The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the origins of the ‘first’ jazz recording

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) was a Dixieland Jazz band composed of white musicians in the early 1900s. Founded by Nick La Rocca in 1916, the group played their version of the New Orleans-style jazz made by black combos, such as those led by Freddie Keppard and Joe “King” Oliver. The five young white players were amateurs who hailed from New Orleans and frequented jazz clubs for many years. (La Rocca himself had played in more than a dozen groups prior to starting ODJB.)

The group got their first big gig in Chicago, and soon caught the attention of record producers eager to capture the sound of New Orleans jazz on record for the first time (although there is still contention over the origins of the first recorded jazz song). In 1917, the band recorded the supposed “first piece of jazz music,” entering the history books with a “lively novelty piece” called the Livery Stable Blues. 

After their initial recording for the Victor Company, the ODJB recorded for Columbia Records and Aeolian-Vocalion in 1917,  while enjoying continued popularity in New York. After losing and replacing some band members after the First World War, he band broke up in the late 1920s, and its originators drifted apart.

In 1936, the musicians played a reunion performance on network radio. Victor invited them back into the recording studio, and over the next two years the band recorded 25 sides for Victor as “The Original Dixieland Five.” The group toured briefly before disbanding again.

In conjunction with the theme of economic rights, historians such as Joel Dinerstein of Tulane University in New Orleans have analyzed how ODJB was advertised. According to Dinerstein, as mentioned in the episode, “it was advertised with black caricatures sort of in the minstrel tradition” in order to portray the fact that it was “black” music performed by white musicians. “You go to the record store, you see the name Original, and there’s a claim to authenticity, in effect overshadowing and obscuring the true to life dynamics of a city like New Orleans, where the music did originate in Storyville and the red light district — broadly speaking: in the black neighborhoods of New Orleans.”

As Alana Bridgewater narrates in the second episode of The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights, music made popular in nightclubs and ballrooms by African-American musicians became a big business, but only when that music was sanitized for a white audience, with white players. “That’s where the money was. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band is pure show-business.”


Livery Stable Blues (1917)

Livery Stable Blues, recorded in 1917, was a watered-down version of New Orleans jazz, featuring the musicians doing imitations of barnyard animals, putting the sound of jazz in the homes of many Americans who otherwise would not have heard it. The song marked the beginning of the growing explosion of interest in jazz.

The popularity of this record created great interest in jazz around the country, paving the way for many artists (many of whom were African-American), to make additional records and to continue the development of jazz in New Orleans, Chicago and New York.

References:

Thom Holmes. American Popular Music: Jazz. Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 2006)