Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium

This past winter marked the 100th anniversary of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s debut, “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” (on the A-side) and, more famously, “Livery Stable Blues” (on the B-side). Recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company in midtown Manhattan on February 26, 1917, these performances are widely considered the first of their kind, the first jazz record.

The roots of jazz, of course, go far further back. The ODJB, an all-white quintet from New Orleans, may have made it first onto shellac (vinyl wasn’t widely used until the late ‘40s), but among their peers and precursors were black and Creole New Orleanians whose art, and innovations, often went deeper and lasted longer. Some of these early jazz musicians were never recorded (Buddy Bolden); others would wait until the 1920s (Joe Oliver, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton). In December 1915, more than a year before the ODJB’s studio date, Victor offered cornetist Freddie Keppard a recording contract. After giving it some thought, Keppard reportedly said: “Nothin’ doin’, boys. We won’t put our stuff on records for everybody to steal.”

Still, the ODJB was a sensation. The record became the first million-seller – outpacing Enrico Caruso, on the one hand, and John Philip Sousa, on the other, the early-recording era’s top selling artists. Leader and cornetist Nick LaRocca was ambitious and smart and both Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke have said they admired his playing. Despite LaRocca’s vile personal legacy (he has been called the worst racist in jazz history), the ODJB’s achievements are real. Some have equated their role in jazz history to that of the Sex Pistols’ in punk – a band, Ben Ratliff, then of the New York Times, observed, “that was a similarly blinding supernova of self-promotion and questionable (or, rather, questioned) talent.”

In the notes to RCA’s 75th anniversary CD release of the ODJB’s Victor dates, John McDonough tackled the idea of origins. The whole debate, he wrote, made him bristle – “as if the first jazz records were, by that fact, the best, the definitive or the most enduring jazz records. Not true. That’s not what being the first is about anyway. To be first is often an accident of history, hardly something worth fighting over.”

When race is involved, this contention might feel careless; Jackie Robinson, for one, proved that McDonough’s final sentence isn’t always true. But in theory, and in a less charged context, it makes sense.

My interest in marking this anniversary is different. I’ve taken Victor No. 18255 at face value and tried, with clear eyes, to look directly at the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band’s initial release – setting aside the music itself, or the role the band played, or didn’t play, in the formation of jazz. (Their name, I should point out, wasn’t changed until late ‘17.) Working in this way, then, I’ve teased out two truths – two things that mark the music, even now, into its second century.

The hard-boiled reality of the ODJB’s debut – Truth No. 1 – is this: cultural relevance. The jazz record business started out with a million-seller, a first; this isn’t apocryphal, this is fact. It was the first time most Americans had ever heard the word “jass” before – or, for that matter, anything that resembled how music was played in New Orleans, white or black.

And so from its earliest days, jazz was wedded to the market: to business savvy, to popular tastes, to the forever notion of economic muscle. Deep, abiding popular affection is not among the founding myths of jazz: it is true. The story of how the music became out of step with, then unhinged from, the market is perhaps a story that doesn’t begin until after the Second World War.

But success – big sales, of-the-moment pop culture bona fides – has long been a shackle. For decades, it was America’s, and, in turn, much of the planet’s, popular music. Even now, as jazz has largely left the economy of the music business altogether (i.e. the major labels), there is still the thought that a breakthrough could happen, that it might happen, that there’s still a beautiful dollar to be made just around the corner.

Truth No. 2: discographies count. Jazz may be an improviser's art, but it’s still a story we tell through records. Who’s in, and who’s out? Who spearheaded this style, or that? How did the role of this instrument, or that, change over the years? These are questions we ultimately explore through recordings.

Without a notable discography, obscurity is tough to fend off. Consider Montreal-born drummer Claude Ranger, the subject of an important new biography by Mark Miller (and featured in The Book Cooks in the June issue of Point of Departure). In the fall of 2000, Ranger, then 59, left his one-room apartment in a small community just outside Vancouver. He has not been seen since. “More than 16 years later, his fate is unknown,” Miller writes in Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend (Tellwell, 2017). “The investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in early 2001 remains open.”

Ranger’s absence, and his unknown fate, were only part of the reason, I suspect, for Miller’s project. Elegant and meticulously researched, the book brings real permanence to Ranger’s legacy; before memories wane, it was vital to get this all down. To those who heard, and played with, Ranger at his best – from, say, the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s – it was unforgettable.

But as Miller writes: “In his preoccupation with the moment he gave no thought to his legacy until his career was all but over ... The Ranger discography comprises some 20 LPs or CDs as a sideman and none as a leader, an altogether random, incomplete and often poorly recorded survey of a career that lasted nearly 40 years.” Consider two of his most fondly remembered Toronto engagements, both from 1974 – with Sonny Rollins, as part of an Ed Blackwell benefit concert, and with James Moody, during a two-week run at Bourbon Street. Neither were recorded.

By contrast, take someone like Henry Grimes. The bassist dropped off the scene for more than three decades before his return to performance in 2003. But Grimes, unlike Ranger, had produced in his prime a substantial legacy on vinyl; time, in fact, has only deepened the importance of much of his discography. Grimes recorded once as a leader, The Call (ESP-Disk, 1965), and he played on many genuine masterworks, from Don Cherry’s Complete Communion (Blue Note, 1965) to Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966).

But in the end, in this 100th anniversary year of the ODJB’s debut, I keep coming back to Freddie Keppard. His fate seems to illuminate the two truths I’ve discussed, with real clarity, for better or for worse.

It’s still debatable why Keppard turned down the first recording contract in 1915. Martin Williams (in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, 1967), and Lawrence Gushee (in Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band, 2005) spent a great deal of time thinking about this and both ended up at the same source: Sidney Bechet’s autobiography. Keppard, Bechet explained, simply didn’t want to do it.

“Freddie never said it just that way,” Bechet recalled, “but many times we’ve spoken of that recording session business, and from his answer it’s the only conclusion I’ve come to: that these people who was coming to make records, they was going to turn it into a regular business, and after that it wouldn’t be pleasure music. That’s the way Freddie was.”

Whatever the reason, Keppard had mastered an economic and artistic model that would soon be out of date: the vaudeville circuit. “The Creole Band never cracked true big-time vaudeville,” Gushee observed. “They were, nevertheless, an important act ... They were well paid, traveled with special scenery, and were handled, at least for part of their career, by a major agent. My guess would be that they were seen and heard by more than a million Americans (and Canadians).”

Keppard wouldn’t record until 1923, already diminished, many say, by time and alcohol. (In the preface to Gushee’s masterful study, he recounts the first time he heard Doc Cook’s “Spanish Mama” – “with its wonderful breaks by Freddie Keppard. It convinced me that the cliché that Keppard’s few records were made when he was past his prime was pure hogwash.”)

I came to Keppard for the first time in graduate school. There was the sense, in the lectures I recall, that we were lucky: sure, the recordings may not have entirely captured his gift, but we were grateful that they happened, full stop.

Sometimes this feels heartening, the thought that there was more, the myth-making aspect of it. Other times, it just feels sad and mildly patronizing. To those on the ground in those days, Keppard was unrivaled. But his finest work, from the second decade of the last century, has left living memory. The regret lingers, even now.

©2017 Greg Buium

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