"Jass" in 1916-1917 and Tin Pan Alley

By Tim Gracyk

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), a group of white New Orleans musicians, was the first ensemble to make a jazz recording. The band's "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step" and "Livery Stable Blues" (18255), recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company on February 26, 1917, in the company's New York City studio, were coupled on the first jazz record. When issued in the spring of 1917, it was a new type of record. Nothing like this had been issued before, and this disc was among the most influential records ever made. It sold very well, with young people across America excited by this new dancing music. Many imitators made records within months, hoping to duplicate the ODJB's success.

New Orleans musicians may have recorded jazz on a cylinder machine in homes before 1917. Many Edison machines from the turn of the century had recording devices that allowed the machine's owner to make recordings on blank cylinders. In other words, some Edison models were like cassette machines of that era, allowing anyone to record anything. But no such recording is known to exist.

Freddie Keppard, a superb African-Ameircan trumpet player who made jazz records in the 1920s, made claims late in his career that he had been invited by a record company (or two or three?) to make records before 1917 or so. Obviously he did not make records this early--again, the white ODJB musicians were the first jazz musicians to attend a recording session. Keppard famously claimed that he turned down the offer (or was it offers?) because he did not want anyone to study the records in order to imitate his style. But no evidence has surfaced collaborating Keppard's bold claim. No memo has surfaced from any record company indicating that Keppard had been invited to record. It may have been a case of sour grapes. Keppard was probably miffed that others had popularized jazz on records, and his response was to say, "Hey, I could have made records, but I just did not want to--I was too good for that!"

There is no doubt about it: in February 1917 the ODJB members were the first jazz musicians to make records (they were also the first musicians, it seems, to identify themselves as "jass" musicians). Some books claim that the ODJB had cut two titles for Columbia weeks earlier, on January 30 or 31, 1917, with Columbia then delaying the release. However, this is a myth. Jazz discographer Brian Rust wrote in the publication Needle Time (July 1987) about evidence suggesting that the ODJB recorded for Columbia later than what Rust had erroneously reported in his own jazz discography. The ODJB made the Columbia record months later than the reported January date. Columbia's own recording logs indicate that the ODJB did not record for the company until long after the Victor recording session. Additional evidence has come to light, notably a document in the hands of a descendant of ODJB member Eddie Edwards. It establishes that the ODJB visited Columbia's A & R man A. E. Donovan on January 30 (not 31, as usually reported) only to audition, not to make a record. Months later, the ODJB returned to Columbia to make a record. The band by this time was in a legal dispute with Victor, so the band members were happy to visit Victor's chief competitor to make a record.

We cannot know how closely that first jazz record--again, a Victor disc--made by the ODJB in late February 1917 resembled the jazz played by black musicians in New Orleans at that time, but it is one valuable source among many that helps us understand the roots of jazz. We simply have no way of knowing how the music played by black New Orleans musicians sounded in the early days of jazz. (They did not call themselves "jass" or "jazz" artists, by the way. The ODJB popularized the words "jass" and "jazz." We must at least entertain the idea that at least some black New Orleans musicians bought ODJB records--as did many other Americans!--and were influenced by the records.)

Again, the ODJB's first records are essential sources for anyone interested in the roots of jazz. Other sources include written and spoken testimony of musicians who, earlier in life, had played in New Orleans in the early years of the century as well as their recordings made from 1922 onwards (records made in the World War I era by non-New Orleans black bandleaders such as Jim Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, and W.C. Handy do not help; Kid Ory was the first black musician from New Orleans to record jazz, in June 1922). A recording like Freddie Keppard's "Stockyard Strut," recorded in 1926, is important since Keppard had been playing jazz long before he make a record. Photos of bands that went unrecorded are duplicated in various books, including A Pictorial History of Jazz by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer.

One rich source for understanding early jazz--how it was played, how people at the time viewed jazz--is overlooked by jazz scholars. I refer to Tin Pan Alley tunes of the day. James Lincoln Collier is a rare jazz historian who acknowledges that popular songs referred frequently to the music during this formative period. On page 97 of Jazz: The American Theme Song, he writes that jazz by as early as 1917 had become a fad, a craze. Performers everywhere were slapping the word "jazz"--or "jaz," "jasz," or "jass" as it was variously spelled--on any kind of production that would even vaguely support the title.

