On February 26, 1917 a bunch of New Orleans musicians recently arrived in New York via Chicago stepped into a crude Victor Talking Machine studio in the city and recorded two sides. When they were released less than two weeks later, Livery Stable Blues and The Dixie Jass Band One Step became the first commercial jazz record ever released.
Victor thought it would have a limited audience as a novelty. To everyone’s astonishment it became a hit and soon other artists and labels were scrambling to cash in on a new musical fad. Within a short decade, jazz would completely re-make American popular music.
It was not that jazz was completely unknown. It had been emerging from New Orleans street musicians combining elements of primitive call and response blues, Spanish military music with its dramatic high pitched brass horns, Irish and Scottish fiddle music filtered through decades in the rural South, European classical music, and the syncopated rhythms of piano rags since the 1890s. Brass marching bands employed to escort funeral parades popularized the style which slowly began to move inside to the stages of saloons and bordellos.
Jazz was black based, but in cosmopolitan and racially loose—by the standards of South—many white musicians were quick to pick it up. Some even joined in racially integrated marching bands.
Traveling vaudevillians like Al Jolson were picking up they style and introducing it in their acts. A few bands went on the circuit performing a number or two as a novelty. Black minstrel troupes touring the South and Midwest had updated the traditional banjo and fiddle tunes of the genre to introduce “authentic” black music—blues, gospel, and jazz.
It had already spread along the coast to ports like Mobile and Galveston and up the great highway of the Mississippi River to Natchez, Memphis, and St. Louis. And to Chicago were it began to gain a following in Levee District clubs and whore houses.
In early 1916 Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland was packing them in at one Chicago joint. The manager of another popular club, Schiller’s Cafe, traveled all the way to New Orleans to hire his own band. He found plenty of talent—most of it Black. He dared not bring those musicians back with him, but he did find a group of white players who were performing in an integrated street band and invited drummer Johnny Stein and clarinetist Alcide Nunez to form a band. It was playing at the saloon as Stein’s Dixie Jass Band by March.
They took the town by storm and were soon deluged with other offers at better pay. But Stein was under a personal contract to Schiller’s and couldn’t break it. The others broke off and formed their own band led by Nunez. The new band included trombonist Eddie Edwards, pianist Henry Ragas, clarinetist Nick LaRocca, and drummer Tony Sbarbaro a 19 year old called up from the Big Easy to replace Stein.
The new band began playing together in June under the name The Dixie Jass Band. Despite their new found success, all was not happy in paradise. Nunez and fell out. With a nod to baseball LaRocca executed a straight out trade with the competing Tom Brown band for his clarinetist, Larry Shields in late October.
It was this line-up which caught the attention of agent Max Hart who booked them into Reisenweber’s Cafe in Manhattan in January, 1917. Now billed as the Original Dixieland Jass Band, the combo grabbed the attention of even jaded New Yorkers. While they had seen a few specialty numbers on Vaudeville stages, the band was the first jazz combo in the city ever booked to play for dancing, which provided diners with a whole evening of exciting and original music.
By the end of the month they were invited to cut some now lost demos at Columbia which were never released.
The Victor session came a month later, by which time jazz was a virtual craze in the city. Young Jimmy Durante caught their act at Reisenweber’s and helped them get a booking a thet Alamo in Harlem where Jimmy played piano. While Durante helped advance their careers, he also stole some of their material and style and sent to New Orleans for musicians to from a band of his own, which was soon issuing sides on the Okeh as the New Orleans Jazz Band and later as Durante’s Jazz Band
Others were quickly scrambling to cash in on the sudden rage. Twenty-seven year old Indianan Ted Lewis was part of an outfit called Earl Fuller’s Jass Band that was recording clumsy covers of Original Jazz Band songs within a few months. Despite his very limited clarinet stylings, Lewis formed his own band within a year and by 1919 was on the Broadway stage successfully selling his ersatz jazz.
