Court Carney. Popular Music and Society. Volume 29, Issue 3. July 2006.
In early 1938, Jelly Roll Morton, self-proclaimed “Originator of Jazz and Stomps” and “World’s Greatest hot Tune Writer,” wrote a rambling letter to Down Beat, the pre-eminent jazz magazine, announcing that “New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be the creator [of jazz] in the year 1902.” This year-specific boast had as its impetus an episode of Robert Ripley’s popular Believe It or Not radio series that claimed W. C. Handy as the “originator of jazz and the blues.” Full of vitriol, Morion’s letter was an attempt by the New Orleans piano player to place his hometown (and himself) at the center of the creation of jazz. “My contributions were many,” Morton wrote, “first clown director, with witty sayings and flashily dressed, now called master of ceremonies; first glee club in orchestra; the first washboard was recorded by me; bass fiddle, drums-which were supposed to be impossible to record” (“I Created” 3). A critique of Handy coursed through the letter and Morton claimed that Handy’s “Memphis Blues” borrowed (or stole) heavily from one of Jelly Roll’s own compositions. A controversial letter in jazz circles, Morion’s not entirely unfounded rant inspired a folklorist working for the Library of Congress to contact the pianist for a series of interviews-a collection of conversations that represented the first extensive oral history of jazz produced by a musician connected to the primeval sounds of early jazz in New Orleans.
A braggart and a pimp, Morton was also one of the first real composers of jazz music, and his career points to the large variety of musical antecedents of jazz and the importance of New Orleans, the most cosmopolitan of southern towns. Boasting a diverse lineage of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, New Orleans also developed a complex social order of white, black, and Creole inhabitants. Each of these groups maintained unique-if connected-musical performance styles, and various secular and religious traditions allowed for a large number of venues for musical performance. Although other cities maintained dynamic musical scenes, only
New Orleans fostered an environment that allowed the right ingredients to come together within a few years at the dawn of the 20th century. New Orleans played a rather unusual role as the first “jazz city.” Both Chicago and New York would produce jazz scenes connected closely to urban culture, but New Orleans jazz never developed a strong urban identity. Vague divisions defined much of the culture in New Orleans, and even the issue of race became clouded by a middle grouping of Creoles. A port city in a state with a complex history marked by international imperialism, New Orleans differed from most other southern cities by maintaining a diverse, cosmopolitan, and racially mixed population. In broad strokes, three basic groups of people lived in the city: white citizens from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds; English-speaking, predominantly Protestant, black Americans; and a middle group of French-speaking, predominately Catholic, Creoles. Race played only a partial role in differentiating the groups as class, social background, education, and religion all contributed to constituting the middle ground between black and white (see Ostransky 1-40). Unique in its demographic composition, the city’s Creole community coupled with the blurred bifurcation of urban and rural societal elements produced a varied and distinct society. Connections to the city’s rural existence proved rather indissoluble, and many African Americans identified more readily with rural white immigrants than black Creoles. In terms of the creation of jazz music this rural-urban dichotomy and the city’s unique diversity allowed for a wide range of musical elements to permeate New Orleans.
Early jazz musicians in New Orleans performed for a variety of reasons and audiences: private parties, dances, funerals, marches, and innumerable other more informal events situated in bars and honkytonks. Although the setting differed, in general New Orleans jazz signified a compromise somewhere between the folk dynamics of the blues and the commercial leanings of ragtime. Not purely “folk music,” early jazz musicians performed for paying audiences not entirely comprised of their own specific milieu. Yet jazz also failed to be defined simply as commercial music. Unlike the ragtime songs of Tin Pan Alley, early jazz sold no products such as sheet music or recordings, and existed only as a live medium. Not preserved on record or in print, and not transmitted through radio, early jazz maintained the identity of the groups from which it originated. In this way, New Orleans jazz related more to the blues improvisations of the Mississippi Delta than the jazz heard on the radio in the 1920s. A number of New Orleans musicians began adapting and transforming ragtime, the blues, music for dancing, and music for marching into something unique to the city. Not quite folk, not quite commercial, New Orleans jazz can be more easily understood as an example of a music produced outside the framework of mass culture.
