A record of two songs by the Original Dixieland Jass band appeared in May 1917. It has gone down in history as the earliest jazz recording. Or was it?
In any case, it made a huge splash. Recordings of dozens of other pieces with either jazz in the title or the name of the group appeared before the end of the year.
The year 1917 marks a turning point not only in a particular art form, but in black music. Even though whites made the overwhelming majority of the earliest jazz recordings.
The early status of black musicians
The history of American popular music mirrors the history of race relations. Beginning in about the 1840s, minstrel shows became a dominant form of entertainment. They featured white performers in blackface imitating slave music.
A black troupe performing authentic slave music was unthinkable in respectable theaters and concert venues.
According to universal white opinion, abolitionists as well as slave holders, Africans had the nature of children. With heartfelt emotion, they could mimic art. But they had no innate capability to create or invent anything.
A craze for coon songs developed in the 1880s. They made comedy by exaggerating stereotypes of blacks as bumbling buffoons, generally lacking in morals. Ironically, their use of syncopation led to the acceptance of ragtime and jazz by white audiences.
After the Civil War, black minstrels broke into theaters. But they could gain an audience only by imitating the white imitations of black culture. Some even performed in blackface.
Black instrumental groups had more success playing for dances. One such band led by Francis Johnson became the first American band to go on a foreign tour in 1837. Black bands played the same kinds of music as white bands, probably just as well, but they didn’t have to be paid as much.
They could introduce some aspects of black performance practice, which gave their renditions an exotic appeal.
Visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893) heard ragtime piano players on the Midway. And probably less reputable places around town. Ragtime, with its very un-European syncopations, quickly became popular.
Bands, as well as pianists, began playing it. White performers learned to play it, too. Being more respectable in society, they more easily garnered a public following.
The early history of black recording artists and recordings of black music
The history of black recording artists started in 1890 when George W. Johnson recorded a song for the Berliner company.
Over the course of the 1890s he recorded for the Berliner, Edison, and Columbia companies.
Of course, he could only record coon songs. His first recording (“The Laughing Coon,” 1891) gives a flavor of the style. It also shows the primitive condition of early recording technology.
The partnership of George Walker and Bert Williams became famous and successful black entertainers around the turn of the century.
With vaudeville still dominated by coon songs, they billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.” They made 15 recordings in the first decade of the 20th century for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Other blacks rivaled their fame, but it took a while for black music that had no relation to racial stereotypes to gain widespread public favor.
We think of Scott Joplin, who died in 1917, as the king of ragtime, but the earliest recordings of his music sold poorly. And that even though the sheet music sold very well and the great touring wind bands of the time performed his music with great success.
Why? Perhaps because recording technology couldn’t handle the sound of the piano until the development of electrical recording in the mid 1920s.
Banjo, on the other hand, recorded well. White banjo virtuoso Vess L. Ossman made numerous ragtime recordings, beginning in 1897.
Ossman’s 1907 recording of Maple Leaf Rag has much better sound than the Johnson recording and amply demonstrates his mastery of the style.
All that jazz
Jazz started in New Orleans. At least that’s what most experts say. Early in the 20th century New Orleans musicians began to travel.
A band called the Creole Band began to tour on the vaudeville circuit in 1914.
Of course, in the racial conditions of the time, they performed what was expected of them: plantation songs, comedy, and dance routines.
Although hardly the first jazz band to travel, the Creole Band did much to popularize New Orleans jazz from coast to coast.
The Creole Band should have made the first commercial recording of jazz. After all, Victor Talking Records invited them early in 1916. They refused the opportunity.
The torrent of jazz recordings begins
The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB), a white group from New Orleans, received an invitation to make recordings for Columbia records. The session happened in January 1917. Columbia didn’t like the result and so passed up the chance to issue the first jazz recording.
Even by 1917, the musical world hadn’t yet settled on the modern spelling of jazz. Many of the earliest bands had “jass” in their name.
The torrent of jazz recordings begins
The ODJB recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One Step” for Victor on February 26, 1917. Being white, they had a much more favorable contract than Victor offered the Creole Band. When the record went on sale in May, its immediate success sparked a fad for jazz.
Most historians of jazz and the recording industry therefore consider that these two sides the first jazz recordings.
It’s not the first record with the word “jass” on the label, however. Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan, a white comedy duo who sang coon songs and rag standards, recorded “That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland” for Edison on November 8, 1916. Edison released it in April 1917.
Purists complain that white bands like ODJB could only imitate real New Orleans jazz. If so, Collins and Harlan recorded a pretty good imitation themselves.
Borbee’s Jass Orchestra recorded two songs for Columbia on February 14, 1917. At least, that’s what the labels said. The recording session took place almost two weeks earlier than the ODJB’s Victor session. Columbia released it only after Victor had clearly unleashed a hit.
These songs have no discernable jazz elements. Neither do the songs the band recorded in August. In fact, it appears if Columbia had issued these songs much earlier, the label would have identified the band as Borbee’s Tango Orchestra. It changed its name to capitalize on the ODJB’s success.
A partial list other 1917 jazz-related recordings
- “Ephraim Jazbo Band” by George H. O’Connor, a white lawyer who performed as a black-face minstrel on the side. He recorded it two weeks before the ODJB’s recording session, on February 10.
- “Everybody loves a ‘jass’ band” by Arthur Fields, another white vaudeville act, recorded for Edison on March 15.
- Seven instrumentals recorded in April by Wilbur Sweatman and his Jass Band, the first black band to release a jazz recording.
- Numerous songs recorded, beginning April 16, by Charles Prince’s Band. This band recorded a wide variety of music, including the first recordings of several jazz pieces. It recorded W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in 1915, two years before Handy’s own first recording session.
- “Smiles and Chuckles—A jazz Rag,” recorded May 9 by the Six Brown Brothers, a saxophone sextet important for popularizing the instrument.
- “Slippery Hank” and “Yah-De-Dah,” recorded on June 4 by Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, a white band that contributed greatly to the popularity of jazz in New York
- “When I Hear That Jazz Band Play,” recorded on July 18 by Marion Harris, a white vaudeville performer and the first woman to record jazz.
- “Johnson’s Jass Blues” and other pieces recorded in July and August by the Frisco Jass Band, formed earlier that year.
- “Mr. Jazz Himself,” a song by Irving Berlin recorded on August 8 by Irving Kaufman. Tin Pan Alley was quick to pick up trends.
- “The Jass” and “Lazy Blues,” recorded in August by Dabney’s band, led by black band leader Ford Dabney.
- Cover of ODJB’s “Livery Stable Blues” by W.C. Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis in September, the third black band to record jazz.
- Five recordings by the Yerkes Jazarimba Orchestra in September that featured marimba and xylophone played, by George Hamilton Green and his brother Joe.
So more than two dozen of the earliest jazz recordings appeared in the space of nine months. The torrent continued for decades.
African American performers on early sound recordings, 1892-1916 / Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Charles Adam Prince / Robert Cummings, All Music http://www.allmusic.com/artist/charles-adams-prince-mn0002289802
Early recordings of African American/early ragtime / Tim Gracyk, Tim’s Phonographs and old records
Pioneers of jazz: the story of the Creole Band / Lawrence Gushee. Oxford University Press, 2005.
The first jazz records / Scott Alexander, Red Hot Jazz
That funny jas band from Dixieland, Collins and Harlan: the first jazz record? / 20sJazz.com
All images are public domain