An advertisement for the Original Creole Orchestra from the December 1917 issue of Variety magazine. 'We stop 'em every show.' (James Karst)
It was a century ago this year that a group of five white musicians cut the first jazz record, selling more than 1 million copies and making famous the musical genre born in New Orleans. As always, however, there's more to that story, which was widely repeated last month on the centennial of the recording.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band certainly deserves credit for popularizing jazz. But by the time the musicians recorded on Feb. 26, 1917, the new music had already reached metropolises across the United States. The word jazz was already in the American lexicon. And there is considerable speculation that the new form of music had been recorded before, too.
The spread of jazz outside south Louisiana before 1917 can be attributed in part to Freddie Keppard. A New Orleans native, Keppard joined the vaudeville circuit and traveled from coast to coast, including stops in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and even visiting cities in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Alberta.
He had begun playing society jobs around New Orleans before 1910. He was a highly regarded cornet player, although jazz historian Samuel Charters wrote that Keppard "made most of his tips imitating a horse on his cornet." Some contemporaries referred to Keppard as "king" and considered him, along with Joe Oliver, to be a musical heir to Buddy Bolden, after Bolden's musical career was cut short by mental illness.
Around the time Louis Armstrong was sent to the Colored Waifs Home in January 1913 for shooting off a pistol on New Year's Eve, Keppard's show was on the road as the Original Creole Orchestra: trombone player Eddie Vinson, clarinetist George Baquet, drummer Dink Johnson, guitarist Leon Williams and violin player Jimmy Palao, in addition to Keppard.
"Freddie, he had left New Orleans with his band, and he was traveling all over the country playing towns on the Orpheum Circuit," clarinet player Sidney Bechet wrote in his 1960 autobiography "Treat it Gentle."
"At that time, you know, that was something new, and Freddie kept sending back all these clippings from what all the newspapermen and critics and all was writing up about him, about his music, about his band. And all these clippings were asking the same thing: Where did it come from?"
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In 1917, the Victor Talking Machine Co. decided to record the hot new music. Legend has it that the company offered a contract to Keppard but that he turned it down out of paranoia.
Keppard "had the chance to record," bassist Pops Foster told historian Tom Stoddard in one representative account, "but passed it up because he was afraid other guys would steal his stuff."
The story goes that Victor, after being spurned by Keppard, offered a contract to Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The song that the white group recorded at a studio in New York, "Livery Stable Blues," is marked by a passage during which the musicians made sounds that mimicked farm animals — just as Keppard supposedly had done for tips back in New Orleans.
The veracity of the tale about Keppard turning down the contract, because he feared his music would be plagiarized, is difficult to gauge today, but it's clear that Keppard and LaRocca's bands were in New York around the same time. In the New York Sun on March 4, 1917, less than a week after "Livery Stable Blues" had been recorded and several days before it was released, there is an advertisement for Reisenweber's restaurant:
"An exceptional beefsteak dinner, $1.50," says the ad. "Served from noon to 9 p.m. with elaborate entertainment. The Original Dixieland 'Jazz' Band."
An advertisement for a New York supper club where Freddie Keppard's Original Creole Orchestra performed. From the March 4, 1917, New York Sun.
On the same page is an advertisement for the Montmartre supper club ("the most unique supper place, where exclusive New York meets") promoting the appearance of Keppard and his bandmates, "the Original Creole Ragtime Band from New Orleans in 'Jazz' Music."
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There was widespread speculation in the national press at the time that jazz had originated in Chicago, a city through which both LaRocca and Keppard had passed before arriving in New York. Variety magazine sought to set the record straight in its November 1916 edition, in the process refuting LaRocca's famous assertion decades later that he was the inventor of jazz.
"Chicago's claim to originating 'Jazz Bands' and 'Balling the Jack' are as groundless, according to Variety's New Orleans correspondent, as Frisco's assuming to be the locale for the first 'Todolo' and 'Turkey Trot' dances. Little negro tots were 'Ballin' the Jack' in New Orleans over ten years ago, and negro roustabouts were 'Turkey Trotting' and doing the 'Todolo' in New Orleans as far back as 1890, he says. 'Jazz Bands' have been popular there for over two years, and Chicago cabaret owners brought entertainers from that city to introduce the idea."
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Keppard died in relative obscurity in 1933, two years after Bolden, the man Keppard had succeeded as one of the kings of New Orleans jazz. Bolden is sometimes regarded as the progenitor of jazz himself, and he was undoubtedly its biggest early star, although his fame was limited to the New Orleans vicinity during his career and he stopped performing publicly long before the jazz name came into common use in reference to music.
Baquet, the clarinet player with Keppard's Original Creole Orchestra, described first hearing Bolden to jazz writer Nat Shapiro in a book published in 1955. "I was out celebrating with some of my friends when we went to a ball at the Odd Fellows' Hall, where Buddy Bolden worked," Baquet is quoted as saying in "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya." "I remember thinking it was a funny place, nobody took their hats off. It was plenty tough. You paid fifteen cents and walked in.
"When we came in, we saw the band, six of them, on a low stand. They had their hats on, too, and were resting — pretty sleepy.
"We stood behind a column. All of a sudden, Buddy stomps, knocks on the floor with his trumpet to give the beat, and they all sit up straight, wide awake. Buddy held up his cornet, paused to be sure of his embouchure, then they played 'Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.' Everybody got up quick, the whole place rose and yelled out, "Oh, Mr. Bolden, play it for us, Buddy, play it!"
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Just what Bolden sounded like might never be known. But he is widely believed to have recorded, almost two decades before LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. And other early black jazz musicians — perhaps even Freddie Keppard — might also have recorded in New Orleans well before 1917.
But there's a catch: Any recordings they made were not for commercial purposes, and they almost certainly no longer exist.
"Early cylinder phonographs could record as well as play, and most of the older musicians probably recorded for their own amusement at one time or another," writes Charters in his "Jazz: New Orleans, 1885-1957."
"Willie Cornish has recalled that the Bolden band made a cylinder, and George Baquet recalled recording in 1912. None of the early cylinders is known to survive."
Bolden and his band, the story goes, were recorded sometime around the turn of the century by Oscar Zahn, who operated a grocery store and saloon near what's now the intersection of Simon Bolivar Avenue and Jackson Avenue. Zahn, who had an Edison phonograph that could both play and record, stored his cylinders in a shed.
A small group of enthusiasts searched in vain for the Bolden cylinder, the Holy Grail of jazz, for decades. The shed was demolished in the 1960s, and the recording has never been found.
In his book "In Search of Buddy Bolden," Don Marquis writes, "That the cylinder was made is quite believable; that it is gone forever is even more believable."