Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Jazz

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Jazz

Article excerpt

The question of the origins of jazz has, one might well imagine, received many answers in the seventy-five years since the music burst like a rocket over the American musical landscape. The least palatable perhaps is that offered by reactionary champions of the musical originality of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), for example, Horst Lange. Much of his evidence is easy to dismiss, but one point at least makes us pause and think. He writes:

   It was always a riddle for the serious friend of jazz, why the
   fabulous and legendary New Orleans jazz hadn't already been
   discovered around 1900 or 1910 in the city itself, since not
   only was it full of home-grown talent and musical professionals,
   but also received a constant stream of visitors and tourists.
   Shouldn't there have been someone, among all these people surely
   interested in music, who was struck by this novel music, which
   was later designated "jazz"? (Lange 1991, 28; my translation).

In fact, there's no question that the particular instrumentation, manner of playing, and repertory of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, decisively assisted by the superb recording technique of the Victor Talking Machine Company, were copied by hundreds of young musicians, many of whom never had visited and never would visit New Orleans.

Someone who came close to fitting Lange's music-loving visitor to New Orleans was J. Russell Robinson (1892-1963), a pianist and songwriter who had worked in that city around 1910 and was eventually to become a member of the ODJB. Many years later he recalled his reaction to these recordings: first, it was a new, interesting, and exciting sound, a bit blood-curdling; second, the musicians were recognizable as nonreaders; third, jazz was nothing but ragtime, played by ear (Robinson 1955, 13). Thus the sound, while strikingly novel and surely deserving of the acclaim of Lange, was recognized by an experienced professional as being but one species of the genus, ragtime played by ear by "fakers," to use the usual term of the day. (1)

Even at the time, however, New Orleans colleagues and competitors of the ODJB fully acknowledged the debt all of them owed to African Americans. For example, Walter Kingsley reported the views of clarinetist Alcide "Yellow" Nunez:

   In 1916 Brown's Band from Dixieland came to Chicago direct from New
   Orleans, and with it came Tutor Spriccio. They knew all the old
   negro melodies with the variations taught by Spriccio.... This
   bunch from New Orleans played by ear entirely (Kingsley 1918,
   867).

Then after a discussion of the "Livery Stable Blues" and the break routines for which Nunez claimed credit: "All this, however, was derived from the New Orleans blacks and John Spriccio" (867).

These statements are offered not only to refute Lange's revisionism, but as one more illustration--Is one needed?--of the pervasive bias that constantly obscures investigation of the contributions of African Americans. Spriccio has a name, but not the "old negroes" or the "New Orleans blacks."

As is often the case, things look different from the other side of the color line. It is interesting to go back to what seems to have been the first published attempt by an African-American native of New Orleans to plumb the mystery of the origin of jazz. The year was 1933, the author E. Belfield Spriggins, social editor of the Lousiana Weekly. He wrote, under the title "Excavating Local Jazz":

   For quite some years now there has been an unusual amount of
   discussion concerning the popular form of music commonly
   called "jazz." ... Many years ago jazz tunes in their original
   forms were heard in the Crescent City. Probably one of the
   earliest heard was one played by King Bolden's Band.... The
   rendition of this number became an over night sensation and
   the reputation of Bolden's band became a household word with
   the patrons of the Odd Fellows Hall, Lincoln and Johnson
   Parks, and several other popular dance halls around the
   city (Spriggins 1933, 6). … 
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