The exact birth date of jazz or even its birth year cannot be determined. Like many styles of music it wasn’t born so much as it evolved; and the window of its evolution was at least two decades wide.
However, if a date had to be chosen, 1917 would be as good as any. In 1917, Scott Joplin, the first African-American composer and icon of ragtime died. In 1917, the U.S. Navy put pressure on the New Orleans city council to close Storyville, the infamous redlight district. As a result, unemployed musicians were forced to look north to St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago for jobs. And in 1917, the first jazz recording was made.
The new sounds created in the hot spots of New Orleans were already beginning to travel up the Mississippi River by 1917. Small jazz combos made up of piano, drums, banjo, cornet (or trumpet), clarinet, trombone, and tuba were offering New Orleans style music as an alternative to more traditional dance music such as the foxtrot. As a result, residents of ports along the Mississippi like Memphis and St. Louis were hearing this new music for the first time. As it pulled into the dock, the sounds of jazz on board invited people to taste the wild and exciting life aboard the riverboat.
This exposure to jazz planted the initial seeds of interest that grew into jobs in the nightclubs and hotspots in cities north of New Orleans. Soon, cities like Kansas City, west of the Mississippi river, and Chicago, to the east, were providing employment for the jazz musicians from New Orleans. Jazz was even finding its way to Texas and California.
It was during this time that white musicians from Chicago and Kansas City began to attempt to copy the music performed by their black New Orleans counterparts. Their early attempts, although sincere, lacked the authenticity of the original New Orleans sound.
The key characteristic of this early style of New Orleans jazz was collective improvisation. Although the songs had a predetermined harmonic structure, and the melody in its purest sense was “composed,” the soloists had great liberties in the improvisational presentation of the melody following the first verse.
The improvisation was collective in that each of the players had a verse or perhaps half a verse to take their turn in showing their best “stuff.” Not only the cornet, clarinet, and trombone players, but often those playing the piano, banjo, tuba, and even the drums had an opportunity to shine. The final verse of many of these songs was an occasion where the players would play simultaneously improvised solos.
What at first might appear to be complete musical chaos was actually an example of six musicians playing both interdependently and independently. Like the members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, the New Orleans jazz musicians were able to show their virtuosity and skills without stepping on each others’ musical toes. Like five fingers in a glove, they worked independently, yet within the confines of the harmonic fabric which held them together.
While the white musicians of Chicago and St. Louis were able to understand and master the concept of collective improvisation, what they lacked was the looser rhythmic feeling that made the music swing. Still tied to the Euro-tradition of even eighth note rhythms, the concept of elasticized swing eighths was foreign to their musical background. It wasn’t until the second wave of jazz in the twenties that white musicians began to understand the rhythmic implications of jazz.
But it was The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white jazz musicians from New Orleans who met in Chicago, that recorded the first jazz record in New York in January of 1917. Although a black jazz musician from New Orleans, Freddie Kepperd, was offered the opportunity to record the first jazz songs, he declined the offer, fearful that another trumpet player might hear his solos and copy them.
Although the terms “Dixieland” and “jazz” are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to note the origins of both words.
The term “Dixie” was applied to the eleven states of the South that seceded from the Union in 1861 rather than to accept the abolition of slavery. Some say that the term was first used in reference to a ten-dollar bill printed called a “dix” (French for “ten”) in French Louisiana in the early 1800s. English-speaking Southerners began referring to the bill as a “dixie” and soon after growing portions of the South were being called “Dixie.” Certainly by Stephen Foster’s day the South was widely acknowledged as “Dixie.” In that sense, Dixieland music was technically any music from the South, but during the time around 1917, and certainly since then, it has been synonymous with the New Orleans style jazz.
The origins of the term “jazz,” however, are much more difficult to trace. At first it was spelled “jass” and was used in the sense of adding life or vibrancy to something. To “jass” something up might have come from the practice of adding jasmine perfume to make something smell nice. Or it might have been an adaptation of the French word “jaser” which meant to “chatter.” Dancers and musicians in Congo Square were referred to as “Jaspers” or “Jasbos” by those in attendance, so the term might have referred to the energy or spark that was added to the playing. Still other sources state that “jass” was an abbreviated form of the word “jasm”, which was a slang term for “orgasm.” If this were the case, it would be still one more parallel between early jazz and early rock ‘n roll, which was euphemistic slang in the southern black culture for “sex.”
Whatever its origin, the term “jass” was applied to this new and innovative sound from New Orleans. The change in the spelling of the term, however, is fairly well documented.
When several white musicians from New Orleans wanted to form a band in Chicago, it was their intent to identify themselves with the authentic New Orleans sound. To that end, they borrowed both the white term (Dixieland) and the black term (jass) to call themselves The Original Dixieland Jass Band. As part of their publicity, they called themselves “The Creators of Jass” a title that, though fallacious, was believed by most whites in northern U.S. cities and throughout their travels in the next decade in Great Britain and Europe. The change in the spelling of the key term, however, came about when one prankster carefully covered over the letter “j” on dozens of their posters in one town. Not wanting to risk building a following as “The Original Dixieland Ass Band”, they supposedly changed the spelling on future posters and publicity from “jass” to “jazz.”
Although their claim as jazz’s “creators” is erroneous, and although their music was not quite an exact replica of the original sounds that were being played in New Orleans, the ODJB need to be given historical credit for two things: recording the first jazz record in January of 1917 and expanding jazz’s audience to New England, Great Britain, and even France.
The Original Dixieland Jass Band: first Jazz recording: “Dixie Jass Band One Step” – Feb. 26, 1917