Hear the First Jazz Record, Which Launched the Jazz Age: “Livery Stable Blues” (1917)

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 the 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.

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via Smithsonian

Related Content:

Langston Hughes Presents the History of Jazz in an Illustrated Children’s Book (1955)

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz

The History of Spiritual Jazz: Hear a Transcendent 12-Hour Mix Featuring John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • masodo says:

    Ha – Great post!
    Been awhile since I have visited openculture.com – what a fine welcome back :)
    Cheers! (and all that jass)

  • It was really great to hear this early jazz.

  • David Arnold says:

    Bluegrass doesn’t belong in the first sentence above. The form was created by Bill Monroe (b.1911) in the 1930’s/40’s, synthesizing old time music he’d heard most influentially from his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, country “brother” style music popular from the 1930’s on (which he’d previously performed with his own brothers Charlie and Birch), and other styles including blues and early jazz. Monroe formed his first “Blue Grass Boys” band in 1939, but the band and genre jelled with the mid-1940’s lineup that featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

  • Jazz Cook says:

    This group was far from “original.” They were chosen because many, including Buddy Bolden, thought attendance would suffer if people could hear records.

  • How the Irish Invented Slang 9781904859604
    Subtitle: The Secret Language of the Crossroads
    2007 American Book Award

    Jazz: What is the origin of the word Jazz? The Irish word Teas is pronounced jazz, jass, chas, or t’as.

    American Book Award Winner Dan Cassidy explains gig, juke, boogie woogie, Irish Slang and Irish American Vernacular English.
    No one can dispute that the Irish word ‘teas’ (pronounced jazz) means “heat, warmth”, and the notion of borrowing from Irish into English happened every day since the Irish came to America.

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