The careers of three local musicians-Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Laine, and Buddy Bolden-demonstrate the racial, social, cultural, and musical differences inherent in the New Orleans scene in the late 19th century and serve as reminders that jazz emerged from a variety of sources. Performing a blend of ragtime, dance music, and the blues, Jelly Roll Morton personified both the strong piano tradition of the city and the complex nature of Creole society. “Papa” Jack Laine, a white bandleader and entrepreneur, helped structure and popularize white brass bands in the city. And Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a black trumpet player, prefigured the age of the soloist and was perhaps the most significant figure in the prehistory of New Orleans jazz. No single New Orleans musician created jazz-though not a few have claimed to have done so-but the city did foster a fertile environment for musical development and signified a microcosm of late 19th-century music. Jazz, the soundtrack of modern America in the 1920s, originated in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and this new, weird noise had as its antecedents the complex rhythms and myths of southern Louisiana.
Born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in 1890, Jelly Roll Morton persistently changed his name, family history, and date of birth throughout his career to redefine his role in the creation of jazz music. As a New Orleans Creole with an African American heritage, Morton lived and worked within this rather amorphous middle community of the city, and throughout his interviews with Alan Lomax, Morton discoursed about his ancestry and his identity. A complicated jumble of cosmopolitan sophistication and rural ancestry, Creole society provided a cultural synthesis as the improvised rural blues of black Americans merged with the harmonic structure of urban America to produce a new musical form.6 Morion’s own name underscores the diversity of the Creole existence as well as the importance of self-invention even in the early years of jazz. His given name, LaMenthe or LaMothe, relates directly to his French ancestry, and Morton consistently emphasized this heritage. Black life interested Morton less, but his invented sobriquet belied his mixed ancestry and emphasized his determination to project himself as American, rather than as a member of some specific ethnic group. He muted the French overtones of LaMothe with the less foreign-sounding Morton, but his acquired first name connects back to his undeniable African ancestry. Replacing Ferdinand-a reference to the king of Spain-with Jelly Roll, Morton chose a name ripe with sexual connotations that relates clearly to the African American vernacular. A blend of cosmopolitan pretension and sexual innuendo, Morton created a new American identity that blurred certain elements of his ancestry while implicitly stressing other aspects.
Just as his invented name merged black and white cultures, Morion’s music borrowed liberally from a number of sources. Morion’s main innovation concerned the merging of ragtime syncopation with the tonalities and harmonies of the blues (Giddens 71). Improvisation played a role in Morion’s music, but the piano player also highly regarded the written composition. Seemingly informal, Morton based his music on a complex understanding of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Morton borrowed from a variety of styles, including Latin American music, which he referred to as the “Spanish tinge” in his songs. New Orleans piano players represented one source of Morion’s musical synthesis, especially the musicians employed in Storyville, the local vice district where Morton apparently had found employment as early as 1902 when he was 12 years old. Though it was perhaps the most infamous area of late 19th-century New Orleans, the connection of Storyville to jazz history remains rather elusive. Early jazz scholars tended to overemphasize the role of the district, perhaps because of the salacious idea of whorehouse jazz, but also because many early jazz musicians cited the area as a place for jazz performance. Although few, if any, jazz bands actually played in the district-due to size, noise, and monetary constraints-solo piano players certainly found some employment opportunities at various brothels.
Whereas Morion’s early career spoke to the fluidity of life as a Creole, Jack Laine’s experiences attest to the exceedingly more capacious boundaries affecting white New Orleans. Born in 1873, George Vital “Papa Jack” Laine was the most important and influential white musician who performed in 19th-century New Orleans. Sometimes referred to as the “father of white jazz,” Laine served less as a jazz innovator than a musical organizer. Although not based in improvisation, Laine’s brass bands provided white New Orleanians (and some lighter-skinned Creoles) opportunities to learn an instrument as well as to acquaint themselves with a repertoire of marching band standards. Practically every major white New Orleans jazz musician of the 1910s and 1920s fulfilled tenure in one of Laine’s bands which created a legacy of brass band performance and instruction in early jazz. An entrepreneur, Laine organized as many as five different bands all under the “Reliance” moniker, a system that allowed Laine to employ groups simultaneously throughout the city (Sudhalter 12). These brass bands performed a wide range of material-religious songs, minstrel songs, and ragtime songs-for a wide range of events-parades, civic ceremonies, dances, community concerts, and funerals. Many American cities had brass bands, but few communities rivaled New Orleans in terms of size and available venues for music, allowing for Laine’s success. Laine’s bands represent the strongest link between the brass bands of the 19th century and the early jazz of the early 20th century.
