Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

1917 large

“The music is a matter of the ear and not of technique. None of us knows music. One carries the melody and others do what they please. Some play counter melodies, some play freak noises, and some just play. I can’t tell you how. You “got to feel” Jass. The time is syncopated. Jass I think means a jumble. We came from New Orleans by way of Chicago. In Chicago a professor told us it was “the untuneful harmony of rhythm.” I don’t know what that meant, but I guess he was right. Anyway that’s Jass.”

Eddie Edwards, trombonist in the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band, who was perfectly able to read music.

“Arriving as it did just nine days after Congress voted to declare war, the sound of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s manic, energetic music would be forever linked in the American Psyche with the new atmosphere in the country”

E. Douglas Bomberger – Making Music American; 1917 and the Transformation of Culture

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In April 1889, around the time Robert Browning made the earliest existent recording of poetry, Nick LaRocca was born in New Orleans, the son of poor Italian immigrants. His childhood, youth and early adulthood span the history of Centuries of Sound so far – a few decades where we have seen vast shifts in the recording and consumption of sound, but which all seem still to be somehow ancient history from the vantage point of 2019. This is something Nick is about to change. How much credit Nick or his band, the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band, should get for this is difficult to measure – his own description of the birth of jazz is not just racist, but self-evidently untrue – but whether they are viewed as innovators, opportunists or just a catalyst, the record they made on February 26th 1917 is that rare thing in life, an unambiguous dividing line between an old world and a new one.

Over these last twenty years there have been no such revolutions, only gradual movements. We first heard Ragtime emerge as a flavour to season marching band music, then in its ‘hot’ form as a (sometimes frenetic) syncopated dance music – but even at its greatest surge, it remained in essence a minority interest, as far as the music business was concerned. There was enough interest in the general public for the genre to incite a moral outrage, but apparently not enough to get record companies and musicians cashing in.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, and (perhaps) down the length of the Mississippi River, jazz (or something not dissimilar to jazz) was already being played, perhaps as early as 1900. Not a single recording exists from this era, but later accounts have it that the sound began with cornet-player Buddy Bolden, whose hot ragtime band is often credited with introducing this mix of stomping dance music and bluesy swerves. It is unlikely that Bolden’s band truly sounded much like the records here – it’s better to view them as a vital missing link in the story. Bolden suffered an episode of acute alcoholic psychosis in 1907, and was admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum with a diagnosis of schizophrenia – and there he would remain for the rest of his life. His successors largely remained within New Orleans until 1914, when a mixed-race group called The Creole Band began touring the vaudeville circuit. By 1916 Brown’s Dixieland Jass Band and Stein’s Dixieland Jass Band were active and performing in Chicago, and bandleader Bert Kelly claimed to have been playing Jazz in San Francisco as early as 1914. It was one thing to be playing new music on the circuit, though – for the genre to really break through this barrier it needed to be brought into the homes of the public, who in increasing numbers owned gramophones.

Among the clutch of New Orleans “Jass” bands playing Chicago in 1916 were Stein’s Dixie Jass Band, who had a residency at the Booster Club. They were spotted by Al Jolson, who found them another residency, this time at Reisenweber’s Café, a fashionable nightclub in New York. Taking their cue from other novelty vaudeville acts like Six Brown Brothers, they dropped Stein, rebranded themselves the “Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band”, and adopted a series of visual affectations and musical flourishes. This mix of influences, their vicinity to the recording business, and The Creole Band’s refusal to record anything lest it be stolen; this all led to a certain buzz, and it was a matter of weeks before they were in the Victor studio, on the twelth floor of 46 West 38th Street in Manhattan, making this momentous record.

