Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jazz and the Italian Connection
By Bruce Boyd Raeburn

During a recent academic conference held in New
Orleans there occurred an exchange which might
best be described as droll but which was intrinsically
didactic. The setting was a panel discussion on jazz,
and the panelists were all historians who were
actively researching and publishing on the subject.
Following the various presentations which were
devoted to the life-stories of musicians such as
Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton. and
Lester Young, a gentleman from the back of -the
audience asked: "What about the ODJB, the first
band to record "jazz?" A hush fell over the room,
attended by looks of horror and pity emanating from
the podium. For a moment the panelists seemed
startled, until one launched into the by now almost
perfunctory response to the question, stressing that
the circumstances which had permitted the Original
Dixieland Jazz Band to make the first jazz recording
were anOther indication of the racist bias of the
recording industry and suggesting that, beyond that,
the question should not be dignified with further
elucidation. Somewhat nonplussed, and duly
ambushed, the gentleman returned to his seat, no
closer to an answer (or serious consideration) than
he had been at the outset. Yet one can only wonder
how historians who are trained to ask hard questions
could have contented themselves with such a
brusque and simplistic response to an apparently
sincere request to hear their views on the matter of
the ODJB and its influence. Had the gentleman been
better prepared to make a case for the importance of
the ODJB, he could clearly have done so, for the
evidence on their behalf is quite impressive. if
presently obscure. Why, then, should a question on
the ODJB be dismissed as 'politically incorrect?

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band .In Chicago in 1916, just before their historic trip to New York. Pictured. left to right, are Tony Sbarbaro,
drums; Eddie Edwards, trombone; Larry Shields, clarinet; Nick LaRocca, comet; and Henry Ragas, piano.
Photo from Harry Shields Collection

The answer can be traced back ·to the earliest jazz
studies In the late 1935 and to the aesthetic
predilections of the men who wrote them.
Jazz history has often been written from the
perspective of the "great man," emphasizing the
influence of musicians who enjoy widespread critical
acceptance. especially in retrospect and ignoring
the role of "lesser-artists whose activities are ipso
facto less important. In the case of the ODJB,However
personalities also became a factor. When
Marshall Steams' "The History of Swing Music"
appeared in Down Beat in twenty parts between
1936 and 1938, objections from the leader of the
ODJB that Stearns had denigrated the band's
significance in the original development of jazz
began to circulate within the jazz press. LaRocca's
Ietters to Down Beat, Metronome, and Tempo in the
fall of 1936 all argued that the ODJB had invented
jazz and disputed Steams' claim (based on
conversations with members of the New Orleans
Rhythm Kings) that the Original Creole Orchestra

had been first. In a personal reply to LaRocca dated
January 11, 1937, Stearns complained that "you
failed to give colored musicians a break; and that is
why I exaggerated the other extreme, since the
public is inclined to believe you and musicians of
your opinion." While considerable attention was
given to the ODJB by Charles Edward Smith in
Jazzmen, an early American jazz history published in
1939, his interest in the ODJB was not typical of the
general trends among "Hot jazz collectors.  Most of
them preferred the recordings of louis Armstrong,
Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Oliver, or Jelly
Roll Morton, considering the earlier records by the
ODJB to be rhythmically "stiff" and a little too
cacophonous. Since all the early histories were
written by "hot jazz collectors, such aesthetic
predilections had a bearing on historical perceptions,
relegating the ODJB to "second-class' status
aesthetically and therefore historically. Some fifty
years after the fact it Is apparent that a reappraisal
of the ODJB and its influence is long overdue.
Indeed, the reaction of American jazz scholars to
the ODJB has been remarkably similar to that of the
Columbia Phonograph Company which made the
first aborted·attempt to record the band in January
1917. Consider the account given by H.C. Brunn in
The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1.960):

The Interweaving strains of jazz bounced
from wall to wall until the resultant
reverberations became one continuous din.
The recording director closed the door to his
office from the inside. A gang of carpenters,
who were building shelves hi the studio.
laughed 'and threw their tools about to
contribute to the bedlam. After two numbers
the musicians were paid their $250 and
ordered from the studio. Columbia had
washed its hands of jazz. (pp. 64-65)

Sheet music cover to the ODJB'a first big hit. Note the discrepancy
in titles-Victor was supposed to label the band's first release as
"Barnyard Blues' because two former members, Ray Lopez and
A1cide Nunez, had hurriedly published Livery Stable' under their
own names in Chicago, The failure of Victor to make the
substitution led to litigation between the contending parties. but
the cue was ultimately thrown out.
From the Nick LaRocca Collecti0n

But Columbia's attitude changed dramatically when
the band's "Livery Stable Blues,' recorded soon after
by Victor. surpassed the million-and"a-half sales
mark for that company within months of its release.
By August 1917 Columbia's ODJB version of
"Darktown Strutter's Ball" was vying for the attention
of record buyers on the shelves, and newspaper
advertisements for both Victor and Columbia
products by Maison Blanche in New Orleans show
how important they were as harbingers of a jazz
revolution which was only just beginning. Maison
Blanche left little doubt as to why "Livery Stable' was
so popular: "Here is positively the greatest dance
record ever issued. Made by New Orleans musicians
for New Orleans' people, it has all the 'swing' and
'pep' and 'spirit· that is so characteristic of the
bands whose names are now a by-word ,at New
Orleans dances. It is more proof that New Orleans
sets the pace for 'Wonderful' dance music--a fact
that is recognized and commented upon the country
over." The "Darktown" copy was comparable: 'It's
played by New Orleans boys, too, for here is where
'Jazz' music originated and it has been the craze
the country over." Mercantile hyperbole
notwithstanding, the overriding theme of these
advertisements is that the ODJB was representative
of New Orleans music and a model for further
development. As it happened, the influence of the
ODJB on New Orleans musicians, both white and
black, can be extensively documented and serves as
a useful counterpoise to the usual historical accounts.