The Reliance bands led by Laine corresponded with a larger tradition of public entertainment connected with American cities, especially in late 19th-century New Orleans. Maintaining a membership of about ten players, brass bands like the Reliance provided early jazz with several elements that would come to define, in part, this new style of music. The instrumentation of brass ensembles, for example, with their line-up of cornets, trombones, baritone horns, clarinets, tuba, and percussion served as the template for later jazz bands. Brass bands usually performed with military-style outdoor instruments-horns with larger tubing and wider, deeper mouthpieces-allowing for more volume and range (Schafer 6-8). Later jazz musicians adopted these outdoor instruments, partly due to their apprenticeship with them in marching bands and their brash noisiness. In addition, the members of brass bands relied on the bandleader to teach the material through rehearsals rather than sheet music.” These bands played arrangements, rather than purely improvised pieces, but this method of instruction relates to the way jazz bands would rehearse a tune and establish a pattern of solos and accompaniment. This teaching style also underscored the importance of ensemble-playing in the city. The cornet player, for example, might spell out the melody, but the harmonies and counterpoint of the ensemble proved just as significant. The collective sound of the band, in other words, took precedence over individual performances, and though some of his players went on to become important soloists, Laine always emphasized the collective elements in his bands.
Although they emerged from different social backgrounds, Jack Laine and Jelly Roll Morton helped bring ragtime, brass band, and dance elements into the creation of early jazz. Morion’s style reflected a larger emphasis on improvisation, but both he and Laine organized bands based on the importance of compositional integrity with a small ensemble performing rehearsed arrangements. Laine and Morton also connected with each other through their casual dismissal of-if not explicit disdain for-black New Orleanians. Morion’s “unequivocal prejudices,” one writer notes, “against the black Uptown Negroes and their music were responsible for both Morion’s most successful achievements and his ultimate decline as a force in jazz” (Schuller 137-38). Much of this vituperation arose from Morion’s Creole background, but the piano player also clearly disassociated himself from the more explicit rural elements. Laine, too, evidenced a strong racial bias as he was “loath to admit that black musicians had any effect on his music” (Sudhalter 12).
Despite the easy dismissal of African American contributions to jazz by Morton and Laine, black New Orleanians provided a key link between the blues music of the rural Mississippi Delta and the more ragtime-influenced syncopation of the city. Born in 1877, Charles “Buddy” Bolden personified this synthesis of urban and rural aesthetics and represents “the key figure in the formation of classic jazz” (Blesh 183). In many ways, Bolden’s life signified late 19th-century African American life in New Orleans, both in its diversity and obstacles as well as its lack of documentation. The grandson of a slave, Bolden received some education and acquired a degree of literacy, but his occupational options remained limited (Marquis 29-30). Like many other black New Orleanians, Bolden experienced both the formality of church with its spirituals and hymns and the informal elements of black folk culture rooted in field hollers and the blues. Like Morton, but unlike most of the players that followed him, Bolden had much experience in various string bands, not simply brass bands. String bands allowed for a looser, less brass-heavy arrangement and served as a less brash complement to Bolden’s playing. The most important element of Bolden’s style, however, concerned his powerful solo technique. With a loud, penetrating tone, Bolden enlivened his musical surroundings, and broke free of the restraints placed on ensemble-driven bands such as Laine’s Reliance groups. Whereas Laine (and to some extent Morton) emphasized the collective ensemble, Bolden helped define the role of jazz soloist, and his commanding solos influenced most other black cornetists in the city. His neighborhood fame lasted only a few years, and by 1906 Bolden’s playing virtually stopped due to an onset of severe headaches. Never recorded, Bolden’s legacy relates as much to the heroic, paternalistic elements of jazz history as to the significance of myth, rumor, and speculation.
