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The E-Discographer #1 May, 2000


by BRIAN RUST In the beginning, at any rate on records, in the history of jazz, was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Even its most trenchant critics and its most bitter detractors admit that. But what was the genuine "first" that brought "jass" music to an embattled world just seventy years ago? So much has been written about the beginnings of the music, with some emphasis on recorded evidence of it, that to ask a question like this at this late date seems ludicrous. It is stated in my friend Harry O. Brunn's remarkable book THE STORY OF THE DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND (Louisiana State University Press, 1960), pp. 64-65, that Columbia were the first to record the sensation from New Orleans "less than a week after their spectacular opening at Reisenweber's (January 27, 1917) were under contract to make the world's first jazz phonograph record." There follow four paragraphs describing how Columbia insisted the band launch jazz on record with two popular songs of the time (THE DARKTOWN STRUTTERS' BALL and INDIANA) rather than numbers of their own, how the small studio reverberated wall-to-wall with the sound, and "a gang of carpenters, who were building shelves in the studio, laughed and threw their tools about the room to contribute to the bedlam."

I am uncertain as to what the origin of this legend is; there seems to be nothing in the late Nick LaRocca's files to uphold it, and those files are minutely documented accounts of everything the band did. It certainly seems very unlikely that carpenters building shelves in a recording studio would be allowed to continue while a recording session was in progress, no matter what the nature of the performance might be. Further, reference to the original recording card in the CBS files for both titles reveals that four takes of DARKTOWN STRUTTERS-and three of INDIANA were completed, two of each actually being used for issue to the public when the record (A-2297) was announced in the supplement for September, 1917.
There is nothing on any of them to suggest that this was a test date, the products of which were dragged out of the "dead" files (Brunn, p. 71) and issued to counteract the success of a Victor date on February 26, 1917. When a band made a test, one take was usually enough; certainly not seven to cover two titles, and by an untried unknown quantity such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Recently, I came into possession of microfilms of the Columbia artists' files, and these, arranged alphabetically, show all the titles, issued and rejected, by each artist from the Aarons Sisters to the Zoellner String Quartet. From the autumn of 1915 onwards, each title is noted with the date on which it was recorded, passed for issue (or rejected), date of issue (if any), and catalogue number (also). The sole entry under Original Dixieland Jass Band bears the date May 31, 1917 for both titles. Nowhere previously is there any reference to a test date, or any suggestion that the band had been in the Columbia studio prior to their Victor date. In the light of this discovery, it is evident that with their usual go-getter methods, Victor secured the services of the band for a test session on February 26, 1917, that it passed this test and the results issued with incredible speed under date of March 7. Certainly the Victor test date did produce three takes of DIXIE JASS BAND ONE-STEP and two of LIVERY STABLE BLUES, but from Nick LaRocca's own account of the Victor session, Charles Sooy, the senior recording engineer, took endless pains to ensure that his company secured the best possible results, and that only AFTER these had been put on sale did Columbia (as usual then) follow where Victor led.

The story of the legal hassle over the inclusion of a strain from Joe Jordan's THAT TEASING RAG in DIXIE JASS BAND ONE-STEP, without label credit, has often been told; it may be that this is what drove LaRocca into Columbia's waiting studio, rather than the reverse, as is stated in H. O. Brunn's book. It is interesting to note that Victor proclaimed jazz to the nation nine days after recording it for the first time anywhere, while Columbia took three months - and with two big hits from Tin Pan Alley, not some weird jazz works from LaRocca's fertile brain. Before Columbia decided to issue what it had recorded that last day of May, the band had signed a contract with Aeolian, and had already made two sessions for them. The contract was for six months; it was not renewed, and the band recorded exclusively for Victor in the USA from the spring of 1918 until the end of 1921. In London, of course, it was Columbia that obtained their services for the famous seventeen twelve-inch sides. So the discography can be amended to read the Victor date first of all; THEN the Columbia (probably the worst of all mementoes of the band). It is interesting to observe, in conclusion, that two days after the Victor ODJB session, Wilbur Sweatman made a test for Victor of a clarinet solo of BOOGIE RAG .... but that did not pass the stringent test of the Victor selection committee, and Sweatman, like LaRocca, accepted a Columbia test date - three and a half months later.

His Original Jazz Band eventually made two sides considered suitable for the Columbia catalogue NINE MONTHS later still. By then, the ODJB had gone through its Aeolian period, and had made two further dates for Victor. Sweatman's "jazz" records were the nearest Columbia got to recording the new idiom until the summer of 1919, when the company made a few desultory sessions of the Synco Jazz Band, Gorman's Novelty Syncopators, and various Yerkes groups (the Southern Five and the Happy Six are the most jazz-orientated, but they hardly compare with the superb Victors of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) ..... and the Louisiana Five.

-Editor's note: this article was first published in Mr. Rust's own Needle Time No. 11, July, 1987 and appears here with his permission.
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