Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Period Ear

 New York Sun, November 4 1917 (section 5, p. 2)

“Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, released in 1917, was the first jazz record. As such firsts go, there is a fair amount of consensus for this one. Usually, a “first” (like the “first rock and roll record” – no, Mom, not everyone thinks it is “Earth Angel”) is difficult to pin down, as styles evolved gradually over time rather than being suddenly invented by one person; and of course there is the matter of how one defines the type (rock, jazz, etc.). In this case, “Livery Stable Blues,” with its B-side “Dixie Jass Band One-Step,” was certainly the first record by a band calling itself a “jazz” band. Or “jass” band – the name was so new to most of the public at this point that no one could agree how to spell it; other spellings included jas, jaz, jasz, or even jad. It was also the first record released by a band from New Orleans, usually (but not always) thought to be the birthplace of jazz.

And yet, for a record of such historic import, I find it very difficult to listen to. On the rare occasions when I try, I usually have to shut it off before it's over. For one thing, it is difficult to separate the recording and the band from the associated racism: Nick LaRocca, the cornetist and leader of the band, is notorious for his comments about the origins of jazz. He claimed that he, his band, and whites more generally created jazz, denying African-Americans any role – and often using bigoted language in the process. For most of us, who think of black musicians as the main (or, probably incorrectly, only) driving force behind the creation of jazz, these claims are simply unacceptable.

But more than even recalling these challenging racial attitudes, the record is simply boring. Why is this? Is it something inherent in the music itself? Is it an artifact of the recording technology? Hearing the music is certainly not helped by the use of acoustical recording; until electrical recording was developed in the mid-1920s, musicians had to be arranged around a recording horn, each at the proper distance in order to achieve the desired sonic balance, and the resulting recordings were marked by low fidelity to sounds of the instruments themselves.

This difficulty of listening to early recordings is in fact a commonplace of jazz historiography and criticism. Gunther Schuller described the challenge that listening to King Oliver's Jazz Band's classic recordings with Louis Armstrong posed, in 1968:

As Oliver's recordings of 1923 recede further into the historical past, each succeeding generation will undoubtedly find it harder to relate to them. Forty years or so of solo-oriented jazz make it difficult for people to understand the collective music-making conception the Creole Jazz Band represented, and of course the antique sound of the old acoustical Gennett, Okeh, and Paramount recordings is strange to modern ears. For me they have a lovely sound all their own, as nostalgic and personal as the sound of a Model T. On the other hand there is no denying that the sound is acoustically unfaithful, and that recording techniques of the day were inadequate to cope with the polyphonic intricacies of that music.
Even the average ear, however, can adjust with repeated hearings to this acoustical misrepresentation. (Early Jazz, p. 78)

This passage touches on a series of ideas important to jazz listening and criticism. Listening is difficult not only because of the poor sound technology; it is difficult also because of the cultural, musical, and chronological differences between those records and us. Over 45 years after Schuller wrote those words, those distances have only increased. But at the same time Schuller is confident that these sorts of gulfs can be bridged. As he puts it in specific regard to the Original Dixieland Jazz Bands, and their supporters and critics:

Neither faction seems to have taken the trouble to listen dispassionately to the ODJB recordings. Their historic importance as the “first jazz recordings ever” makes objective listening understandably difficult. But beneath all the controversy regarding the band's musical pre-eminence, their historical primacy, and the color of their skin, there lies a purely acoustical factual record.” (Early Jazz, pp. 175-176)

Despite the distance between 1917 and 1923 on the one hand, and 1968 or 2014 on the other, in Schuller's view we can with effort strip away the differences of years and decades, and ultimately reach the “purely acoustical factual record.” As it happens, these ideas of music – and literary – criticism are a reflection of what is known as New Criticism, a movement popular in the mid-20th century. This is essentially a modernist view (in literary criticism), intimately connected to modernist art. The main idea, as it relates to appreciating music or other art forms, is that it is possible to have a purely aesthetic reaction to a work of art, and that it is both possible and desirable to achieve this reaction by removing superfluous issues of culture, of anything from the world outside the work of art. These include the ideas and values of the audience, and even of the author of the work itself.

