not help their reputation. The ODJB was not the only boastful group in the business. From ‘Inventor of Jazz’ Jelly Roll Morton to ‘King’ Oliver and ‘Empress’ Bessie Smith, everyone laid claim to lofty titles.
ODJB members. Photo courtesy redhotjazz.com
ODJB band members came out of New Orleans where several played in the racially integrated Papa Jack Laine band, performing for parades and dances. Luck smiled on March 3, 1916, when they opened at Schiller's Cafe in Chicago, under the name Stein’s Dixie Jazz Band. They were a hit and the group cloned itself, bringing in clarinetist Larry Shields and drummer Tony Sbarbaro from New Orleans; they began calling themselves The Original Dixieland Jass Band. Theatrical agent Max Hart introduced the boys to New York, booking them into the spectacular Reisenweber’s Cafe on Columbus Circle, where on January 27, 1917 The Original Dixieland Jass Band stomped off a firestorm of syncopation.
The New York Times touted their arrival as "the first sensational, musical novelty of 1917. The jazz band is the latest craze that's sweeping the nation like a musical thunderstorm, and it's given modern dancing new life and a new thrill." The brashness, energy and urgency of the music stunned the crowd at Reisenweber's. No one in world weary New York had ever heard anything as lively, or as loud.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Photo courtesy last.fm.
Within a week record companies were sparring over the ODJB perplexed by their popularity but determined to cash in on the phenomenon. The Victor Talking Machine Company won the bidding war and in March 1917 released "Livery Stable Blues," the first jazz record ever, and perhaps the first and last example of "barnyard jazz." "Livery Stable Blues" was an instant success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, outstripping John Phillip Sousa and Enrique Caruso in sales.
Jim Cullum says,
“It's interesting that on the flip side was a piece called, "Dixie Jass Band One-Step." The ODJB thought thatpiece would be their big number; it would be the hit. But you never know about these things. Now oddly enough, "Livery Stable Blues" has completely faded into obscurity and is never played anymore, and "Dixie Jass Band One-Step" is played by traditional bands all the time.”
"Bluin' the Blues" sheet music. Image courtesy musicatthemint.org
In January 1917 when “Livery Stable Blues” came out, many Americans were in deep denial over the country's inevitable entry into World War I. Anxious about world events, people turned to music of all kinds, and every city had society orchestras, marching bands, vaudeville floorshows and string ensembles. From smart Broadway songs played on parlor pianos to the blues of the Deep South, America's musical menu was rich.
The term "jazz" (or "jass," as the ODJB first spelled it) was yet to be in wide use to describe a type of music. The term had previously come into limited use as sexual innuendo or as a polite newspaper article of the time expressed it, a synonym for "enthusiasm." Even the Crescent City was reluctant to claim "jazz.” As one writer mused in a New Orleans newspaper in 1918,
“Jazz is like an indecent story, except syncopated and counterpointed. Like the improper anecdote, jazz used to be listened to behind closed doors and drawn curtains, but like all vice it grew bolder and is tolerated because of its oddity.”
But oddity, combined with talent, imagination, resourcefulness, good timing and incredible luck landed five unsuspecting self-taught New Orleans musicians in the history books. In the second decade of the 20th Century, members of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and many other musicians both black and white fascinated with the new music sweeping the country, traveled north from New Orleans to New York, Kansas City, and especially Chicago. For the ODJB, their nine-month stay in Chicago was critical to their success. There they honed the technique they had learned in New Orleans into a unified ensemble style. As biographer H.L. Brunn writes, "The artists finally mastered their medium."
Nick LaRocca. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
When the ODJB made their New York debut they played a sizzling-hot number written by cornetist Nick LaRocca, "Tiger Rag." It's an energetic, multi-theme tune that continues to be widely performed today. Yet, there's been great debate about who wrote it. In 1936 New Orleans musician, composer and publisher Clarence Williams publicly declared that "Tiger Rag" sounded a lot like a certain well-known quadrille, a popular folk dance of the day. Nick LaRocca hired a lawyer and dared Williams to prove it. Williams backed down. Then in 1938 Jelly Roll Morton got in the game, and claimed he wrote it. Finally LaRocca admitted that the tune is derived from three well-known melodies, including the children's rhyme, "London Bridge is Falling Down." The biggest surprise came from ODJB trombonist Eddie Edwards. Some 20 years later he claimed that he came up with certain phrases of "Tiger Rag" based on Beethoven's 4th Symphony.
"Tiger Rag" sheet music. Image courtesy moblog.whmsoft.net
Initially the ODJB was set up as a cooperative enterprise with a share and share-alike arrangement among all the band members. Technically there was no leader, but early on cornetist Nick LaRocca emerged as the one to take care of business. Dominick James LaRocca, always known as Nick, had a show-biz promoter's intuition. He knew what the public wanted and how to serve it up. He had a head for business and was a shameless opportunist who could be ethical one minute and conniving the next. As the years progressed, "cooperative" was not the word to describe ODJB band members. Copyright disputes, booking agent battles, personality clashes and drinking problems plagued the band. Squabbling got in the way of creativity and made it difficult for the Band to adapt to lightning-quick developments in jazz.
