Buddy Bolden Band (Bolden is back row,
second from left), New Orleans, c. 1895.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
No one knows for certain which musicians were the first to play the music we would now recognize as jazz, but the most likely candidate was the cornetist Buddy Bolden. All we really know about this elusive figure is that he was the grandson of slaves, a plasterer by trade who played with a string orchestra for dancers before he formed his own brass band and began billing himself as Professor Bolden. There is only one known photograph of him, and his music was never recorded. But he seems to have been among the first to understand that wonderful things would happen if you brought together the syncopated polyphony of the marching bands and the emotional power of the blues on one bandstand. By all accounts, Bolden delivered an enormous sound and possessed a bold inventiveness that made people turn out to see him not just because they wanted to listen to music but because they wanted to hear what Buddy Bolden, individually, was going to do with it. New Orleans dancers flocked to him. When younger Creole musicians heard him play—and saw the crowds he was drawing every evening—they realized they’d better try to play like him, too. “If I wanted to make a living,” one Creole musician remembered, “I had to be rowdy” like Bolden and the other black musicians already following his lead. “So that’s the way jazz started,” another Creole recalled, “just through the feeling of the man ... his improvisations.”
Segregation may have governed even the smallest details of daily life, but it would never be able to keep real musicians from listening to, and learning from, one another, in New Orleans or anywhere else. “We had all nations in New Orleans,” the Creole pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton remembered, “but with the music we could creep in close to other people.” There was as yet no name for the new American music Buddy Bolden, Morton, and others had pioneered, but by 1900, in defiance of Jim Crow, scores of black and white and Creole musicians in New Orleans were getting together and eagerly trying to play it. And by around 1910, as New Orleans musicians grew weary of segregation and began moving north and west in search of freer lives and fresh audiences, they would take the new music with them.
In 1914, the cornetist Freddie Keppard and his six-man Original Creole Orchestra carried it all the way to Los Angeles, where they began a four-year national vaudeville tour. His band performed minstrel-style comedy onstage, but they also introduced the sounds of New Orleans to audiences all over the country. Jelly Roll Morton, too, spent much of the 1910s moving from town to town, performing jazz at the piano and showing local musicians how to join in.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, c. 1917.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
But it took the phonograph—invented in 1877 and popularized after World War I—to turn jazz into a national sensation. On March 7, 1917, a white New Orleans outfit that billed itself as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band released a recording of two New Orleans tunes, “Dixieland Jazz Band One-Step” and “Livery Stable Blues” (in which cornetist Nick LaRocca made his horn whinny like a horse). Many older people thought it was little more than noise—Thomas Edison, inventor of the very technology that would eventually propel jazz into the mainstream, joked that he played jazz records backwards “because they sound better that way.” But younger people loved it—it was fast, exciting, and ideal for dancing. They bought more than a million copies at 75 cents each, a figure exceeding that of any single record, in any genre, before it. It elevated the band to superstardom and spawned scores of eager imitators.
The new music soon spread overseas. During World War I, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, leader of Harlem’s all-black 369th Infantry (the “Hellfighters”) Band, wowed American doughboys and French townspeople alike with his distinctive brand of orchestrated ragtime, filled with smears and bent notes and rhythmic excitement borrowed from jazz. A few weeks after the war ended, 21-year-old Sidney Bechet opened in London with a troupe called the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Each night, he improvised a clarinet solo, on a tune called “Characteristic Blues,” that was so inventive and so emotionally powerful that the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet hailed it as “the advent of an art.” Bechet, Ansermet wrote, had mapped out “the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.”