Meanwhile the Original Dixieland band had to overcome a legal stumble. It turned out that The Dixie Jass Band One Step included snatches of Black musician Joe Morgan’s 1909 That Teasin’ Rag in much the same way as modern rappers sample a few bars of older songs. But Morgan had copyrighted his music and threatened to sue. Victor had to recall the record and re-label the side as Introducing “That Teasin, Rag” by Joe Jordan.
Despite the kerfuffle the band was in demand. At Aeolian Vocalion they cut Ostrich Walk and the Tiger Rag which became their most famous song and signature. They returned to Columbia that summer to record cover versions of Darktown Strutter's Ball and Back Home Again in Indiana.
W. C. Handy became the first black musician to cover an Original Dixieland band song when he recorded the Livery Stable Blues with his Orchestra of Memphis on Columbia that year. Handy had introduced jazz and blues on the minstrel show circuit.
By the end of the year the band was so famous that it even appeared in a silent movie, The Good for Nothing and even changed the name to the now agreed upon spelling of Jazz for its last recordings.
In 1918 other New Orleans musicians including Nunez, were setting up shop in New York and competing with the Originals for bookings and attention. The public was also getting curious to hear the authentic Black origins of the music and record companies began to oblige them by releasing sides by Jelly Roll Morton and other Black musicians on the their race record labels.
World War I also intervened. Trombonist Edwards was drafted and replaced with Emile Christian. With this line-up LaRocca took the band to England where it would once more be the first and only band on the scene.
They stayed in England for 18 months, playing for crowd eager to hear something new, fresh, and above all American. They appeared at the London Hippodrome in what was credited as a first any jazz band in the United Kingdom and they played a command performance for King George V at Buckingham Palace. The king applauded enthusiastically giving an official nod of approval to the new music.
While in England the Originals cut over 30 sides for British Columbia, including Soudan—also known as Oriental Jazz which became a classic.
In 1920 the band returned to the U.S. without pianist Ragas who had died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919. The band found that rapidly moving musical tastes back home had passed them by. They revamped the line-up with the addition of J. Russel Robinson on piano and the addition of a saxophonist. The new band went out on tour in 1920 playing a smoother, dance band sound and continuing to record.
Robinson was a gifted and prolific songwriter who contributed some of the signature tunes of the early Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties—Margie, Jazzola, and Singin' the Blues.
The band toured through 1924 before breaking up. Some members, like Robinson and LaRocca went on to other bands and continued success. Others sank into obscurity and Depression era poverty. In 1933 Edwards was found operating a newsstand in New York City.
In 1937 a wave of nostalgia for “old time” music was sweeping the nation, largely fueled by show biz movie musical set in the Teens and Twenties brought most of the original members and some replacements together for a reunion on a NBC Radio broadcast. That encouraged Victor to re-sign the band which made a number of recordings as the Original Dixieland Five from 1936 into the early1940’s.
In 1937 The March of Time newsreel series filmed them doing their classic Tiger Rag for a short titled The Birth of Swing.
Various versions of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band continued to play under LaRocca or other original members. Some times more than one version was touring at the same time. In the 1950s LaRocca retired and licensed the name and repertoire to New Orleans band leader Phil Zito. LaRocca’s son fronted a group with that name for many years until just recently. Drummer Sbarbaro played in most versions of the band for a period spanning 50 years.
Jazz had essentially passed the Original Dixieland Jazz Band by when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong began recording and reaching wide white audiences. Jazz continually evolved. The Original Band remained stuck in the years of their first success, imitating and re-creating that sound endlessly.
By the 1950 Dixieland was considered almost a separate, exclusively White, genre. New preservationist bands like the Dukes of Dixieland and the Fire House Five Plus Two (a hobby band by Disney Studio animators that released successful albums.) In the Sixties Brit Kenny Ball, and New Orleans based Al Hirt and Pete Fountain would continue the tradition.
It remains a niche musical form and various bands wearing the now standard uniform of straw skimmer, striped shirts, and sleeve garters can be found in theme parks, New Orleans tourist traps, and on Fourth of July parade floats. Many of them still playing Original Dixieland Jass Band arrangements.