Collier lists seven songs with variations of "jazz" in the title. Of these, I suspect record collectors are most familiar with Marion Harris's version of "When I Hear That Jazz Band Play." Collier states, "All of these songs were published by mid-1917." It is analogous to a slightly earlier trend of automatically adding "blues" to titles.

We can look earlier than mid-1917. The earliest recorded song to refer to jazz is "That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland," copyrighted on November 8, 1916. Cut by the popular comic duo Collins and Harlan (baritone Arthur Collins and tenor Byron G. Harlan), it was issued on Victor 18235. This is so close to the ODJB's first record for Victor (18255--a mere 20 numbers later) that one can almost envision Collins and Harlan passing Nick LaRocca and Larry Shields in the halls outside Victor's New York City studio (the recording artists would not have met, really--they worked in very different professional spheres). In fact, Collins and Harlan recorded the song for Victor on January 12, 1917, weeks before the ODJB's studio debut.

Collins and Harlan had recorded the same song for the Edison company earlier. Different takes were cut on December 1, 1916. One take was issued on Blue Amberol dubbing 3140 in April 1917 and takes were also issued on Diamond Disc 50423 in June (the time between the recording of an Edison item and its release was often long). I find the word "jas" on the rim of my Blue Amberol. I know of no earlier record to use any form of the word "jazz." As I will discuss, the spelling of "jas" is noteworthy. I also own Diamond Disc versions, and listening to the different takes is interesting--variations in the artists' patter can be heard.

Tin Pan Alley songwriters recognized a market for songs about jazz before the first jazz record was even made and before a market for jazz records materialized. Lyricists satirized jazz before jazz was recorded! If we had to characterize jazz by the lyrics of this particular comic duet, we get a sense of jazz that shares little with characterizations made by modern writers defining jazz as an art form. Obviously we cannot rely on popular song writers for our understanding of history nor for defining an art form, but the lyrics of this particular song shed light on how the public in early years perceived this new and "funny" music from "dixieland."

The lyrics were penned by the prolific but then-obscure Gus Kahn. He later wrote words for "Carolina in the Morning" (1922), "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" (1925), and numbers for the 1929 Broadway show Whoopee, among many other hits. Henry Marshall provided the melody. He had several big hits in the 'teens. In 1912 he had published his melody for "Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee," which record collectors now associate with Ada Jones and Billy Murray, who sang the number as a duet for Victor.

The title alone--"That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland"--hints at what was associated with jazz in late 1916. The music was recognized as originating from New Orleans, or at least from the South ("dixieland"). The band playing the music is called by the lyricist a "funny jas band." The music was "funny" in two ways, as lyrics make clear: it sounded odd and it provoked mirth. To put it another way, the harmonies were strange and the music was joyful.

It is easy to forget that jazz was originally a "happy" music despite chords and progressions shared with blues. The music became a somber art only in later decades as jazz musicians became more self-conscious as artists and disdained the traditional role of entertainer. In this song, jazz is characterized as having "lots of pep and ginger." Similar phrases occur in other early songs about jazz. Billy Murray sings of "ginger and pep" in the 1919 "Take Me To The Land of Jazz" (Columbia A2766) as does Bert Harvey, who sings the song on Edison Diamond Disc 50583 and Blue Amberol 3837 (listen for the jazz band interlude). This 1919 song credits Memphis for developing "the jazzy melody":

It was down in Tennessee
That the jazzy melody
Then waited
For popularity
Now in every cabaret
It's the only thing they play
I love to hear it
Must be near it
That's why I say
Take me to the land of jazz
Let me hear the kind of blues that Memphis has
I want to step
To a tune that's full of ginger and pep

The spelling "jas," which is on all Collins and Harlan renditions of the tune, is worth exploring. Dropping one "s" from the Collins and Harlan title solved a problem for those safeguarding decency in language. H. O. Brunn explains in his 1960 book The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band why "jass" did not suit the ODJB when the band enjoyed success: "LaRocca avers that the word 'jass' was changed because children, as well as a few impish adults, could not resist the temptation to obliterate the letter 'j' from their posters." Brunn's book has major errors, and we cannot be certain this is why the spelling changed. It is not a book that can be relied upon, unfortunately.

