Through turn-of-the-century America meandered blues, bluegrass, and “old time” music. Gospel hymns, waltzes, and marches. Perhaps the first truly national musical style, Ragtime took a little bit from all of these and fused them together, influencing everything from the crudest vaudeville to the work of some of Europe’s most innovative composers, including Antonin Dvořák, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie. But ragtime was still very much tied to the past, to its late 19th roots in minstrelsy and marches.
Then in 1917, a sound arrived that was so perfectly in tune with the age that it became singularly evocative of next decade to come. This was jazz, of course, or “jass,” as it was spelled on “Livery Stable Blues,” the first record of such music ever released, composed and played by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band. The music arrived with the force of the “garage rock of the 1960s…. It was simple music played with so much irreverence that it proved irresistible” to Americans caught up in country’s rapid urbanization and modernizing.
The first jazz record was transitional music—not necessarily a jazz big bang moment; “looser and more spontaneous than the ragtime that had swept the country at the turn of the century,” writes Geoffrey Himes at Smithsonian, “but lacking the improvised solos and elastic rhythm of jazz to come.” Just as in the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s, most jazz fans first came to know white groups like the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band before they met the black New Orleanians who invented the music.
But immediately after “Livery Stable Blues” the market was awash with both “jass” and “jazz” releases, including the first by a black American jazz act, Wilbur Sweatman and his Jass Band, and a jazz record from the legendary blues pioneer W.C. Handy from Memphis. Between 1916 and 1917, jazz went nationwide: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and just about everywhere else in-between. As it spread its origins became muddled. “Just how the Jazz Band originated and where it came from is very hard to say,” wrote the sleeve of one later 1917 release.
Music historians agree that jazz was born in the nightclubs and on the streets of New Orleans, the home town of the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band. But “the question of who did what first,” writes Scott Alexander, “and what was ragtime and what was jazz is often a divisive question among those who are interested in early jazz.” Yet when it comes to making pop history, “Livery Stable Blues” had greater impact than somewhat similar-sounding records released around the same time. “The band was a sensation” writes Himes. And almost overnight the sound of jazz became the sound of 20th-century America.