Since the 1960s, however, the mainstream of literary (and music) criticism have moved away from this stance. Criticism has come to widely question whether it is possible or even desirable to react to art on a purely aesthetic level, and whether meaning is inherent within art. From this vantage point, it is ironic but not surprising that while Schuller argues for listening to the “factual record” of the ODJB's recordings, he – in a book whose strength is its focus on musical examples and detailed musicological analysis of recordings – spends little time on the details of these recordings and more on issues about the background of the band and its reception. Among the new approaches championed in literary criticism is reader-response criticism, which emphasizes the important role of the reader (or, in music, the listener) in actively creating meaning.

Musicologist Shai Burstyn, in a noteworthy theoretical article entitled “In Quest of the Period Ear” (1997), discusses these issues in connection with the rise of period performance. Period performance is the effort to play music (specifically, western classical music) in techniques and on instruments reflective of the period in which they were created. As Burstyn points out, though, even if it were possible to truly recreate such a performance (which it could never fully be), this focus doesn't touch on how we as an audience hear a piece. Our cultural values, our expectations, the settings in which we listen to music, the mental habits we have when listening – all of these must be vastly different from earlier audiences' experiences, and erect imposing barriers to reaching a common understanding (an idea, I should point out, also reflected in the Schuller passages above). Even if Mozart himself were to be resurrected and play an 18th-century piano, we could never hear him the way any 18th-century European ever heard him.

This futility does not mean that we should not make the effort to understand performance and listening practices of other periods. Instead, it points to a certain naivete in some of the statements quoted above from Schuller. It points to the importance of how different persons and audiences hear music. It points to the great effort needed even to begin to work around these differences. And it points to the fact that our understanding of these differences can only ever be partial.

To return to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band: we can see that our failure to appreciate what audiences of 1917 heard in their music is largely due to the problem of the period ear. So many things – the alien recording technology, our 21st-century reactions to racism, the development of jazz and popular music over the last 100 years, the different media on which we listen to music, to highlight some of the most obvious – all combine to create significant differences between the ear of 1917 and the that of 2014. All of these contribute to the difficulty I have in listening to an ODJB record, and to the simple fact that I find their music often boring.

Is it possible to listen to an ODJB record with a period ear? Is it even worth trying? To address the second question first, I find the answer glaringly obvious. If we are trying to understand the history of music, this involves the history of meaning in music – meaning that results in part from how people have heard music. For any historian, or anyone at all interested in a historical perspective on music, the question is almost too obvious to ask. So, if this is the case, how can we try to listen in this way?


As an answer, I will relate an episode from my own music listening experiences. A few years ago, I was particularly interested in tracing the history of the song “St. Louis Blues.” Written by W.C. Handy in 1914, the song was a hit, becoming a jazz and pop standard, and ultimately one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century. I spent time listening to a number of different versions of the song, particularly those recorded in the first few years after it was written. Though the performers – Prince's Band, the Victor Military Band (in a medley with Handy's Joe Turner Blues), Al Bernard, Marion Harris, James Reese Europe – varied greatly in their background, they all had to a great extent strikingly similar conceptions of the song. (An exception is the interesting and unusual version by Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, an African-American group recording in London in 1916.) Most notably, throughout the 1910s the song was always performed in a marching band or ragtime style, two styles that were intimately connected, featuring an oom-pah bass with two beats to the measure. These recordings also feature a number of figures (or riffs) typical of songs in the ragtime era, but not familiar to me from later versions of the song – suggesting that they more faithfully reflect how Handy actually scored the music. While some of these recordings were of great interest, they all sound – to my 21st-century ears – carefully controlled, an effect (in part) of the relative lack of syncopation for a song that became a jazz standard, and of the written arrangements.

After listening to these recordings, I then listened to the ODJB's version from 1921. And boom – suddenly everything changed. Everything changed between the 1910s versions and the ODJB recording, and everything changed in my own understanding of the ODJB. Even though the ODJB's parts were not improvised but worked out in advance, even through the muffled sound, the recording sounded so exciting and full of life. I had an entirely new appreciation for the ODJB's attempt at the polyphonic style of New Orleans jazz, which contrasted so greatly with the single melodic line that was generally played in the earlier recordings of the song; and for their looser rhythm, swinging, more propulsive than the rigid bass of ragtime. Of course, there are various differences between the ODJB recordings of “Livery Stable Blues” and “St. Louis Blues”. Over four years their style had changed, including the introduction of new musicians. Beyond that, “St. Louis Blues” as a composition is certainly stronger and more varied melodically than “Livery Stable Blues” But for the first time I felt like I had a window, however small, into how audiences almost a century ago had first heard this new music.

