JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


What was the nature of the music industry in New Orleans that recorded the early jazz bands and emerging soloists?

I had to laugh when I read that question. Um, there really was no music industry in New Orleans. You know, one of the fascinating things is that the earliest jazz groups were not written about at all. They were only known to the black community; a few white people might know about them because they went down to Storyville or the whorehouses and would hang out in the saloons and hear some of these groups; but there weren't music critics hanging out there and you know we're still in the Edison era in terms of recording, so yes, occasionally some talent scouts who would be touring the country and recording early performers might come down. But if they made any actual Edison cylinders of the early jazz bands- and one of the great legends of jazz is that Buddy Bolden made an Edison cylinder so people have been searching for it for over a hundred years-but there's really no evidence that that ever happened and there's certainly no evidence of any such cylinders existing by any musicians of that period. So we don't get any sense of jazz interesting, being of interest to the music industry, until the teens, after it started appearing in California and Chicago around 1914, 1915, and then in around 1917 Columbia Records records a white band, mostly Italian- ethnics from New Orleans, called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. And the head of Columbia is so appalled by the music, he refuses to allow them to release the record-it's just noise, it sounds like an earthquake in a hardware shop. How can you put that out? So RCA, their big rival company, or the Victor Phonograph Company, as it was known then, they signed the same group: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They put out a record; it instantly sells a million copies. At which point Columbia says, ok, let's put out our own. Theirs sells a million copies. And then suddenly jazz is part of the industry.

But I have to emphasize here-and I think this is one of the most interesting and mysterious events and still needs to be researched in periods of jazz history-is you have these recordings made in 1917. You have a million bands, mostly white groups all over the country pretending to be jazz groups and trying to do kind of raggy imitations. But you don't really have serious jazz recordings becoming a constant factor in the industry until 1923 when King Oliver records, Jelly Roll Morton records, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings record, and so forth. Considering how much money they made, why this gap between 1917 and 1922? And no one really understands what that is about except that, remember that the recording industry is still segregated. There's still a feeling, do we really want to record black musicians? Who're we going to sell them to? They don't understand the black market; they haven't come up with race records yet, which was their way of marketing. And so basically they just ignored it. They had treated The Original Dixieland Jazz Band as this sort of unique group of white guys who were a big fad for a while and then they thought it would go away. And then suddenly when the black bands start recording in the early 1920s everything changes, and then after Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington start recording between 1925 and 1927-and Bessie Smith-jazz is, is the recording industry to some degree.