How Italian-Americans Took Jazz to the Global Stage


The dawn of the Jazz Age can be traced to a single moment: Feb. 26, 1917.

The following article, written by Georgetown University Professor Anna Celenza, appears on The Lens. 

As genres go, New Orleans-style jazz is the quintessential musical hybrid, mixing everything from brass band marches and French quadrilles to beguine, ragtime and blues. There’s no disputing that the cross-fertilization was carried out under an innovative performance style that first took root in New Orleans in the hands of African-American musicians. But what accounted for the rapid spread of jazz — or “jass” — was the mesmerizing synthesis of its myriad musical characteristics by musicians of various ethnicities, not least of them Italian.

As jazz developed in New Orleans during the 1910s, listeners became captivated by its upbeat, syncopated energy, which in turn made it ripe for commercialization via the latest recording technologies. Jazz is rooted in the genius of Scott Joplin, Buddy Bolden and other African Americans, but its emergence as what would become the 20th century’s defining musical innovation occurred far from Basin Street. Indeed, rarely can the advent of a musical revolution so huge be traced as precisely to a single moment: Feb. 26, 1917.

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On that date, a combo from New Orleans called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, featuring Nick LaRocca on cornet, walked into a Victor recording studio in New York and cut the first commercial jazz recording. Side A featured a tune called “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step;” the B side was “Livery Stable Blues.

Although countless musicians, both black and white, contributed to the development of jazz during the first two decades of the 20th century,  LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band stand out for their contribution to its rapid dissemination. LaRocca, an Italian American, was a fine cornet player — also a trumpeter and composer — but his greatest talent lay in self-promotion. He did not invent jazz, as he would later claim, but he was the first to realize the importance of recording it. Consequently, “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” and “Livery Stable Blues” launched the jazz age with all its accouterments, from driving rhythms and flapper fashions to risqué dances and potent cocktails.  By 1918 the band had sold over one million copies of its first gramophone disc – a truly astounding number for the time. Continue reading at The Lens. 

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