How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

4
ALEXANDER’S GOT A JAZZ BAND NOW

I wouldn’t say I know what jazz is, because I don’t look at it from that angle. I look at it
from music—we never did worry about what it was in New Orleans, we just always tried to
play good.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

In January 1917, a quintet of white New Orleans musicians called the Original Dixieland Jass Band started a residency at the 400 Club, a small restaurant in the Reisenweber Building on Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan. The following month they recorded two numbers for the Victor Talking Machine Company: “Livery Stable Blues,” a fast fox-trot punctuated with animal imitations, and the “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.” The importance of these events has been debated by fans and historians for much of the intervening ninety years, but one thing is certain: The month before the ODJB opened in New York, there were maybe a halfdozen groups in the United States that called themselves jazz (or jass, or jaz, or jasz) bands, and within a few months of their record release, there were dozens.

In a way, it was the turkey trot all over again. A wild style that had been circulating for years in black and working-class saloons and dance halls had arrived on Broadway, and suddenly the whole Western world was taking notice. Like the turkey trot, jazz was traced back to San Francisco and New Orleans—with a stopoff in Chicago—and at first was hailed even by its fans largely for its nutty energy, its resemblance to “a chorus of hunting hounds on the scent, with an occasional explosion in the subway thrown in for good measure.”1 And, like the turkey trot, it was considered part of the ragtime craze.

To the extent that jazz had a separate meaning, it signaled a new emphasis on improvisation, or as it was then known, “faking.” J. Russell Robinson, who would shortly take over as the ODJB’s piano player, claimed that the band’s music was nothing but ragtime played by ear, and his partners emphasized their rough illiteracy with smart-ass remarks like “I don’t know how many pianists we tried before we found one who couldn’t read music.”2 Faking was not necessarily improvisation

-49-

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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Amateurs and Executants 13
  • 2 - The Ragtime Life 25
  • 3 - Everybody’s Doin’ It 36
  • 4 - Alexander’s Got a Jazz Band Now 49
  • 5 - Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers 60
  • 6 - The King of Jazz 71
  • 7 - The Record, the Song, and the Radio 84
  • 8 - Sons of Whiteman 97
  • 9 - Swing That Music 111
  • 10 - Technology and Its DisContents 126
  • 11 - Walking Floors and Jumpin’ Jive 138
  • 12 - Selling the American Ballad 150
  • 13 - Rock the Joint 166
  • 14 - Big Records for Adults 184
  • 15 - Teen Idyll 199
  • 16 - Twisting Girls Change the World 213
  • 17 - Say You Want a Revolution… 230
  • Epilogue - The Rock Blot and the Disco Diagram 248
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 281
  • Index 291
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