The first Victor disc of the ODJB features the rare "jass" spelling as does the Columbia issue of the ODJB's "Darktown Strutters' Ball" coupled with "Indiana." Soon afterwards--by mid-1917--the band used the "jazz" spelling. In short, the spelling of this new music's name was uncertain in late 1916 and early 1917. "Jas" is pronounced as "jazz" by Collins and Harlan. The word existed orally before spelling had been established.

I suspect "jas," as used on the Collins and Harlan disc, could have stuck as a name for this new music had the Victor Talking Machine Company persisted in using only these three letters. I realize the spelling which we recognize as standard ("jazz") was already established in some quarters. As early as 1913 a column in the San Francisco Bulletin had analyzed the new term "jazz" (the unnamed columnist did not connect the word with music--Jim Godbolt reprints the column in his 1990 book The World of Jazz). However, the Victor Company played such an important role in making the new music available that had the company continued spelling the word as "jas," others in the industry might have followed suit.

The Edison company used different spellings before finally adopting "jazz" as the spelling. Ron Dethlefson informs me that "jass" was transformed to "jazz" beginning in the October 1917 issue of Amberola Monthly, the Edison trade publication. He finds that his copy of "When I Hear That Jazz Band Play," performed by Jaudas' Society Orchestra, originally had the word "jass" but "zz" was engraved on top of the "ss," which means the Edison Company went to some trouble so that titles on cylinders had the newly adopted spelling! I do not know if this is true for all cylinders at this time mentioning the new music.

"That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland" is sung by Collins and Harlan in the tradition of "Bake Dat Chicken Pie" and other numbers made popular by the duo around this time, especially in preceding years (the duo's popularity went in rapid decline after "jass" caught on). There is singing, an exchange of dialogue, and more singing. These white singers use black dialect, which some people today may find demeaning, but at least in this song the implication is that blacks originated and enjoyed jazz. Full credit is being given to blacks for this new music, however tasteless the delivery may strike some listeners.

The song shares much with earlier songs about ragtime bands. In early 1915 Arthur Collins recorded "Ruff Johnson's Harmony Band" (Columbia A1675), later covered by Gene Greene for Victor (#18266). Collins and Harlan in 1915 also recorded Will D. Cobb's song "Listen To That Dixie Band" (Columbia A1850), covered for Edison by Irving Kaufman:

Listen to that big brass band
From my home in dixieland
That's the band I love best of all
Everybody will fall for the old bugle call
Listen to that big bass drum
Ain't that trombone goin' some?
Oh boy! What is it they're playing?
Oh joy! That's got 'em all swaying?
Hurry for the clearing
Hear the darkies cheering
For that big sweet band

The word "jazz" is not used but in these songs we can sense popular music evolving towards jazz. Lyrics celebrate brass bands from dixieland that played syncopated melodies. Irving Berlin's 1911 "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a prototype--even here Collins and Harlan played a part, deserving much credit for popularizing the tune since their Victor recording of it (16908) was among the best-selling discs of that decade (Eddie Morton's "Oceana Roll" on the other side did not hurt sales). Their Columbia version also sold well. Berlin's tune was perhaps the most successful of these songs celebrating brass bands but it was not the first of the genre. For example, a year earlier Collins and Harlan had recorded "When Mose Leads the Band" (Columbia A814).

In 1914 the Peerless Quartet recorded "Follow Up The Big Brass Band" (Columbia A1532), with Arthur Collins joining others in praising brass bands. Lyrics in most of these songs credit the cornet player with generating the most excitement--we are not far from the reverence with which Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were held by the next generation of music lovers (analogous today is the revered guitar soloist in rock music). Listen also to Arthur Fields' "Everybody Loves a 'Jass' Band" on Edison Diamond Disc 50439 and Blue Amberol 3197 for references to the cornet and even for an early jazz piano solo.

