Although the most notable dance to be associated with jazz – the lindy hop – didn’t come into being until 1937, the nascent sounds of its musical accompaniment can be traced back 20 years earlier. The first recording recognisable as jazz was released on February 26th, 1917, through the Victor Label.
The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s Dixie Jass Band One Step/Livery Stable Blues release – I guess what we’d now call a ‘double A side’ – was comprised of two compositions controversially billed as originals by this group of white musicians.
Each side brought separate lawsuits. Two former members of the ODJB claimed authorship for Livery Stable Blues, although a judge ruled that neither party had copyright over the work, as not only was the tune based on a pre-existing “public domain” melody, but as none of the musicians could read or write music, the judge also expressed doubt that they could claim to have “composed” anything!
A second lawsuit was brought by Joe Jordan, the sidekick to African-American minstrel pioneer Ernest Hogan – and a future collaborator of Orson Welles – who successfully proved that a portion of Dixie Jass Band One Step’s melody appeared to be lifted from his own That Teasin’ Rag, composed in 1909 for “the Queen of Cakewalk”, Aida Overton Walker.
This first ‘jass’ recording therefore acts as a case study around several issues pertinent to our discussion of early 20th century dancing music. Firstly – in contrast to later variations of the form, such as hard bop and modal or free jazz – this first jazz record was unambiguously dance music. It’s centre label even helpfully proclaimed ‘FOR DANCING’ on both sides of the record.
Secondly, it emphasises early jazz as an evolution of the cakewalk sound that had mutated through ragtime and blues via the vaudeville circuit. The ODJB were an early example of a jazz band ditching the New Orleans vaudeville scene in favour of performing at fashionable night-spots and eateries in Chicago and New York, where they made recording industry contacts under the patronage of Al Jolson.
Thirdly, it opened a legal debate that would be repeated many times throughout the 20th century, particularly in regards to dance music – and perhaps most memorably with controversies over sampling in the 1980s – that of copyright and innovation.
In these very early days of the recording industry, ownership was a somewhat mutable concept.
On the vaudeville circuit, prior to the boom in recorded music, songs were transmitted virally. Tunes would be passed from town to town as troupes travelled, with each musician putting his or her own stamp on the hot songs of the day, creating endless variations of a piece in an assortment of styles and dialects, sometimes with personalised lyrics and sometimes instrumental. In such a scenario, this orally transmitted folk music becomes difficult to assign ownership over, as evidenced by the Livery Stable Blues case.
Even composers celebrated as pioneers, such as Ernest Hogan and WC Handy, who had huge hits with their (copyrighted) published sheet music, were unembarrassed to admit appropriating pieces overheard in bar rooms or at travelling shows and train stations – anywhere where there was a pianist, guitarist or singer, and someone to listen.
Before the advent of the recording industry, this was simply how music was communicated outside of the symphony orchestra.
Whereas classical music by this point already had a centuries-old canon, these new African-American dancing musics were evolving nimbly and rapidly – their pieces could be performed by big bands, small ensembles and soloists alike, and established touring circuits meant that any evolution in the sound could be broadcast across huge swathes of working class America surprisingly quickly. An ever-insatiable appetite for dancing and entertainment ensured music as a surprisingly viable career option for anyone with showmanship and a way with a tune, and as the ODJB proved, you did not need to be able to read music or have studied at a conservatoire to take part.
Fourthly, the discussion around this debut jazz recording and the lawsuit from Joe Jordan again returns to a theme that we’ve picked at throughout this series, of whether the popularisation of ragtime, blues and jazz by white musicians constitutes what in today’s world is referred to guiltily as ‘cultural appropriation’, or whether the early iterations of these musics were genuinely more multicultural than modern day society would give credit.
Certainly, early jazz was as much of a cultural soup as its geographical birthplace of New Orleans. The 18th century precursor to the squaredance, the French Quadrille, inputted into jazz alongside 19th century biguine rhythms, themselves a hybridisation of French ballroom dance and African fertility rituals.
The ODJB themselves were graduates of Papa Jack Laine’s racially diverse early jazz band – a heavy-touring unit that never recorded, but whose 100+ alumni included many jazz originators.
The other key New Orleans outfits working in a jazz idiom during this time were Buddy Bolden’s band (pictured up top), who are believed to have recorded a wax cylinder as early as the late 1890s (but which, if it did exist, sadly has not survived), and the Original Creole Orchestra. The Original Creole Orchestra was the first band to perform jazz outside of New Orleans (and the first band to explicitly refer to their sound as jazz), playing in over 75 cities in the USA and Canada.
From our Spotify playlist of the first year of jazz recordings, blues originator WC Handy is the only African-American recording artist. Again, this proportion of black to white jazz musicians is unlikely to be reflective of the working jazz musician demographic during this period. Wilbur Sweatman’s Bag of Rags in 1917 is sometimes referred to as the first jazz recording by a black artist, although some critics consider this to more strictly be ragtime with some improvisational elements.
Improvisation is the crux of what differentiated jazz from the blues and ragtime dance music of this period. The development of blues and ragtime from military marches meant that the music was performed with a rigid precision. Jazz did away with that rigidity, gleefully swapping precision for spontaneity. In a jazz band, one player – typically the trumpet or cornet player – would follow the melody, with the other musicians improvising around that melody line. This ‘all-at-once’ improvisation gave the music a hectic, careering feel in contrast to later jazz forms, which standardised a system of players taking turns to improvise a solo.
A jazz band of this period would usually also include a clarinettist, whose job was to embellish the melody. The bassline would be held down by a tuba, with a trombone sliding between bass and melody as it fancied, often gilding the music with sound effects such as ‘slides’ and ‘smears’. Jazz was initially marching band music, performed at dances, parties and in New Orleans funeral processions, but as the music moved further away from the marching band model, drum kits, piano and string bass also increasingly featured.
Though this early period of jazz is most often referred to as Dixieland, some historians and music fans find this term problematic, as ‘dixie’ refers to the pre-Civil War Southern States. When the music migrated North from New Orleans, it would also be known as ‘hot jazz’ in Chicago, though this came with further rhythmic idiosyncrasies added by Louis Armstrong and his peers.
For the purposes of this blog, we have opted to call it simply ‘early jazz’.