A black man born in Reconstruction-era New Orleans who performed a style of music that escaped preservation and produced a formidable legend that imparted a shadow across the entire history of early jazz, Bolden’s life suggests the transitory nature of early jazz in New Orleans. The enigma of black life during the 1890s coupled with the mythomania of early 20th-century New Orleans creates a number of difficulties for historians, both in terms of constructing a sensible narrative of early New Orleans jazz and in defining an unpreserved sound. Connected to Bolden’s enigmatic career stood the formational myth of Place Congo (or Congo Square). As with Storyville, historians have overstated the importance of Place Congo and blurred its real impact in favor of a somewhat romantic tale of cultural continuation. The setting for dancing and drumming by enslaved Africans and immigrant black Haitians living in the city, Place Congo served as a weekly meeting place for black New Orleanians for camaraderie and informal entertainment. More than any other event, then, the actions in Place Congo represent the vestigial connection to Africa and the Caribbean. One of the few surviving Africanisms maintained in slave culture, the dancing, drumming, and singing in Place Congo lasted from the early years of the 19th century until the mid-1830s when the city closed down the area. The dancing resumed, in 1845, as a way to confine the actions of slaves on Sundays, the traditional day of lessened work for slaves in the city. This second period of Place Congo activity lasted only a short time and ended well before the Civil War (see Kmen 5-16). Still, various histories throughout the mid-20th century routinely connected Place Congo with Bolden. Though a marginalized figure in his time, Bolden emerged as perhaps the most important single musician in early jazz history as the music began seeping out from the black community. The lack of recordings prevented Bolden from achieving fame during his lifetime, but many New Orleans musicians consistently posited the horn player as “the man who started the big noise in jazz” (Shapiro and Hentoff 35).
Together, the music and careers of Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Laine, and Buddy Bolden form a composite of New Orleans jazz, society, and myth in the late 19th century. These three musicians signify the variances of New Orleans life and the constancy of musical development within the city. Their individual circumstances varied, but Morton, Laine, and Bolden each represent a key element of early jazz development, and later musicians who discovered more immediate financial success and fame would echo their contributions implicitly and explicitly. All three musicians performed music deeply connected to 19th-century musical styles, and this musical form would soon come to define American culture. None of these men achieved much lasting fame within their home town, but their musical innovation, repertoire, and instruction helped create a distinctive New Orleans identity adopted by subsequent jazz musicians. The next group of jazz musicians also emerged from New Orleans, but these players encountered a city that looked remarkably different from the one only a few years before. The racial, social, and class confusion spawned by the events of the late 1890s and early 1900s inherently altered the structure of the city, a situation that would have a major impact on the evolution of jazz music.
Although the story of jazz in the late 19th century tends to focus on the mythic and picturesque, the 1890s represented one of the most volatile and violent periods in New Orleans history. Throughout this decade, a series of state laws, national court rulings, and racially motivated assaults transformed the relative social fluidity experienced by many New Orleanians into a strict arrangement based upon the assumption of black inferiority. Jim Crow affected all black southerners, but the unique social gradations of New Orleans presented peculiar dilemmas to African Americans living in the city. For most of the 19th century, black New Orleanians (both free and enslaved) lived under the constrictions of the oft-updated Code Noir first enacted in the 1720s. This series of laws attempted to control every detail of the enslaved African’s life and include restrictions on religious practices, marriage requirements, and ownership of weapons. Though emancipation severely undercut the power of these “black codes,” white New Orleans still maintained control through a variety of other methods including the legal system. In 1896, for example, the United States Supreme Court, deciding a New Orleans lawsuit concerning segregated streetcars, established the legal precedent for separate facilities and services for black people. Two years later, the Louisiana legislature barred black people from the polls through constitutional disfranchisement. By 1900, only 4 percent of black Louisianans could vote (Hair 106-07). White society amended these legal measures, however, with the quotidian threat of physical and mental brutality (Jackson 258).
Although New Orleans experienced fewer incidents of racial violence compared to other areas, the killing of a policeman by a local black resident touched off a five-day riot that threatened to unhinge the relatively nonviolent coexistence of black and white New Orleanians. In July 1900, Robert Charles, a black man in his mid-thirties, shot a local policeman, an act that sparked a citywide manhunt. The police department began harassing other black New Orleanians as they searched for Charles. These actions coupled with the frenzied fear of the white community set off a race riot as hundreds of innocent African Americans became the targets of white mob violence. Over the course of five days, mobs murdered dozens of African Americans and injured hundreds more. The police finally surrounded Charles and began to besiege the humble, wood house where he had sought asylum. Charles continued to shoot down police officers and angry bystanders until officers torched his house, which finally impelled him to attempt an escape before being shot dead by several policemen. After his death the mobs disappeared and New Orleans regained its outwardly pacific social environment.
The Robert Charles incident underscores a number of issues impacting New Orleans society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though always connected to New Orleans, Charles actually maintained strong connections to his family in Copiah, Mississippi, where he was born the son of a sharecropper. Charles amended this affinity for his rural roots with more urban concerns stemming from his literacy and his exposure to contemporary political ideas. The news of recent lynchings and the disfranchisement of black Louisianans only heightened Charles’s racial consciousness, and, when accosted by a white police officer on a July evening, Charles snapped. Although the explicit use of violence differentiated Charles from other black New Orleanians, his rural association coupled with his political activism accentuates the diverse combination of influences that helped define the city’s black community (Williamson 133). The riot also illustrates to some degree the racial stratification that had already occurred as the city divided itself into two basic segments: a dominant white community and an embattled black community.
