The precise origins of jazz as a distinct musical art form remain a matter of contention among experts and fans, and researchers learn new information about its development seemingly every day. The first documented jazz recording is one central point of entry that can help us understand its history.
That recording was made on February 26, 1917, at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s offices in New York City. That was the day the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (whose name originally used the spelling “jass”) quintet recorded the tune “Livery Stable Blues.” While the Chicago-based ensemble’s “Tiger Rag” would prove far more influential, “Livery Stable Blues” is acknowledged as the first. Among today’s listeners, the song may sound silly, with the instruments imitating barnyard animal sounds, and the recording quality is not the best. (Interested fans can hear the full recording in numerous venues online, including an uploaded Smithsonian magazine article celebrating the recording’s centenary.)
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) brand included shiny black dinner jackets over white, buttoned-collar shirts. ODJB was a publicity-seeking group, whose public cavortings received widespread media coverage. At the time they cut “Livery Stable Blues,” the group was performing to large and adoring crowds in New York at Reisenweber’s Café near Columbus Circle, not far from the current site of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Musicologists know that this all-white band had shamelessly borrowed both style and substance from music they’d heard played by African American bands back home in New Orleans. The recording of “Livery Stable Blues” went on to become one of the first-ever hit singles, with estimates of copies sold ranging from between about 250,000 to 1 million.
From spirituals to a cosmopolitan blend of sound
The origins of jazz lie squarely in the African American experience. Its notes outline the story of Black life in America, with all the pain, sorrow, triumphs, and joy that the community has experienced since long before the founding of the country. For example, the genre’s blue notes offer a modernized take on the sounds of slave spirituals and work songs. Its fast-paced syncopation and swinging exuberance went on to drive the boogie-woogie beats of the many tenement “rent parties” popular among growing Black populations in New York and other big cities from the 1920s until after World War II.
Most scholars date the birth of jazz as an identifiable style to the honky-tonks, barrelhouses, and saloons of Storyville, the New Orleans red light district that flourished from 1897 to 1917. Tuxedo Dance Hall and other venues gave budding composers and performers the opportunity to hone their skills and improvisational ability in front of largely mixed-race audiences. The whole of the district was filled with opportunities for work for Black musicians and composers, and the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe “King” Oliver all got their starts there.
The original New Orleans jazz sound drew from the city’s rich history and ethnic mix. Originally a French, then a Spanish colony, the city was already steeped in a distinctive musical culture by the time it was incorporated into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It continued to retain its cosmopolitan outlook and its love of music, dance, and spectacle.
The city’s large population of Creole people of color—with a heritage in both African and European roots—was a particularly distinguishing factor. People from a variety of backgrounds lived close together in New Orleans’ narrow streets and squares, resulting in a true blending of cultures and musical sounds.
Brass bands, ragtime, and the journey north
Beginning in about 1890, brass bands were also a big part of the music scene in New Orleans. In those days, before the city had put up the type of “Jim Crow” color barriers, these bands were often integrated. So, while the roots of jazz lie squarely in the African American tradition, its growth was nourished by numerous multicultural influences. The musical traditions developed through African American funerals and mutual aid society parades met the sounds of ragtime and dance bands and the city’s many ethnic communities’ Mardi Gras walking clubs, all establishing a uniquely New Orleans quality.
Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and their contemporaries built distinctive personal styles, and all three were among the many Black innovators who went north to Chicago to perform in the days after World War I. It was they who formed a recognizable nexus at the core of building the sound we know today as classic jazz.