Listening to the music of the ODJB within the context of its time helps us to appreciate the reactions in print of various parties in 1917. We can begin to understand how the music was seen not as rigid, or stylized, or muffled, or outdated, or hokey, but as wild to the point of anarchy. Newspaper articles of the time, even in New Orleans itself, constantly referred to the music with words like “cacophony,” “concussion,” “noise,” etc. This is the attitude captured by the writers of Downton Abbey, who put in the Dowager Countess's mouth the reaction, on hearing a jazz band: “Do you think any of them know what the others are playing?” And this initial reception of the music was fully exploited by members of the ODJB, who played up some of these elements even further. In a 1917 interview with the New York Globe, the band's trombonist, Eddie Edwards, made a series of remarks about the band's music and jazz in general: 

“None of us knows music. One carries the melody and the others do what they please.”
“Jazz I think means jumble.”
“In Chicago a professor told us it was the 'untuneful harmony of rhythm.' I don't know what he meant, but I guess he was right.”

We also see this attitude captured visually in publicity photos like the one above of the ODJB. While the caption reads “Typical jazz band about to jazz,” the photo is staged and not from performance: the musicians are on top of each other, with trombonist Edwards and cornetist LaRocca popping up out of the piano! In fact, this photograph is part of a trend of increasingly exaggerated photos of early jazz bands, directly tying in to the wild image of the music.

But this attitude of anarchy and lack of musical knowledge, feigned in the band's PR at least, did not stop its members from claiming they composed the songs that they played, and ultimately looking to profit from royalties. After “Livery Stable Blues” became a hit, there was a major battle over the copyright to the composition. Through a confusion in titles, it turns out that the ODJB had not copyrighted the song, at least as “Livery Stable Blues,” so Alcide “Yellow” Nunez – former clarinetist with the ODJB (and angry with LaRocca in particular) – submitted a copyright along with cornetist Ray Lopez. LaRocca had apparently already submitted his own copyright, but under the alternate title “Barnyard Blues.” One publisher ended up filing a lawsuit against the other in Chicago, and the trial drew great attention. Hart et al. v. Graham (N.D. Ill. 1917) was decided in October of that year. The judge, George A. Carpenter, ruled that neither party owned the copyright, largely because the song was based on pre-existing public domain material. However, a secondary theme of the judge's ruling involved the musical quality – or lack of it – in the recording of “Livery Stable Blues”:

“Now, as a matter of fact, the only value of this so-called musical production apparently lies in the interpolated animal and bird calls . . .”
“. . . I venture to say that no living human being could listen to that result on the phonograph and discover anything musical in it.”

Our goal, then, should be to provide a proper and rich context for the music of the ODJB, or music of the past in general. We can never fully approach the period ear; our efforts will always be partial, fragmentary, and at least somewhat misleading. But we can certainly learn a great deal about the past, and how music meant in the past. We can do this by listening to music in the context of other music of the time, and by looking at contemporary reactions to music: in reviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, record labels, etc. And in the process we can at least take a step towards a lost world, a step closer than we were before.


Anonymous said...

A trip to New Orleans would help me understand this more.

Michael said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure that would be very helpful. New Orleans of today is very different from the New Orleans of a century ago -- for instance, most of the buildings associated with the early development of jazz in the city were torn down decades ago. More generally, the gulf between us and society of the 1910s is great enough that a visit would only scratch the surface; it really requires much deeper immersion in the music and culture of the time.

Also, it's worth mentioning that the word "jazz" itself (in any spelling) originated on the West coast, and was first applied to this type of music in Chicago! By the time the ODJB recorded (in New York!) they had been away from New Orleans for about a year and their style was developing in this time.

Anonymous said...

Re: the audio clip of the St. Louis Blues… “It’s a wonder that any one of them knows what the other is playing” – Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.