In all, the developments of the 189Os along with the Robert Charles incident of 1900 impacted greatly the rather laissez-faire racial attitudes of the city. By the early 20th century New Orleans society had lost the racial fluidity that had marked much of its history, and over the course of a few years the unique middle caste of black Creoles disappeared as the city narrowed the definition of race down to the two categories of black and white. This constriction of Creole culture and the construction of a two-tiered racial system stemmed from a number of larger issues rather than one single legislative act, but by the early 20th century the complex diversity of New Orleans had devolved into a simplified racial caste system comprised of white and black New Orleanians. No longer a vaunted, if mysterious, middle class, Creoles became identified simply as African Americans by the white community. If white New Orleans came to see Creoles as black, the Creole community still attempted to maintain a dual identity. During the Robert Charles affair, for example, Creoles and blacks tended to share a common disdain for the overbearing (and violent) white community (Hair 71-72). At other times, different divisions within New Orleans society emerged and Creoles often joined whites in perceiving blacks as “a common enemy, and temporarily subordinated the Creole/American opposition for the sake of fighting together for white supremacy” (Dominguez 136). These examples underscore the racial, social, and class complexities impacting New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century. In large measure, turn-of-the-century New Orleans represented a city in turmoil. And, though later histories would point to the closing of Storyville in 1917 as the impetus for the exodus of musicians out of the city, this decade of social and racial constriction had an impact on New Orleans far greater than the closing of an area of whorehouses.
A second group of musicians came of age in New Orleans following this period of racial and social confusion and experienced a social scene and musical culture much different from the one encountered by the earlier group. These players-most notably Sidney Bechet, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), and Joe Oliver-helped develop the sound first brought together by earlier musicians, but they also played an equally compelling role in the diffusion of jazz out of the South. Through heir widespread traveling and various recordings, Bechet, the ODJB, and Oliver brought the proto-commercial folk music of New Orleans into the national musical culture. None of these men experienced much success until after leaving New Orleans, and each of these musicians traveled a great deal with Bechet playing throughout the country (and eventually Europe), the ODJB popularizing jazz in New York City, and Oliver defining the burgeoning jazz scene in Chicago. If Morton, Laine, and Bolden helped create a new sound that bridged rural and urban culture, then Bechet, the ODJB, and Oliver took this music to a national audience.
Born in New Orleans in 1897, Sidney Bechet blended ragtime with the blues and developed a striking clarinet technique built around his strong vibrato. As a Creole growing up in New Orleans in the late 1890s, Bechet experienced few of the bourgeois elements that marked earlier Creole life as the city crept towards a newly compressed society. One obvious change involved music education as Creole instructors began teaching black students, and, although Bechet rarely took formalized lessons, this convergence of black and Creole musical cultures would have an impact on early jazz. This amalgamation of different styles, the hallmark of early jazz in New Orleans, only increased during the early 1900s. In general, Bechet merged the ragtime rhythms of Jelly Roll Morton with the brash soloing of Buddy Bolden to become one of the most important musicians to emerge from this period in New Orleans. Although his playing style defied easy characterization, Bechet helped define further the role of jazz soloist and disseminated early jazz throughout the world.
A fife player as a child, Bechet soon graduated to the clarinet, the instrument most associated with the musician. Although he received only a few formal lessons, Bechet listened to and learned from a number of older clarinetists active in the city. A precocious player, Bechet evidently began playing with various local bands as early as 1908. These groups performed a combination of ragtime and the blues, and Bechet continued his jazz apprenticeship in New Orleans until 1912 when he set out for Texas. Beginning with this trip, Bechet embarked on a travel-intensive career, rarely staying too long in any given city. Throughout the 1910s, Bechet traveled in and out of New Orleans and eventually made his way to Chicago in 1917, where he acquired his first soprano saxophone. The soprano sax, now a fairly standard reed instrument in jazz, allowed Bechet to produce an even brasher tone than he had on the clarinet. Despite his admiration of improvised, blues-based music, Bechet accepted an invitation from Will Marion Cook, the director of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, to play in Europe in 1919. Bechet’s constant travels echoed those of Jelly Roll Morton, his Creole predecessor, and served as an important disseminating element in early jazz, and, in conjunction with his many recording dates in the 1920s, Bechet introduced jazz to a much wider audience than previous black or Creole musicians.