Nonetheless the ODJB created a sizeable body of work and left a substantial legacy. On this radio show, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band plays the best-known and most-often recorded of the ODJB’s tunes, including "Fidgety Feet," "Ostrich Walk," "Bluin' The Blues" "Clarinet Marmalade," “Tiger Rag” and "At the Jazz Band Ball." These tunes were cornerstones of key bands of classic jazz, among them Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines and the Bob Crosby Bob Cats.
Photo credit for Home Page: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Photo courtesy last.fm
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The first jazz band from New Orleans to be heard on record in 1917, ODJB launched the Jazz Age.
Pt. 1 - Orignial Dixieland Jazz Band
ODJB PT. 1.mp3
DIXIE JASS BAND ONE-STEP -- Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), 1917
AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL -- ODJB, 1917
OSTRICH WALK -- ODJB, c. 1919
LIVERY STABLE BLUES -- Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band, 1939
BLUIN’ THE BLUES -- Original Dixieland Five, 1936
FIDGETY FEET -- The Wolverine Orchestra (Bix), 1924
SENSATION RAG -- ODJB, 1918
MOURNIN’ BLUES -- ODJB, 1918
CLARINET MARMALADE -- ODJB, 1918
ODJB PT. 2.mp3
HOME AGAIN BLUES -- ODJB
HOME AGAIN BLUES -- John Gill’s Original Sunset Five, 1984
CRAZY BLUES -- John Gill’s Original Sunset Five, 1984
CRAZY BLUES -- ODJB
AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL -- Dutch Swing College Band, 1960
ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP -- Dutch Swing College, 1949
CLARINET MARMALADE -- Orpheon Celeste, 1984
BLUIN’ THE BLUES -- Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band, 1939
Pt. 2 - Original Dixieland Jazz Band
ODJB PT. 3.mp3
DANGEROUS BLUES -- ODJB, 1921 vocal Al Bernard “The Boy from Dixie”
JAZZ ME BLUES -- Andy Stein & Friends, 1987
ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP -- Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, 1986
LIVERY STABLE BLUES -- Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble of New Orleans, 1984
I LOST MY HEART IN DIXIELAND -- John Gill’s Original Sunset Five, 1984
I LOST MY HEART IN DIXIELAND -- ODJB
THE SATANIC BLUES -- John Gill’s Original Sunset Five, 1984
THE SATANIC BLUES -- ODJB
ODJB PT. 4.mp3
OSTRICH WALK -- Sons of Bix, 1978
DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS -- Jimmy La Rocca’s ODJB, 1999
NARRATION by RUTH P. LAROCCA
BUGLE BLUES -- Jimmy La Rocca’s ODJB, 1999
PALESTEENA -- ODJB, 1920
PALESTEENA -- Ranier Jazz Band, vocal Ron Rustad, 1986
TIGER RAG -- ODJB (Quintet), 1936
TIGER RAG -- ODJB (Big Band), 1936
TIGER RAG -- ODJB (Quintet), 1921
Being the First
The music of Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded between 1917 and 1922 has had a lasting impression on jazz makers world-wide for good reason. Their records contain all the important elements of New Orleans Jazz: dance rhythms, improvised solos, ensemble polyphony, and the unique musical blend that emerged from New Orleans’ gumbo pot of diverse cultures -- a gumbo that was both black and white; immigrant and native; European and African; sacred and secular; privileged and impoverished.
Anybody who is the first to do a thing, who has instant success, or who lives in the shadow of people who later did a thing better, is bound to have detractors, especially among critics, academics and historians. This is especially true in music and art. And that’s very much the case with ODJB . . . as it has been at one time or another for W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet and others.
So one thing I’d like to say right up front is that Nick LaRocca and ODJB have been relentlessly disrespected by jazz writers: accused of plagiarism, racism, stiff rhythms, overexcited tempos, lack of improvisation and unsophistication -- but I’m going to prove those points wrong.
The Recordings may Sound Archaic Today . . .
Investigation reveals a group of dedicated musicians well steeped in New Orleans musical traditions, but presented by fledgling record companies in an unfamiliar and crude technology. ODJB was forced by their earliest recordists to speed up their tempos so that their tunes would fit onto three-minute discs, and their overheated dance tempos also reflected the excitement of America’s intoxication with World War One: especially troops heading to or returning from that existential no-mans land.
In fact, their later discs often have extended solos and more relaxed tempos, proving that the band did have an introspective side and could play, as trombonist Eddie Edwards said, “soft and ratty” so that, “the shuffle of the dancers feet could be heard.”
As the first jazz band to successfully record jazz commercially their impact was worldwide. Listening to The Original Dixieland Jazz Band today is challenging due in part to the limited recording techniques of the day. But a careful listen to either their strong ensemble style, or historically accurate recreations of their sound today, may be a revelation.
