The First Recording of Jazz Music
While there is no actual day that jazz was born, we do know that it evolved over the course of a couple hundred years. The earliest trace of the first jazz recording however, dates from February 26, 1917, when five members of the ‘Original Dixieland Jass band’ took the lift to the 12th Floor of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s building on 38th street in New York City. There they recorded the song ‘Livery Stable Blues’.
Surprisingly, this band was a formation of five young Caucasian guys. When they recorded ‘Livery Stable Blues’, the all-white Original Jass band borrowed to a point of plagiarism from the African American music they heard in their native New Orleans. This song in fact, sold over one million hit singles.
The Roots of Jazz Music
This lesser-known history of jazz goes far beyond 200 years, and covers the social and cultural structures around Afro-Americans in early American society. Yes, it even dates all the way back to the colonial period, when Africans were transported on the American continent, and were still bound to slavery.
This period in history created a huge influx of African culture and musical traditions in the South, which contributed significantly to the birth of early blues techniques in the 1800s. One of the interesting techniques for example, were the homophonic, heterophonic harmonies and parallelism voicings when songs were performed. This means that even when singers were singing at exactly the same time, their pitches would be exactly a third from each other. One of the most important melodic developments from this time, was the blues note. Those are the flattened 3rd and 7th notes in a scale that flavors a melody to give it a sorrowful bluesy feel, and still widely used in jazz music and blues today.
Other Sub-Saharan elements that were visible in the early blues practices were the tribal ‘call and response’ songs. These songs originally functioned as a pattern of democratic participation in civic and religious affairs. In the colonial period these musical functions remained in the early origins of blues when African slaves combined these traditions with western influences from ragtime, gospel, and other European Christian musical traditions from churches.
Time passed and the rise of brass and marching bands in the late 1800s formed the frontline of popular culture. This was mainly fueled by the increasing importance of musical patriotism which held a vast grip on American and European societies in the 1890s all the way up till the 1920s. Many African-American musicians, who had not been bound to slavery anymore, participated in the increasingly popular brass band. In time they’d started to incorporate those traditional elements from ragtime, blues, and gospel to grasp back to their own cultural heritage.
Even though the development of blues moved away from the South towards Chicago and the Midwestern states, the South stayed on the frontline of musical development. Over time the typical French Catholic culture mixed itself with the African culture to open up the way to ‘Creole’ culture in America. This sub-culture in society had developed over time its own variation on language, values, food, and of course music.
This rise of Creole culture in the city of New Orleans resulted that African-American musicians from this area combined their music with the increasingly popular dance tunes of the brass bands in the early 1900s. This refreshing take on blues resulted for example in the music of cornet player Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden between 1895 and 1900. He incorporated the use of improvised blues with the increasing tempo of the popular dance tunes. Therefore, he is credited to date by many early jazz musicians as the innovator that opened up the way on what would become ‘Jazz’ in music history.
This development also explains why many jazz formations are mainly focused on brass-oriented instrumentation, rather string instruments, which was the common arrangement form for chamber settings around that time. Along with social laws, that stripped Creoles of color from their special status in society, these musicians incorporated more musical styles from the uptown improvisational style. This resulted in the typical front line of a New Orleans jazz band, which consisted of a cornet, clarinet, and trombone.
In the early 1900s, early jazz music became an important part of social events in society. This resulted in many job opportunities for musicians. Jazz was now a normal part of life in and around New Orleans. As its success increased, early jazz began to spread towards other cities. It started to become a part of show tours and it would only be a matter of time before its first commercial success would be a fact.
Jazz is Born
We have now arrived on February 26, 1917. The white musical formation of the “Original Dixieland Jass Band” recorded their song in New York, which was received with much success. From this point forward, jazz music would be known as an entire music genre on its own. Even though its origins were rooted in the African American community, its success was skyrocketed by ‘white’ musicians in New York.
More and more jazz musicians moved towards the North, because of the new demand for jazz music. This resulted in more job opportunities, plus the northern states also provided better social conditions for Afro-American citizens. This is the period when many notable names like Joe “King” Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong come into play. They all contributed and added their own influences to the traditions of early New Orleans jazz. From Armstrong’s brilliant incorporation of the soloist art, towards Jelly Roll Morton’s piano work to set the stage for the ‘Swing’ era, it all had its origins that we should never forget.
Pianist Eubie Blake said, in an interview with National Public Radio before his death in 1983: “When Broadway picked it up, they called it 'J-A-Z-Z.’ It wasn't called that. It was spelled 'J-A-S-S.' That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn't say it in front of ladies."
A few months after that recording of Livery Stable Blues, the fivesome would change their name to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band for good.
Want to hear more? Listen to Calm Radio’s many jazz music channels online, like the Dixieland channel, Ragtime music channel, Jazz Piano music, Jazz Guitar music channel, the BeBop jazz music channel and don’t forget, the Blues music channel.
African Americans in New Orleans: The Music. http://nutrias.org/~nopl/exhibits/black97.htm
Gerhard Kubik, Bebop: A Case in Point. The African Matrix in Jazz Harmonic Practices. Black Music Research Journal, published March 22, 2005
Harold, A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Recollections, Legends, Tales, Songs, Religious Beliefs, Customs, Sayings and Humor of People of African Descent in the Americas. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1976.
Jazz Origins in New Orleans. https://www.nps.gov/jazz/learn/historyculture/history_early.htm
The Origins of Blues Music. https://www.allaboutbluesmusic.com/the-origins-of-blues-music/
The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/02/birth-of-blues-and-jazz/
Mysterious Origins of Jazz. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170224-the-mysetrious-origins-of-jazz