Credit for this recording must be shared with the Victor engineers, led by Charles E. Sooy. Jazz had never been recorded before, and the hot ragtime records from earlier in the decade had just been a wall of (fairly exciting) noise, with individual sounds lost in the lack of a mix. Later recordings by the ODJB would also follow this unsatisfactory model, sounding muddy and muffled. Sooy understood the difficulties of getting their sound on record, and arranged the players at different distances from the horn, with drummer Tony Sbarbaro furthest away (25 feet back) and pianist Harry Ragas and clarinetist Larry Shields within five feet of the horn. That wasn’t all, though, as LaRocca later recalled:

“I asked them what all these wires were for, and one of the men told me it was to sop up the overtone that was coming back into the horn. The recording engineer at Victor had the patience of a saint. He played our music back until it sounded right.”

The resultant recording is, without hyperbole, an absolute revelation. Never before have we heard musicians cut loose with such wild abandon. There’s an almost palpable sense of the weight of the Victorian era being thrown off and joyfully discarded. LaRocca’s cornet, Shields’ clarinet and Edwards’s trombone twist and peacock around each-other, coming together from time to time, pausing for the horse impressions that give the song its title (it was originally Barnyard Blues) and then spinning back off into competing solos. Even over a century later, it feels like an exciting record, so it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to bring this record home and listen to it for the first time.

The fact that the first half of this mix is comprised of “jazz” songs shows what an impact the record had. The record industry was very much used to crazes (we are also at the peak of Hawaiian recordings) but this one was immediately different, both in terms of scale and of reach. Within months a host of other musicians were making “jass” or “jas” or “jazz” records – some were the real deal, some were obviously just jumping on the bandwagon, but all were operating within the expectations set by ‘Livery Stable Blues’ and its flip side ‘Dixieland Jass Band One-Step’.

This early form of jazz does not exactly correspond with the genre as it later developed or with the music being made in New Orleans by other perhaps less-opportunistic artists. On one hand it does consist of free-wheeling seemingly improvised solos over a twelve-bar blues, but on the other it is clearly in the lineage of what we might call “novelty ragtime” – obviously the animal noises are the main example of this, but there is a general air of raucous wackiness without the depth or weight of the blues behind it. Here are, after all, five white boys having a great time. This was the first public airing for jazz, and the slew of other records which came along later in the year take this as their blueprint.

Following the lead of Collins & Harlan in late 1916, this mix also features a few examples of Tinpan Alley songs which are *about* jazz rather than actually *being* jazz. These generally feature a description of a jazz band, superlatives to describe the spectacular wildness of each individual instrument, which inevitably make the singer want to dance – there is then quite often an instrumental section where the backing band demonstrate (with differing degrees of success) these jazz-style noises. It’s a cynical cash-in for sure, but not one unique to jazz – in the mid 1950s there will be plenty of songs along the same lines about rock & roll.

It’s perhaps unexpected that we have this almost-enforced party atmosphere when the nation is now involved in the first world war, but as far as the music industry is concerned all this meant was that they had to stop making recordings of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” and switch to “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” and “Over There”. The main influence the war would have on this new American music was to spread it – this is the start of jazz in France, and even trad jazz in England, which would always retain something of the spirit of this early form. It seems there was no inverse dampening of enthusiasm from the troubles of the old world.

The world is not America, however, and the horrors of the war do have a bearing on this mix. 1916 was the start of the Armenian genocide, and while singer Zabelle Panosian was already living in the USA, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that the almost unbearable sadness in her 1917 recordings of traditional Armenian ballads was influenced by reports of her friends and family, many of whom would have been dead or missing. The first recording featured here, Mir Khor Babge Kerezman (“Our Father’s Deep Grave”) is one of the most profoundly beautiful things I’ve ever heard, and I would perhaps put it forward as the greatest work of art recorded in the acoustic era.