The London Recordings
“Satanic Blues” and “I Lost my Heart in Dixieland” are both proof that ODJB could swing. The band had a more relaxed tempo during their London sessions, due in part to being able to stretch out to nearly four minutes on a twelve inch disc, and mellow down to a medium tempo, with good ensemble dynamics. Larry Shields’ clarinet tone comes through much more clearly on those sessions than in previously. There’s more of the low woody soulfulness typical of the best New Orleans clarinetist players.
Nick LaRocca Called a Racist
There’s no doubt that ODJB trumpeter Nick LaRocca has become a controversial figure. He and ODJB were considered passé after 1922 when better jazz bands began to record. With perfect hindsight jazz writers began making harsh criticisms.
Later, LaRocca and ODJB fell into disfavor with academics & jazz writers. Like pioneers W.C. Handy, James P. Johnson, & Jelly Roll Morton, ODJB was accused of plagiarism, inability to swing and not representing real music of New Orleans. All untrue.
Like Jelly Roll Morton, Nick LaRocca became embittered at the success of others as fashion and success passed him by. He struck out at his critics, and even became something of a racist cartoon by actually asserting that black musicians had made little contribution to New Orleans jazz . . . nor anyone else besides ODJB for that matter.
ODJB did have the privilege of recording for about 4 or 5 years before any African-American bands were let into studios by record companies. After 1922 other musicians and . . . frankly, better ones . . . were heard on disc: most of them black, some of them white.
But tell me -- should ODJB be held responsible for this segregation? Should their place in history be distorted because American society was racist? Or because record companies were slow to realize that excellent black jazz talent was available?
I think not. ODJB was understood by the public of their time to be playing the real music of New Orleans, and their world-wide success paved the way for jazz. When their first 1918 Victor recording of "Livery Stable Blue," surpassed the million-and-a-half sales mark within months of its release record companies quickly realized that this music had a vast and unique appeal -- and a buck was to be made.
In any case, LaRocca became embittered suffering a nervous breakdown in 1925. He left music to run a contracting business in New Orleans and made a couple failed attempts to revive the band in the 1930s.
Nonetheless LaRocca and ODJB were a significant influence on young jazz musicians world-wide: Bix Beiderbeke, Bobby Hackett, the West Coast Trad Jazz revival bands, and jazz as a whole. Their tunes continue to be recorded world-wide to this day.
Predjudice Toward Italian-American Musicians
It’s very easy to forget that LaRocca grew up and lived during a time of considerable prejudice against his particular ethnicity: Sicilian-Americans who took plenty of ethnic abuse of their own. In fact, I think Italian-Americans have been largely unrecognized for their contributions to early jazz as evidenced by such illustrious Italian names in early New Orleans as: Wingie Manone, Sharkey Bonnano, Louis Prima, Leon Roppolo, Tony Parenti and Santo Pecora.
All of this -- and the controversy about Nick LaRocca and ODJB -- is investigated in greater depth in the excellent book by Dick Sudhalter, LOST CHORDS: White Musicians and their Contribution to Jazz from Oxford University Press . . . and at ODJB.com.
Hold That Tiger
ODJB TIGER RAG (mp3)
“Tiger Rag” was not an original tune when recorded and published by LaRocca. It had been well-known around New Orleans . . . possibly originating in a French quadrille dance.
But it was the ODJB recordings that brought “Tiger Rag” into wide circulation, very wide circulation. It ranks up there with “St. Louis Blues,” “Stardust” and “Dinah” among the most frequently recorded of jazz tunes -- certainly in the first half of the 20th century. It was put on disc by a wide range of musicians including King Oliver, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt. In Germany during the time when the Nazis restricted jazz recordings and “non-Aryan” song titles, 'Tiger' was disguised under the name “Der Schwartz Panther” (the black panther).
ODJB recorded “Tiger Rag” three or four times between 1918 and 1936. Sift through the ODJB waxings of “Tiger Rag” and you’ll find good stuff there. Not to be overlooked is the revived Original Dixieland Five of 1936 with the original personnel. And the same year an ODJB big band with Nick LaRocca, Larry Shields, J. Russell Robinson, Tony Sbabaro and ten other musicians made some fairly decent records -- including “Tiger Rag,” sounding remarkably like Casa Loma Orchestra!
But I think the best 'Tiger' is still from 1921, featuring Larry Shields’ clarinet lines, which have become integral to the tune. Its a fitting monument to the first jazz band heard on disc playing New Orleans ensemble polyphony, with improvised solos and swinging dance rhythms: Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
I hope that I’ve brought you a more nuanced understanding and better appreciation of ODJB. The landmark recordings of the first New Orleans-style band heard on record were, and remained, a global influence and powerful jazz legacy.
ODJB at Wikipedia
ODJB at Ken Burns JAZZ
ODJB at Red Hot Jazz.com