Beyond the pale

The first jazz disc was cut 80 years ago today. Although the musicians have been dismissed as white copyists, the recording still comes across as radical and irreverent. So, asks Phil Johnson, what must it have sounded like to audiences back in 1927?
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The Independent Culture
In Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, published in 1929, Mrs Beste- Chetwynde arrives at the school sports day with her black lover, Chokey. In a strained attempt to make conversation, the headmaster asks if he is interested in music. "Has he heard my new records, would you say?" says Chokey. "No darling, I don't expect he has," replies Mrs Beste-Chetwynde. "Well just you hear them, sir, and then you'll know - am I interested in music."

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first ever jazz recording. "Livery Stable Blues", coupled with "Dixie Jass Band One Step", by the quintet of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (still called a "jass" band on the disc's release in early March), was recorded in New York on 26 February 1917, for the Victor Talking Machine Company, later RCA Victor. As with most firsts, there's a bit of doubt about the veracity of the claim: forms of black music such as ragtime were recorded before that date, and the black band leader James Europe made dance tunes for Victor in 1913 and 1914, although scholars still argue about whether or not they were jazz. The ODJB had themselves recorded for the rival company Columbia in January, 1917, but there were problems with the sound quality - more likely, the company thought the results were too raucous - and they were not released until after the success of the Victor sides.

Whatever, listening to "Livery Stable Blues" today (and it's to be re- released by RCA Victor, now owned by BMG, next month as the first stage in a grand reissue programme that will last all year) remains a thrilling experience. Although the politically correct view is that the ODJB were white copyists whose music was literally a pale imitation of the black styles current in New Orleans, from whence the group had come via Chicago, this doesn't really hold water when you hear the marvellous music. The A-side - although it was originally the B-side of "Livery Stable Blues", is especially good, and though there's little of the subtlety or instrumental virtuosity that would characterise the recordings of Kid Ory or King Oliver only a few years later, the energy and rhythmic drive of the music is astonishing. Importantly, it was first and foremost dance music, and a bpm (beats per minute) count of "Livery Stable Blues" would reach a figure not incompatible with today's club floor-fillers. Comparisons with the initial shock of hearing punk or jungle might be specious, but if this music can sound so alive, so convulsive, and so irreverent - complete with braying horns, cock-crowing clarinet and a big bass-drum beat that can still rattle your speaker cabinets - 80 years later, what must it have sounded like then?

"The Original Dixieland Jazz Band - Untuneful Harmonists Playing Peppery Melodies", was the group's slogan, and their leader Nick LaRocca - 27 at the time of the recording, and a master publicist as well as a mean cornet player - delighted in accentuating the wildness of their sound, describing them as musical anarchists. "Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it's the slaying of syncopation", he boasted, as the record became an instant success and inaugurated a moral panic about the supposedly sexually incendiary nature of the music. The group had formed in New Orleans, where the musicians learnt from the examples of King Oliver and "Papa" Jack Laine, another white pioneer of the music. Although the exact origins of jazz are lost in myth and legend, and the pianist and band leader Jelly Roll Morton was later to claim that, "I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902", the ODJB's early recordings offer as close a glimpse of the beginnings of jazz as we can get.

In 1916 the band moved from New Orleans to Chicago, in advance of the mass exodus of musicians after the army closed down the brothel district of Storyville in 1917. In Chicago, where they began a season at the Booster Club, jazz was finally named, the sexual-slang word used by opponents of another non-union New Orleans band in an attempt to discredit them, (although the term might possibly originate from the French Creole verb jaser, meaning to chatter). At the beginning of the following year the ODJB moved to New York, where, on the recommendation of Al Jolson, they started a residency at Reisenweber's Cafe, a new and fashionable night- spot. Their impact was so immediate that Columbia rushed to record the band only two weeks after their arrival.

The context of these early shows was emphatically a showbiz one. The band wore elaborate costumes including top hats emblazoned with their initials, and trombonist Eddie Edwards sometimes worked the instrument's slide with his foot. They shared the Reisenweber bill with vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, and comedian Jimmie Durante played piano with the New Orleans Jazz Band in a neighbouring club. When the ODJB came to England in 1919, Punch magazine noted their imminent arrival at Liverpool docks with the phrase, "We are grateful for the warning." The band was booked into London's Hippodrome for the producer Albert de Courville's revue "Joy Bells", but such was their impact that the star, George Robey, insisted that they were removed from the show after only one night. They went off on a tour of variety theatres, including the Palladium and Hammersmith Palais, and performed before George V. A reviewer in The Times remarked that the new phenomenon of the jazz band was "one of the many American peculiarities that threaten to make life a nightmare", while another remarked that: "The fever spread throughout the theatre until every last man and woman was on his feet, shouting and clapping in a manner that was peculiarly un-British."

The ODJB went on to record in London, producing 20 tracks for Columbia, before returning to America in July 1920. They signed a new record contract with Okeh, but their novelty value had more or less been exhausted. The proliferation of recordings by other artists, and the changing emphasis in jazz as a popular form (Paul Whiteman's first Symphonic Jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was held in 1924), meant that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was suddenly outmoded, like flared trousers after punk. The surviving members reformed in 1936, too late to appeal to modern tastes, and too early for the Dixieland revival of the Forties. By then of course, jazz records had become commonplace, though the serial number of that first, epoch making, release - "Livery Stable Blues", Victor 18255 - would continue to entrance jazz trainspotters for ever after.

By the Twenties, the popularity of jazz in Britain was assured, and black jazzmen were fashionable enough for society hostesses like Nancy Cunard - probably the source for Waugh's Mrs Beste-Chetwynde (although Cunard became a genuine and important defender of black people's rights) - to parade them in public. Although the Original Dixieland Jazz Band may not have been quite the real thing, the anodyne tradition of British dance orchestras - out of which sprang the first generation of British jazz musicians - would never be the same again. The next 80 years is, of course, another story

Volume 1 (1917-1929) of the eight-volume Victor 80th Anniversary series is released on 10 March, together with a sampler CD from the whole series