As Sidney Bechet found remarkable success playing with a variety of bands, and eventually discovered some degree of fame in France, another group of local musicians helped set off a raucous revolution of sound that infected an entire generation of listeners. A five-piece band comprised of native New Orleanians, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the most important white jazz band active in the early years of the jazz age, and their success represents the beginning of the diffusion of early jazz from New Orleans to the rest of the country. Not the most technically proficient white band, nor the most original, the ODJB nevertheless brought New Orleans jazz music to an audience heretofore foreign to this style of music: white, urban, college kids. Undervalued routinely by many jazz scholars, the ODJB signifies in large measure the transition between the brass bands of late 19th-century New Orleans and the cabaret jazz bands popular in urban American during the 1920s. The band’s combination of ragtime rhythms, brass band instrumentation, minstrel show antics, and youthful enthusiasm quickly won over young, white Americans anxious for a music unique to their generation. Like rock and roll in the 1950s, the ODJB produced music larger than itself-a sound with social implications at times more important than any specific musical contribution (Brunn xv). The ODJB did not invent jazz (as has been claimed-mainly by members of the band), they did not perfect jazz, and, within the evolution of jazz as a musical style, the ODJB remain a brief footnote. As the band that broke jazz to the American record-buying public in the late 1910s, however, the impact of the ODJB remains incalculable.
Cornetist Dominic “Nick” LaRocca established the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in New Orleans in the 1910s along with fellow local musicians Eddie Edwards (trombone), Larry Shields (clarinet), Henry Ragas (piano), and Tony Sbarbaro (drums). Though each band member had certain strengths, LaRocca led the group, and more than any other player, LaRocca’s vision served as the template for ODJB performances. Born into an Italian immigrant family on Magazine Street, LaRocca began playing the cornet as a child despite his father’s disapproval. In the early 1910s, LaRocca encountered Edwards, a struggling, local trombone player. The two young musicians practiced often, and eventually LaRocca and Edwards both began playing with one of Laine’s Reliance bands. At some point around 1915, LaRocca, Edwards, Sbarbaro, Shields, and Ragas began playing separately from Laine’s group under the name of “Stein’s Dixie Jass Band” (Brunn 30). In early 1916, the group accepted an invitation to play a six-week engagement in Chicago, but, within a year, the band had relocated to New York City (Brunn 26-50). The band, now called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, began a stint at a new dance club in the Reisenweber Building, and the word “jazz” appeared for the first time in a major newspaper (New York Times 2 February 1918). Proclaiming explicitly their originality, the ODJB combined a regional affiliation (Dixieland) with the promise of something that seemed intriguingly foreign (jazz). New York audiences immediately clamored for this oddly named band, and their intense popularity attracted New York-based Columbia Records-a company eager to cash in on a fad, even if few people completely understood the music (Brunn 64). Their recordings shelved, the ODJB then recorded for Columbia’s rival, Victor, a much more successful session that spawned their most important song, “Livery Stable Blues.” Within weeks of moving to New York, the ODJB produced a record that would soon set off a mini jazz craze that prefigured the Jazz Age of the 1920s.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band performed a style of New Orleans music borrowed equally from the brass band tradition of Jack Laine and the minstrel show style of musical entertainment. Unlike later bands, the ODJB played a rather fastpaced, if stiff, form of jazz that featured the measured chaos of communal improvisation. The group would decide on a certain chord sequence and then improvise individual melodies in the decided key. Like Laine’s Reliance bands, the ODJB eschewed solos (save for a few instrumental breaks) for an emphasis on the ensemble. Their most famous song, “Livery Stable Blues,” exemplifies the primary elements of their music. During the verses, each instrument would improvise various melodies, but the real attraction of the tune for the record-buying audience was the short breaks in the chorus where the band imitated barnyard animals, hence the title. Featuring a trombone donkey, clarinet rooster, and a cornet horse, “Livery Stable Blues” related to minstrel show corn instead of the improvised blues of the rural South. Still, although none of the members achieved any level of instrumental virtuosity, the band’s combination of quick tempos, energized improvisation, and minstrel trickery signified something quite novel in New York City (Brunn 71).
