Bebop and Beyond
by Armand Lewis
On February 26, 1917, five New Orleans musicians went into the Victor Records studios in New York City to record two tunes for release on one 10” 78rpm single. Victor Records 18255 would be released on March 7 of that year and become the biggest seller in Victor’s catalog at the time — outselling by a large margin Victor’s other major recording artists, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and marching band conductor John Phillip Sousa.
The record was “Dixieland Jass Band One Step” backed by “Livery Stable Blues” as performed by The Original Dixieland Jass Band (the word would become “jazz” by the end of the year). It was the very first record to be made and marketed as “jazz,” and it sold a reported two hundred and fifty thousand copies — an astonishing number for the time.
There had been other records that flirted with what was becoming jazz — notably those of African-American band leader/composer James Reese Europe, who’s records from 1913 and 1914 had been working their way towards the jazz form, but were still more of a cross between a large concert band and ragtime orchestra.
Until 1917, jazz itself was not particularly well known outside of New Orleans, where it had begun at the turn of the century. The first jazz musician of note, Buddy Bolden, appears to have never recorded, and the first performances of jazz were more likely to be in vaudeville theaters than anywhere else.
Cornetist Freddie Keppard was among the first musicians to take the New Orleans ensemble style outside of the city. Keppard’s Original Creole Orchestra traveled the Orpheum Theatre circuit in the early teens as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as New York, where, in December 1915, Victor Records offered the band the opportunity to make the first jazz record (though nobody thought of calling it that at the time).
Keppard turned them down — it was reported that he was fearful that other cornetists would use the record to copy his style and musical ideas. Another popular rumor in the jazz world for a time was that Keppard had refused to record because he was afraid of being cheated by the record company and had demanded the same fee as that of Enrico Caruso, Victor’s highest paid artist of the era. Whatever the reason, Freddie Keppard would not record until 1923.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), which featured leader/trumpeter Nick LaRocca, clarinetist Larry Shields, trombonist Eddie Edwards, pianist Henry Ragas and drummer Tony Sbarbaro, had originated in New Orleans and had migrated first to Chicago and later to New York. The group quickly caught the ear of Columbia Records, for whom they recorded four sides on January 30, 1917. Columbia must not have liked what they heard, as the resulting records were not released. After the ODJB’s Victor session on February 26, the Victor company wasn’t nearly so doubtful of what they had.
In a time before radio or TV, records were sold by newspaper and magazine ads as well as promotions in department stores, furniture stores (where phonographs and records were often sold) as well as early record stores. The ODJB’s first release was heavily promoted in Victor’s Spring 1917 national advertising in all sales platforms.
Relatively few people outside of New Orleans had ever heard this new music, and the record caught the public’s ear in ways that no previous music had. Jazz was fast, modern and a complete break from the military marches and European classical tradition that most of America listened to at the time. The single kicked off a craze for jazz music that would literally alter America’s musical and cultural landscape — ushering in what would become known as “the jazz age.”
Seemingly overnight, other bands began copying the format. Among the imitators were The Original Memphis Five, The Louisiana Five, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, The New Orleans Kings of Rhythm, and The Original New Orleans Jazz Band, which featured a young New York pianist who would later make his mark in sound movies: Jimmy Durante. All of these bands and many others would have varying degrees of success in the immediate years that followed the ODJB’s first recordings.
The ODJB would follow up their initial success with more sessions for Victor. Meanwhile, Columbia, having realized their initial mistake, promptly recorded the band again on May 31st and rushed the resulting single (“Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” b/w “Indiana”) into release. But change was in the wind. In 1918 trombonist Eddie Edwards was drafted into World War I. Pianist Henry Ragas died in the Spanish flu pandemic in February of the following year. Nick LaRocca himself would leave the group in the early 1920s after suffering a nervous breakdown. Completely retiring from music, LaRocca went into construction and contracting.
After replacing these band member as well as other personnel changes, the group itself would totally disband by the later 1920s. By then, jazz had evolved from an ensemble form to one emphasizing solos. Some of the creators of this new approach, such as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, acknowledged the ODJB’s pioneering influence. But these new soloists would eclipse the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s popularity and in the process become jazz music’s first real stars, relegating the ODJB and this very first jazz recording to a footnote in the creation of a new musical art form.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org