part one – jazz

0:00:07 Marie Cahill – Dallas Blues (Excerpt 1)
0:00:10 Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band – Livery Stable Blues
0:03:02 Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band – Yah De Dah
0:06:24 Rudy Wiedoeft’s Frisco Jazz Band – Cute Little Wigglin’ Dance
0:08:14 Marion Harris – Everybody’s Crazy ‘Bout The Dog-gone Blues But I’m Happy
0:11:12 Eugene Jaudas Society Orchestra – Jass One Step
0:15:12 Marie Cahill – Dallas Blues (Excerpt 2)
0:17:51 Eubie Blake Trio – Jazzing Around
0:19:53 George Gershwin – Jaz-O-Mine
0:21:17 Gene Greene – Alexanders Got A Jazz Band Now
0:23:17 Memphis Pickaninny Band – Some Jazz Blues
0:26:05 Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band – Dixieland Jass Band One-Step
0:28:39 Collins & Harlan – Everybody’s Jazzin’ It
0:30:53 Six Brown Brothers – Smiles And Chuckles
0:32:03 Rudy Wiedoeft’s Frisco Jazz Band – Pozzo
0:33:52 Marion Harris – When I Hear That Jazz Band Play
0:36:23 Blake’s Jazzone Orchestra – The Jazz Dance
0:38:03 Wilbur Sweatman and his Jass Band – Joe Turner Blues
0:40:56 Irving Kaufman – Mr. Jazz Himself
0:42:50 Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra – St Louis Blues
0:45:20 Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis – That Jazz Dance
0:46:45 Yerkes’ Jazzarimba Orchestra – That’s It

part two – not jazz

0:49:43 Zabelle Panosian – Mir Khor Babge Kerezman
0:52:48 Edouard Risler – Plays Beethoven
0:54:54 Charles Prince’s Band – Arrival Of The American Troops In France (Excerpt 1)
0:55:22 Edward Hamilton – Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile
0:56:55 James Watson Gerard – The German Peril
0:58:11 Billy Murray & American Quartet – Over There
1:00:55 Charles Prince’s Band – Arrival Of The American Troops In France (Excerpt 2)
1:01:06 Bert Williams – No Place Like Home
1:03:50 Opal Cooper – Beans, Beans, Beans
1:05:20 Sally Hamlin – Our Hired Girl (Excerpt 1)
1:05:31 Eva Gauthier – Alouette
1:07:44 Ford Hawaiians – Kawaihau Waltz
1:09:25 Helen Louise and Frank Ferera – Everybody Hula
1:10:56 Ford Hawaiians & Henry Kailimai – Kaena
1:11:50 Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra – My Waikiki Mermaid
1:13:29 Louise, Ferrera, and Greenus – Malani Anu Ka Makani
1:14:59 Ford Hawaiians – Wiliwili Wai
1:15:58 Choro Carioca – Guará
1:17:40 German Hernandez Trio – Nosotros
1:20:55 Orquesta Tizol – El Valor
1:21:12 Pixinguinha – Rosa
1:24:14 Carlos Gardel – Mi Noche Triste
1:26:22 Eugenia Roca – El Fox De Las Campanas
1:28:22 Oberbayerische Bauernkapelle – D’ Buam Schneid
1:30:34 Victor Military Band – Kansas City Blues
1:33:42 Eddie Cantor – That’s The Kind Of Baby For Me
1:35:53 Van & Schenck – For Me And My Gal
1:37:25 Sally Hamlin – Our Hired Girl (Excerpt 2)
1:37:40 Harry C. Browne & Peerless Quartet – Carve Dat Possum
1:40:16 Fisk University Male Quartette – In the Great Gettin’ Up Mawnin’
1:42:17 David Arthur Smith and Corporal White – Cock o’ the North
1:43:15 Fred van Eps Trio – Razzberries
1:44:46 Felix Arndt – Marionette
1:46:59 Aleksandr Vertinskiy – V Goluboy Dalekoy Spalenke
1:49:37 Oriental Orchestra – Russian Scissors
1:51:59 Yiddisher Orchestra (Abe Schwartz’ Orchestra) – Beim Reben’s Sideh
1:55:29 Anna Hoffman – A Kind Un a Heym (A Homeless Child)
1:57:40 Amelita Galli Curci – Ah Non Credea Mirarti
2:00:47 Zabelle Panosian – Caroun (Spring)
2:04:05 Boston Symphony Orchestra – March Miniature

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