Within seven years of their heyday the ODJB had faded into relative obscurity. The group’s early records continued to have an influence on popular jazz in the 1920s especially in terms of the predominant white jazz bands active during that period: the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Original Memphis Five, and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. The Dixieland Revival of the 1940s revitalized some of the ODJB’s music, but in general the most consistent supporter of the group remained Nick LaRocca. The cornet player’s declarations notwithstanding, scholars often argue that the ODJB only simplified a complex African American musical form and gained fame with a pale imitation of jazz music. Although not an entirely incorrect assertion, the ODJB also emerged from a musical culture different from what black and Creole New Orleanians had experienced. Their blend of brass band instrumentation and minstrel show hokum played itself out in a more commercial vein than folk music. Rather than being a clattery aberration, the ODJB underscores instead the variances inherent in New Orleans jazz. Still, the primary influence imparted by the band concerned their discovery of the college-age, northern audience for their music and thus the commercial possibilities of jazz.
Whereas the Original Dixieland Jazz Band helped introduce jazz to white listeners and Sidney Bechet helped evolve the role of the iconoclastic soloist, the cornetist Joe “King” Oliver represented the most important and influential jazz musician of early jazz in New Orleans. Born into a similar socio-economic environment to Buddy Bolden in 1885, Joe Oliver emerged as the most important soloist and bandleader to leave the city and broadcast jazz throughout the Midwest. Unlike Bolden, Oliver left behind a large body of recorded work indicating elements of the music played in New Orleans. Eclipsed early on by his protégé Louis Armstrong, many of Oliver’s innovations sound less startling due to their eventual commonplace nature in 1920s jazz. Oliver favored the ensemble style of jazz like the ODJB, but, unlike LaRocca’s band, Oliver emphasized a controlled and (somewhat paradoxically) arranged approach to improvisation. Instead of five instrumentalists wailing along in the same key, Oliver’s groups maintained a collective polyphonic feel without devolving into chaotic braying. Short solo breaks punctuated the proceedings producing a sonic blend of structured improvisation, syncopated rhythms, innovative soloing, and blues-influenced tonalities. Overall, more than any other musician, Oliver represents the acme of the polyphonic, improvised jazz that came to define the New Orleans music scene (Giddens 80).
Like Bechet, Oliver developed a distinctive and easily recognizable sound, and the cornetist combined a strong rhythmic pulse with an arsenal of dips, slurs, and growls. These coloring effects shared both minstrel show and rural blues antecedents, but Oliver also employed various mutes to achieve a different timbre such as a distinctive “wah-wah” effect. His improvisations hewed rather closely to the melody, but his technical flourishes turned many of his recorded solos of the 1920s into practice studies for countless jazz musicians who followed. Unlike Bechet, Oliver combined brilliant solo playing with equally brilliant ensemble work especially with his Creole Jazz Band (Collier 85). Although the Original Dixieland Jazz Band found fame first, Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band presented a clearer example of the New Orleans style. The ODJB tended towards a polyrhythmic, chaotic style of jazz that eschewed any real arrangement as each member improvised on a basic chord sequence. Oliver’s band, in contrast, adhered to a more arranged sound with each instrumentalist performing a predetermined role. In general, Oliver played the melody on cornet, the second cornetist supplied a basic harmony part, the trombone and clarinet provided counterpoint, and the rhythm section (bass, banjo, piano, and drums) propelled the entire endeavor. Not simply a creative instrumentalist, Oliver established the map that jazz music followed over the next decade.
In 1917, Joe Oliver left New Orleans to seek fame elsewhere, and that year proved to be perhaps the most important period in early jazz history. No one person or event brought jazz to a nationwide audience, but in 1917 a number offerees coalesced that helped transform jazz from a type of southern folk music into a mass-produced popular commodity in the 1920s. The nation’s entrance into World War I spurred the creation of defense plants throughout the country. These plants, in turn, offered new employment opportunities for black southerners tired of low-wage agricultural work. Northern industrial opportunities coupled with the renewed racism of the turn-of-the-century South helped instigate a large pattern of black migration into the Midwest and North. Various black newspapers further fueled the Great Migration through the publication of enticing articles proclaiming such cities as Chicago as the Promised Land. In New Orleans, the year 1917 marked the end of Storyville as the United States Navy closed down the district of vice and illicit entertainment. Although many early jazz historians present the closing of Storyville as the final act that forced jazz out of the South, the larger pattern of emigration already existed and the closing of the district played a negligible role in the process. More importantly, the success in the Midwest and North of those first emigrating musicians hastened the travel plans of others. Jazz began to break out from the folk environs of New Orleans and enter the commercial world of American popular music, a transformation influenced by one other event from 1917: the sudden acceptability of jazz by at least some Americans following the success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A musical form barely two decades old (and only recently given a name), by 1917 jazz, the southern folk music, had emerged as jazz, the profitable commodity.
