The Jazz Record Turns 100

On Sunday, Feb. 26, the jazz recording will celebrate its 100th anniversary. In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded two sides of a Victor 78rpm—Dixie Jass Band One-Step and Livery Stable Blues. The result was what is now considered to be the earliest jazz recording. The quintet featured Nick LaRocca (cnt,dir), Eddie Edwards (tb), Larry Shields (cl), Henry Ragas (p) and Tony Sbarbaro (d). Where was the recording made? In New York, on 38th St., just west of Fifth Ave. [Google Maps image of the building where the recording was made, on the top floor]

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In 2012, I wrote a feature for The Wall Street Journal on the music and the exact location of the recording session. In honor of the jazz record’s centennial, here’s that article:

Start Spreadin’ the Blues
The Wall Street Journal
February 21, 2012

By Marc Myers
(c) Marc Myers LLC

New York

Rocking back in his office chair several weeks ago, Jack Azizo seemed stunned. “That was done here?” asked the 57-year-old co-owner of Jimmy Sales Corp., a men’s-accessories company based in Manhattan. Mr. Azizo had just been told that the very first jazz phonograph record was made in his company’s 12th-floor office space on Feb. 26, 1917. “I can’t believe this—I love jazz,” he said.

If New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, then New York’s Garment District is where jazz spoke its first words. Ninety-five years ago, members of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) boarded the freight elevator at 46 W. 38th St. and rode to the top floor. When the five musicians arrived at the new studio of the Victor Talking Machine Co., the quintet set up their instruments and recorded two songs—”Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” and “Livery Stable Blues.”

Released weeks later, the 78-rpm record became an overnight sensation—and a fitting start to jazz’s future. On one side was a blues and on the other a dance number—two forms that jazz would rely on for decades to come.

“These songs by the ODJB were terrific, expressive tunes that changed popular music overnight,” said Dan Morgenstern, a jazz historian and author of “Living With Jazz.” “The impact of their syncopated approach can only be compared to records by Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s. Everything changed after their release.”

Despite the band’s boastful name, the Original Dixieland Jass Band wasn’t quite as original as it claimed. “Black musicians in New Orleans had been playing the music that would come to be called jazz as early as 1906,” said Bruce Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. “The idea to form a group and take the show on the road wasn’t really theirs either.”

That honor belongs to a Northern promoter, who in 1916 convinced several white musicians from New Orleans to form a pre-ODJB band and relocate to Chicago. Another New Orleans dance band—Tom Brown’s Band From Dixieland—had already had success playing there at local restaurants. Shortly after the musicians arrived, they were renamed the ODJB and met Max Hart, Al Jolson’s agent. He booked them into a New York restaurant near Columbus Circle in January 1917.

Within weeks of the ODJB’s engagement, Columbia Graphophone Co. executives caught wind of the uptown excitement and invited the band down to its Woolworth Building recording studio. “But when they performed there on Jan. 31, the wailing music was either too difficult to record or the executives didn’t care much for what they heard,” Mr. Raeburn said.

Paid for their time, the musicians left dejected but not discouraged. They quickly approached Victor, which had just moved to 46 W. 38th St. The record company jumped at the chance to best Columbia.

When the ODJB musicians set up their instruments on Feb. 26, Victor engineers placed the musicians at different distances from the large conical horn that served as a microphone in those days. The engineers made test pressings and even strung wires near the ceiling to absorb the sonic overtones.

At the end of the recording session, band cornetist and leader Nick LaRocca told Victor engineers that the name of his blues number was “Livery Stable Blues.” But after the band left, Victor executives gave the song the more playful title “Barnyard Blues.” And that’s when trouble began.

Sensing an opportunity, agent Hart rushed out to copyright the new Victor title and song—but under his own name. Accidentally left out of the name-change loop, Victor’s pressing plant attached “Livery Stable Blues” labels to the records instead.

Months later in Chicago, Alcide Nuñez, the ODJB’s former clarinetist, who had left the band in 1916 after clashes with leader LaRocca, heard the record. But when Nuñez tried to purchase the song’s arrangements for his own band, he discovered that “Livery Stable Blues” had never been copyrighted.

So Nuñez went to a Chicago publisher and secured credit for the song title. When sheet music began appearing, LaRocca halted its sale with an injunction, and a lawsuit followed. The judge hearing the case eventually ruled that neither LaRocca nor Nuñez would be granted a copyright. Doubts were raised about LaRocca’s own originality as well as the practicality of trying to copyright a blues.

With a bang of the gavel, “Livery Stable Blues”—the B-side of jazz’s first record—passed into the public domain, free for all to record. By 1920 the ODJB’s popularity began to wane, and in 1925 the group disbanded.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Azizo was asked if his office had a CD player. It did, and he put on the disc that this writer provided. As the ODJB’s frantic music played, Mr. Azizo shook his head. “Can you imagine if these walls could talk?” he said. “The last time this music was heard up here was probably when these guys were standing around playing it.” (c) Marc Myers LLC

JazzWax tracks:
Here are the two sides of the first jazz record:

Here’s Dixie Jass Band One-Step

And here’s Livery Stable Blues