TELL us, Mr. LaRocca, what was it really like to lead the band and play the cornet on the world's first jazz recording?
"We went up there [to the Columbia studio in New York] one morning to record, and they told us to play over the piece. When they did that they were all putting their hands to their ears. Some were in the back hitting on hammers, making noises... ."
These are the actual words of Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, as recalled to the Hogan Jazz Archive of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University in New Orleans, in the 1950s.
"They paid us $250 for nothing. For the 'Indiana' and 'Darktown Strutters' Ball' we recorded for them."
We know the session was early in 1917. America had just finished its most prosperous year. The air was heady with names like Picasso, Joyce, Eliot, Dreiser, Freud, Jung, Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith, Frank Lloyd Wright. Jazz, after bubbling and simmering for a couple of decades, was at last to be put on a phonograph record. And the date, Mr. LaRocca?
"It was in January, about the 27th or 28th."
Close enough for jazz, as musicians often say when they're tuning up. The date being celebrated today, Jan. 30, is the one listed in "Jazz Records, 1897-1942," by British author Brian Rust, who himself has recorded jazz, as leader of the Original Barnstormers Spasm Band in the late 1950s.
"We were run out, we were actually run out of the place.... The music was beyond their comprehension. They didn't take the time to even give us a break to make a good record."
On Feb. 26 - known more widely as the day Woodrow Wilson called for "armed neutrality" toward Germany's World War I submarines - jazz got another chance. It was another recording session for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, or ODJB, which had been playing at Reisenweber's restaurant and dance palace in New York City. The result was the first jazz record to go on the market (in March) Livery Stable Blues" and "Dixie Jass Band One-Step." It sold more than a million copies. How did that session look to the
"After the tremendous success that we had created at Reisenweber's, the Victor Company approached me. They ... had more patience with us. They set us up the hardest way of playing that I've ever played in my life."
Was it the old acoustic setup with a big recording horn instead of a microphone?
"We played into an eight-inch horn.... The horn coulda been about three-foot long, and it was eight inches in diameter, and out of that came a little horn about four inches in diameter, where Larry [Shields, clarinetist] was to play and I stood back about 20 to 25 feet."
Where were the drums?
"Alongside me. He was not supposed to use the bass drum, because he would break up the wax, or the matrix - dig holes in it and ruin it. All he would play was in between like - you know - like the licks in between. He could do that, and he played mostly on the kettle drums and on the wood blocks and bells."
So it wasn't easy to get the relaxed, conversational feeling of jazz?
"Now this is the hardest way in the world of playing music, of having musicians separated, because when musicians are put together like they record today [1950s], you can feel one another - you can almost know what the other man's gonna do by the feel.... [But trombonist Eddie] Edwards was about 15 feet from the horn, and Larry stood about four feet from his little horn, and the piano was facin' me direct under the horn."
But somehow the record got made?
"The red light would come on, then each man was to count mentally two, and we started. It's beyond me how we ever started together. I don't know, but it looks like God was with us because we always started together. I was in the back of them. They could hear me, but I couldn't hear them. Now [there] was no way of me throwing in an extra lick here or there, because if I did and I missed out, that matrix was ruined and the whole thing was ruined."
Enough matrixes were satisfactory - they made two to four of each tune - for Victor to have a bonanza on its hands. Then Columbia joined in, releasing in May the recording dated Jan. 30. Or, according to one theory, the released version was from an undated recording session more harmonious than the first.
By 1918 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was playing and recording in Britain. That year Duke Ellington formed his first professional group and was managing five other orchestras in Washington. Jimmy Durante was playing piano in his Original New Orleans Jazz Band and, in 1919, recording "Ja-Da Medley." Revolutionary Russia showed interest in jazz pro and con. Soviet swing bands were recording in the late '20s, when electric recording was replacing the acoustic system that gave Nick LaRocca such trouble. In the next decades jazz flourished under so many labels that sometimes a star for one company would take a different name when playing for another - such as Victor pianist Fats Waller calling himself "Maurice" on Eddie Condon's Commodore record of "Dancing Fool."
One dividend of phoning Tulane for LaRocca's words was to talk with the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Dr. Bruce Boyd Raeburn. He confirmed that specifics are hard to pin down in jazz's early days. Back in New Orleans, he noted, musicians were playing music that came to be called jazz elsewhere before they called it that themselves.
Dr. Raeburn turned out to be not only a scholar but a drummer, as I have been in a smaller way for more than half the years since those first jazz records. And his parents were bandleader Boyd Raeburn and singer Ginnie Powell.
Talk about the continuity of jazz. The innovative Boyd Raeburn band of the '40s has a secure place in jazz recording history. In that band was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, born in the year of the first jazz recording, whose own diamond jubilee has been celebrated all this month in New York.
At the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1968 I saw Dizzy making an album with a "reunion" version of his old big band. At that time, of course, the band could be recorded live in a concert hall with engineers "mixing" the inputs from various microphones to balance the sound on a master tape. Now it's routine technology for rock and pop music to put together tracks by different instruments recorded separately.
We've swung and jived and be-bopped a long way from the wax matrix that the ODJB was worried about ruining. And from the standard 10-inch record limited to about three minutes spinning at 78 revolutions per minute. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, and any number of other musicians proved that, like sonneteers limited to 14 lines or haiku writers limited to 17 syllables, they could shape a complete work of art in three minutes.
But I can almost taste the boyhood elation of buying a 12-inch record of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," with Gene Krupa's tom-tom solo able to go on for maybe an extra minute even at 78 r.p.m. Still no single record could contain a leisurely jam session, chorus after chorus, until the long-playing 33-1/3 r.p.m. records came along four decades ago.
Suddenly there were those Buck Clayton sessions, full of star improvisers, riffing easy and stretching out - 23 choruses on "Jumpin' at the Woodside," 36-1/4 choruses on "Christopher Columbus." And there were all the "Jazz at on-the-spot recordings, such as Dave Brubeck's "Jazz at the Black Hawk," referring to the San Francisco nightclub where the recording equipment was set up in the parking lot and the wires run through a ventilator shaft.
Just before this past Christmas I happened to be paying a first visit to the legendary Sunday flea market in San Telmo, the old part of Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Several stalls were selling ancient wind-up phonographs, the kind with a big amplifier horn ready for the dog in the ad to listen to his master's voice. From one of them, floating over the amiable Spanish hubbub, came the airy, swinging 1930s sound of Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, slightly scratchy, of course, but all the more aut hentic for that, on a vintage 78.
Back home for Christmas, I felt like a minor custodian of jazz history. There under the tree was Django Reinhardt again, but in a jewel-boxed set of compact discs. Thanks to lasers and digital recording, two 5-inch CDs held 48 of the tunes that each ate up a whole side of a 78. And the scratch, but not the thrill, was gone.
I had the awful thought that jazz itself might be gone if the first recording companies had stuck to Caruso and the classics and never gambled on the upstart music from the dance halls and riverboats. If an estimated 325,000 jazz performances had not been recorded and billions of records sold since then. A hardy few might still be playing what they had played for another hardy few before it was called jazz. But jazz became its own category of national American music, and then a music for the world, after
its fleeting pleasures were caught in an eight-inch horn for a universe far from Reisenweber's.