1917: ‘Livery Stable Blues’ becomes the first commercial jazz recording
On Feb. 26, 1917, the five members of the Original Dixieland Jass Band boarded an elevator, bound for the 12th floor of the Victor Talking Machine Co. on West 38th Street in New York City. They would proceed to make history there by recording “Livery Stable Blues,” which incorporated bits that the all-white combo from New Orleans had picked up from black musicians in their hometown. “Livery Stable Blues” was hardly an epic composition; it was a novelty tune by Ray Lopez and Alcide Nunez in which a clarinet was made to sound like a rooster, a cornet whinnied like a horse and a trombone issued a bovine moo. What was important wasn’t the content of the ditty but the fact that it was the first time jazz had been commercially recorded. American music would never be the same.
Jazz endures, but it has evolved mightily in the century since the Original Dixieland Jass Band made that recording. This peculiarly American form of music has been changed, decade by decade, in the hands of such master musicians as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, and in the voices of such singers as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Reeves. But what is this thing called jazz? Armstrong probably said it best: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”
- “Dixie Jass One Step” was on the flip side of the 78rpm disc.
- Although these pioneering musicians referred to themselves as the Original Dixieland Jass Band – later changing “Jass” to “Jazz” – no one knows where the term “jass” (or “jazz”) comes from. Perhaps it’s an African-American term suggesting energy, or perhaps it comes from the jasmine perfume that Storyville prostitutes wore. Or perhaps, as the pianist Eubie Blake suggested, it was at one time a naughty reference to a woman’s backside.
- On Nov. 14, 1916, three months before “Livery Stable Blues” was recorded, The Times-Picayune referred to “jas bands.”
- Whatever its origin, “jazz” was named the Word of the 20th Century by the American Dialect Society.
- Later in 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band issued a follow-up recording: the immensely popular “Tiger Rag.” Writing in the music magazine The Etude, Edward Baxter Perry called such music “syncopation gone mad” and suggested that its practitioners “can only be treated like the dog with rabies, with a dose of lead.”
- Even though the band’s members were New Orleanians, the group had been formed in Chicago. The musicians were Nick LaRocca on cornet, Eddie Edwards on trombone, the clarinetist Larry Shields, the pianist Henry Ragas and the drummer Tony Sbarbaro.
- When the band made the “Livery Stable Blues” recording in New York, they were playing at Reisenweber’s Café and drawing big crowds. That Eighth Avenue haunt was near Columbus Circle, which has become the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, now lead by Marsalis, a New Orleanian.
- According to legend, Freddie Keppard, an African-American cornetist from New Orleans, could have made the first commercial jazz recording. When he was playing in New York, he received an offer from Victor to record, but he turned it down. Reasons vary: Perhaps he didn’t want other musicians to steal his material, or perhaps he refused to audition for Victor without compensation.
Jazz and its performers have been vital parts of New Orleans in the century since “Livery Stable Blues” was recorded. The music had been germinating for years in so-called “spasm bands”; one such ensemble even serenaded Sarah Bernhardt when she visited the city. In the years since, it has continued to evolve and, in its myriad forms, provide the spirited foundation of parades, riverboats and music clubs all over the city.