The events of 1917 signaled the beginning of the end of the city’s early jazz scene, and, although bands would remain active locally throughout the 1920s, other cities-primarily Chicago and New York-would serve as the centers for musical innovation and transmission. Between 1908 and 1919, most of the leading jazz players left New Orleans for better opportunities elsewhere and represented the first wave of jazz emigration from the city. Jelly Roll Morton left in 1908 as did bassist Bill Johnson; bandleader Freddie Keppard and trumpeter Bunk Johnson both left in 1914; members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band left in 1915 and 1916; clarinetist Big Eye Louis Nelson and Sidney Bechet left in 1916; trombonist Honore Dutrey, clarinetist Jimmie Noone, and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier left in 1917; and trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory left in 1919 (Gioia 45). Some of these players, such as Ory, headed out west to California, most spent at least sometime in Chicago, but many simply drifted from job to job, city to city. Most of these players were born in the early 189Os-though some like Bill Johnson were much older, and some like Tommy Ladnier were still in their mid-teens-and came of age during the period of tremendous social and racial change in the city. This informal group foreshadowed a second wave of departing younger musicians including Louis Armstrong. New Orleans, “already a city in decline” in the 1890s, lost most of its jazz scene by the early 1920s, and though New Orleanians would continue to have a tremendous impact on the jazz of the 1920s, their home town simply receded back into the shadows (Gioia 45).
In the summer of 1923, Jelly Roll Morton joined a group of white New Orleanians-the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (NORK)-for a series of recording sessions at the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana. Signifying the first interracial jazz performance preserved on record, the Morton-NORK recordings also helped bring New Orleans music to a large audience. Unlike the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records six years earlier, these sessions transcended novelty clichés and underscored certain defining elements of New Orleans jazz. The Morton tune “Milenberg Joys,” in particular, represents a synthesis of early jazz music (Kennedy 75-77). Boasting a strong melody, the song maintains a steady rehearsed feel until the cornet solo in which Mares produces a growling, Joe Oliver-inspired break. Although not as improvisationally inventive as Oliver, Paul Mares shared with his cornet hero a warm tone and a penchant for playing in the middle registers of the instrument. This section leads into a strong, vibrato-fueled clarinet solo by Ropollo supported by a rhythmic counterpoint figure performed by Morton. Connecting the music to its roots, a glimpse of traditional New Orleans music appears near the end of “Milenberg Joys,” as the band provides a rousing conclusion by launching into a short, blaring example of collective improvisation. Lacking the flaccid gimmickry of the ODJB, “Milenberg Joys” maintains a melodic and rhythmically forceful feel, and serves as a summation of the various styles that helped define early jazz. A small-piece band performing a mixture of arranged and improvised jazz in a Midwestern recording studio, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton reiterated the past while constructing the context for jazz in the future.
Fifteen years after these sessions, Morton sat in front of folklorist Alan Lomax’s microphone and narrated his history of jazz. Despite the braggadocio, Morion’s story hinted at some of the basic truths behind the creation of this new style of music. The Lomax interviews emphasized the importance of ragtime and the blues, the role Creole culture played on early jazz, and the variety of clubs that featured jazz performers in the early 1900s. Forgotten for most of the 1920s and 1930s, New Orleans fell into favor with historians and listeners interested in traditional jazz music and tired of swing’s arguable formulaic progression into popular music. This Dixieland revival of the 1940s helped create a rather picturesque take on early jazz history as colorful tales eclipsed documented fact. Congo Square and Storyville came to dominate these early narratives, and the rather complicated reduction of Creole culture or the upheaval of the 1890s simply faded into historical myopia. Overall, the early jazz of New Orleans existed in the shadows-never recorded, preserved, or transmitted. Chicago (and expatriate New Orleanians) connected the dotted lines of early jazz history by placing the proto-commercial, quasi-folk music into the hands of record-buying Midwesterners. Defined only in retrospect, the New Orleans jazz scene found its identity 1,000 miles away in Chicago.