100 years of recorded jazz: the contested legacy of the ODJB

February 25, 2017 at 7:41 pm (black culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, United States)

It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both 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 laid down in New York on February 26 , 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 April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early 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, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, 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 Afro Americans?

Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddy 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 the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”

The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) 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 Orleansperformers 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 the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and 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 novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).

And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, 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 (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; 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 real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).

Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”

Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960


  1. Robert R. Calder said,

    The pianist Russel (one ‘l’) Robinson was of some note as a ragtimer, and composer, and the extent of novelty should be borne in mind, since in coming into some sort of understanding with the music which was unfolding the musicians had to work out quite what more to do once the general excitement ceased to be enough. Of course the way in which commercial sub-music was cultivated for financial gain and whatever other non-musical and even non-moral purposes was to keep up the novelty element and pretend there were floods of creativity in pop, latest thing after latest thing and none of them going anywhere — an infinitely expanded version of the squeezebox player who used to function down below in a London Tube station. He knew the first eight or maybe sixteen bars of “If I were a rich man” and had a costume from Fiddler on the roof and people on the escalator had whizzed by and dropped coin before he re-replayed the start.

    Specialists on clarinet have spoken and written in praise of Larry Shields as a serious contributor to jazz generally, to jazz development of the clarinet, and it should be clear that these guys though they got their chance to be recorded very much on grounds of colour (and there were problems in 1942 finding a New Orleans studio to record Bunk Johnson, Jim Robinson et al. on racist grounds) were some sort of contributors. Things had been worked out a bit better by the time there was recording in the north, and there was something of a leap to ODJB from the earlier recordings of Piron’s orchestra in the north.
    By all accounts the leading white New Orleans creator who gets little credit was Steve Brown, a pioneer bassist who can be heard on SLOW RIVER by the Jean Goldkette band, one of the ensembles there’s too little of because the companies wanted to deliver trendy dance music. Leave your usual book at the door, we have scores for you….
    Brown developed jazz bass techniques to an extent generally declared remarkable, but the poor soul wrecked his hand and ended his playing career, with Milt Hinton and other people praising him and continuing the good work.
    As for Nick la Rocca, listeners shouldn’t think Bix or Louis so much as an ethnic musician, a stylist, probably a crucial worker in playing hot and also playing in an Italian operatic manner which may relate to Caruso, but does so in a further relation to pre-Caruso vocalising, which was itself a relatively new thing. He was the right man in the right place for a technical and stylistic synthesis to be accomplished. There are some interesting antique recordings of St. Louis trumpeters contemporary with Louis Armstrong, with the difference on his side very much an Italian influence. That said, and the example of Nick La Rocca not to be denied, the influence on Armstrong of Sidney Bechet should be borne in mind, for when they recorded together with Clarence Williams (it might be Texas Moaner I remember) Armstrong follows Bechet with an amazing closeness of phrasing which reasonably could be assumed to go back to when Bechet was still playing cornet, and working beside Armstrong and Henry Red Allen in Allen’s father’s band. And touring Europe as solo star Bechet performed operatic arias as specialty features.
    Neither the necessity of a musician nor anything else excuses presenting him or her as what they weren’t. Unfortunately deprecation of La Rocca has swelled claims made about him, and it’s like an endless return between otherwise motionless tennis machines trying to claim that just because La Rocca gave Armstrong necessary sustenance la Rocca was a mother who gave him life.
    If you look back at interviews from the 1940s, when Bunk Johnson was found and (in advance of the Last Judgment) provided with teeth, contemporaries who remembered other earlier players could be quite fierce against recording companies who preferred operatic divas to if not Buddy Bolden certainly people who worked with him.
    That was more of a beef.

    • Mick said,

      Whether or not whites ‘stole’ jazz – which we now may as well, as modern urban culture has neglected its lessons – it’s a credit to its founders that it’s a staple of high art in some guises. Any modern musician with a four-piece rock band and a new sound to find couldn’t go far wrong adapting its many facets.

      There’s nothing like a bit of in-depth discussion of classic jazz to take one’s mind off the humiliating and further-crashing defeat of the Labour vote in two more of their little kingdoms.

  2. Mick said,

    “…there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time.”

    It’s as much the Left concocting a problem in order to solve it. It’s the only way they can be of any use these days. Same with that confectionery stating that gay marriage laws reduce teen suicide. Even the researchers admit only correlation instead of causation, but still say that’s the reason in the conclusion.

    The only way a white jazz band is racist is if it hates blacks. Same with the audience. Otherwise, there’s an innocent correlation of like being attracted to like, as with cinema across the world and racial lines.

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