Music History: First Jazz Recording

When, Where and How the First Jazz Recording Was Made
On February 26, 1917 Nick LaRocca, cornet, Larry Shields, clarinet, Eddie Edwards, trombone, Henry Ragas, piano, and Tony Sbarbaro, drums, met at an unknown location, to record Livery Stable Blues and on the flipside, Dixie Jass Band One-Step, for the Victor Talking Machine Company. They called themselves the Original Dixieland Jass Band. The record's black Victor label indicates that it is a Fox Trot, 18255-B. Incidentally, the word Jass has single quotes on this label since this was a new term to most of the world. A history of that word is a story in itself.

The most recently opened Recording Lab at Victor was at 46 West 38th Street, 12th floor, so it is possible that this was the actual recording location. However, according to a time line memoir of Harry O. Sooy, in the David Sarnoff Library, there was no mention of this event. By this time, Sooy had been a recording technician for many years. He began work at the E. R. Johnson Machine Works in 1898. E. R. Johnson was one of the founders of Victor. Sooy's accounts of the recording sessions, when he was Chief Recorder at Victor, are quite detailed so it is more likely that the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded in an alternate space. Most of the music being recorded at Victor, in their New York studios in 1917, was classical and a New Orleans band playing bizarre music might not have been entirely welcome by some. Earlier, about 1915, the cashier at the disreputable Lamb's Café in Chicago is reported as having covered her ears when Brown's Band From Dixieland was playing there.

In 1917, recordings could be made almost anywhere.

Often they were made in ordinary rooms in homes. The recording equipment was simply the record player in reverse so this a good guess for the location of the first jazz recording. The equipment was a funnel, or sometimes two funnels, which concentrated the electric air-borne sound waves into a diaphragm of thin glass. The glass diaphragm was linked to a cutting stylus, or needle, pressed against a soft wax disk. The stylus carved a groove into the wax, which recorded the ‘shape’ of the vibrating sound energy into an audio image of the music. The original soft disk had to be processed so that it could withstand the phonograph needle to be used when listening to the music on a phonograph. One of the first ways to make the wax disk stable was to coat it with shellac. In this way, the sound image was reversed and was audible. This method of recording was termed mechanical, since very little electricity was used in the process. Since there was no microphone, or any other means of sound magnification, the musicians had to be especially close to the horn funnel that received the vibrations, and they had to be extremely loud so that the background sounds in the room would not interfere. This is noticeable in listening to the original record, some of which are still in existence.

This recording opportunity turned out to be a lucky break for the band. It was a big surprise to everyone when Livery Stable Blues became a success, selling a million copies. However, LaRocca capitalized on it. The Original Dixieland Jass Band was a relatively ordinary band but LaRocca felt they should be recognized as having brought jazz into being. He especially credited himself as the “Creator of Jazz”. This was a cause of major disagreement and much humor as well, for the rest of LaRocca's life. However, he never backed down from his claim.