Vail Jazz: $10 jazz and technology
In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded what is generally considered to be the first jazz recording. “Livery Stable Blues” was the hit side of the record (you remember records, you actually turned them over to hear the music that was on the other side) and on the “flip” side was “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.” The record became an instantaneous hit and sold over 1 million copies, setting off a craze for jazz that ushered in the Jazz Age of the 1920s.
It is clear that for at least a decade prior to the recording, jazz was evolving, but it can’t be pinpointed with accuracy when the music was first performed since jazz is an art form that has evolved (and continues to evolve) from a combination of musical traditions: the music of post-Civil War era brass and marching bands, late 1800s ragtime, boogie-woogie, gospel and blues. There is no one point when all the ingredients were first fused together in a “jazzy way.”
By 1917, the recording industry was concentrated in New York City, but jazz was centered in New Orleans and the South, having begun to spread to several other urban areas. The widespread availability of the radio was still more than five years away and the first talkie movie was over a decade away, so the best technology of the day was a two-sided disc that, when turned at 78 rotations per minute, could spread jazz throughout the globe.
But it took the ODJB, composed of five white men traveling from New Orleans to New York City, to light the fuse that set off the jazz explosion. It should be remembered that jazz was performed for dancing, and while the ODJB claimed to be the “creators of jazz,” it is clear that jazz was generally created by African-Americans in New Orleans and there was no one creator of jazz. For many jazz historians, it is a sad fact that African-Americans weren’t the first to record a jazz record and that the band that did had copied the music of successful black musicians in New Orleans.
The quality of the playing on the record, with its limited improvisation and its repetitive choruses, was not the best example of jazz at the time and there was a corny aspect to the music with instruments imitating the sounds of barnyard animals, but the record displayed a lively danceable beat and the importance of the record cannot be denied. In essence, the technology of sound recording gave a large number of Americans, who had never heard jazz, their first chance to hear the music. It allowed for the rapid dissemination of a regional sound, which was then embraced in the four corners of the U.S. and shortly thereafter, globally.
The ODJB was the first band to use “Dixieland” as part of its name. While there is no doubt “Dixieland” was regularly used to describe the Southern states that seceded from the Union, the origin of Dixie as the descriptor of the South is clouded in mystery. The most accepted explanation is that “Dixie” is the corruption of the French word for 10: “dix.” When banks in the French Quarter of New Orleans (and ultimately in the surrounding areas) first issued their own $10 bank notes with “dix” on the reverse side, English-speaking southerners starting calling the bills “dixies.” Eventually, the entire South became known as Dixieland. The fact that the ODJB adopted this name also created another first. The music of New Orleans became known as Dixieland Jass and finally, Dixieland Jazz.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is re-adapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.