The verse and chorus of "That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland" cite several characteristics of jazz. The music is said to feature "queer" harmony. The rhythm marks the musicians as "mad," or crazy. The music is said to be perfect for wild dancing (the tradition of sitting for the purpose of listening to jazz came much later--the music originally provided new dance rhythms).

The lyrics suggest that jazz is a music for the uneducated working class--specifically, the black working class. In the song, payday arrives. Henry brags about "a roll of money" and invites Mandy to a cafe "full of pep and ginger." Jazz works as an aphrodisiac on this spooning couple, with each one declaring by the end to be charmed by the other as well as by the band. Here is the chorus that follows the first verse:

Oh honey dear,
I want you to hear
That harmony queer
When you listen to
Mad musicians playing rhythm
Everybody dancing with 'em
Hold me close in your arms
I'm in love with your charms and
The funny jas band from dixieland

Comic dialogue follows the chorus, with Byron Harlan playing the female in minstrel show fashion. He asks a question that musicologists have tried to answer for years:

HARLAN: "Say, Henry, what is a jas band?"

COLLINS: "Why, a jas band am essentially different from the generalities of bands."

HARLAN: "In what particularity, Henry?"

COLLINS: "Oh, in many ways, Mandy. Now, for instance . . . " [A slide trombone roars]

HARLAN: "Lordy, lordy! Is that one of the ways?"

COLLINS: "Uh-huh. And another is . . . " [Clarinets play]

HARLAN: "Is there any more, Henry?"

COLLINS: "Oh yes, and it goes something like . . . " [Drum roll, bugle call, crashing of cymbals]

HARLAN: "Well, I must say, Henry, your explanation am lucidiously comprehensible!"

COLLINS: "And does you like the jas band, Mandy?"

HARLAN: "Ah sure do."

COLLINS: "Then we'll sing some more."

Singled out as jazz instruments are trombone, clarinet, drum, cornet, and cymbals. No suggestion is made that improvisation or solos taken by individuals were defining characteristics of the music. At one point the singers step away from the recording horn so studio musicians can play momentarily. We hear early jazz! The interlude is a little wilder for Edison--a little hotter--than for Victor (the Victor interlude actually employs slide whistles, with the two singers making noises in the background). Played by an Edison studio band, this musical interlude on cylinder and Diamond Disc is arguably the first jazz on record.

Although I cannot cite here all recordings from 1917 that mention "jazz," I can list a few I have listened to while preparing this article. One is "Mr. Jazz Himself," recorded by Irving Kaufman for Columbia (A2460). Prince's Band recorded the same "Mr. Jazz Himself" (Columbia A2370) in August and had recorded, months earlier (in June), "Everybody's Jazzin' It" (Columbia A2347) and "New Orleans Jazz" (Columbia A5983). Earlier still is the April recording by Prince's Band of "Hong Kong" (A5967), called a "Jazz One-step."

One Columbia disc from 1917 has titles of interest on both sides: "Alexander's Got A Jazz Band Now," which was Gene Greene's final recording (A2472), and "Cleopatra Had A Jazz Band," sung by tenor Sam Ash. Prince's Band was later to cover "Cleopatra Had A Jazz Band" in December of 1917.

The "Jazz One-step" recorded by the Rudy Wiedoeft-led Frisco "Jass" Band (the song is also known as "Hong Kong") was the first jazz instrumental released by Edison. It appeared as a Blue Amberol (3228) in August of 1917. Edison recordings have been unjustly ignored by jazz historians.

The last line spoken by Arthur Collins ("Then we'll sing some more") suggests singing is appropriate in this cafe featuring a jazz band, but there is no way to argue that these two seasoned performers were the first jazz singers. On the other hand, Collins as a solo artist cut "That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland" for various small record companies throughout 1917, and it is possible that he played with the melody in significant ways (these records-- Operaphone, for example--are incredibly rare). It is enough that we remember Collins and Harlan for celebrating jazz on record even before jazz itself was preserved on shellac.

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