The context for any discussion of an ethnic
"connection" to New Orleans musical culture, be it
Italian, Irish, Creole, German, Latin' American, or
African-American, is the process of transculturation
Which fused diverse traditions into a distinctively
regional blend. Demographic patterns which created
a "crazy quilt" of mixed neighborhoods also yielded
an extremely eclectic musical amalgam, and in a
town renowned for its festival traditions, all citizens
had access to the music which was performed on
the streets, at the camps at West End, and in the
cabarets and dance halls which fed the

Nick LaRocca on daddy's knee, well before the issue of the cornet came up.
Photo from the Nick LaRocca collection

Consequently, one of the essential
features of an Italian connection to New Orleans jazz
was that it was not intended for the sole enjoyment
of Italians but contributed instead to the
development of a New Orleans style of playing
improvised music,duly enriching it. WIthin the ODJB
there were Italians (LaRocca, Sbarbaro), Irish
(Shields). anQ English (Ragas, Edwards), but what
they played was a New Orleans sound which
exceeded the sum of its parts. Local reactions to the
recordings of the ODJB tended to be enthusiastic,
and far-ranging. John Wigginton Hyman (Johnny
Wiggs), by his own recollection, had first gravitated
to jazz after hearing Joe Oliver at subscription
dances at Tulane in 1916 and was applying what he
could pick up with the Invincibles, a string band
made up of middle-class youths from the uptown
area Yet it was hearing the ODJB that
revolutionized his conception of the music: "In
1917 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band released
their first. record on Victor. This was too much for
the Invincibles and we began to yearn to play
'real jazz." Throughout his long career Wiggs
rubbed shoulders with various Italian musicians
who shared his dedication to "real jazz," including
Tony Parenti, Charlie Scaglionl, Leon Roppolo,
Santo Pecora,and Sherwood Mangiapane,and
as a child he had played street comers with
young Joseph Manane for small change. For
him, the ODJB was a model for nascent jazzmen
to follow, and there is plenty of evidence to
suggest that he was not alone in this opinion.
The impact of the ODJB on black New
Orleanians was no less telling. When Dink
Johnson, a drummer and clarinetist who worked
with the Original Creole Orchestra, Jelly Roll
Morton, and Kid Ory, was interviewed by Floyd
Levin in 1950, he had some interesting
observations concerning his reaction to the
ODJB: ·1 was actually a drummer, you know. I
had always wanted to play the clarinet since
hearing Larry Shields with the Original Dixieland
Jazz Band." The effect of the ODJB's recordings
on the most popular black dance band in New
Orleans in 1917, Kid Ory's, is another case.!n
point. What was known as the Ory-Oliver band
included future stars such as Joe Oliver, Johnny
Dodds, and occasionally Louis Armstrong and
held forth at dance halls like the Economy and
Cooperators, where its popularity was unassailable.
Testimony by Manuel Manetta, the violinist in Kid
Ory's band. illustrates what happened throughout
the city in the wake of the ODJB recordings. The two
"readers' in the band were Oliver and Manetta, with
the latter serving as "straw boss' for Cry in 'the
selection of material and direction of the band. Yet
Manetta was fired because "Joe Oliver and Kid Ory
wanted to follow the format of the Dixieland Jazz
Band and use only five pieces." Prior to 1917, many
New Orleans dance bands either carried or were led
by violinists. After that year. violins all but
disappeared. Manetta ended up dropping violin,
offering saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and piano to
prospective employers. The success of the ODJB
through the medium of the phonograph completed
the revolution in dance-band instrumentation begun
by Buddy Bolden two decades earlier. supplanting
violinists with cornetists and standardizing 'the jazz band
lineup. The success of the ODJB vindicated
-taking' and fused the term -jazz' to the New Orleans

style of instrumental ragtime. collectively improvised,
which had been developing since the turn of the
century. The term itself became a rallying point for
New Orleans musicians of all ethnic and racial
backgrounds. creating conditions for the formation of
a community of interest in support of the new music.
which was perceived as a local product. While the
roots of jazz were undoubtedly nourished largely
within the African-American community (Which was
itself extremely diversified), its subsequent
development before 1917 was a more broadly
communitarian phenomenon, drawing on a variety of
musical cultures extant in New Orleans. Music. in
other words, brought people of all affiliations
together. in spite of the social conditions which were
often designed to keep them apart
In addition to the success of their records. the
ODJB were the first link between jazz and the youth
culture that emerged in the wake of the First World
War. Indeed, the band had caught the doughboys
going and coming. first as the hottest ticket in New

York City 1917·18 when the city served as a major
port of embarkation, and later in London in 1919 at
the Hippodrome and the Armistice Ball, where they
played for the returning servicemen and their
generals. The same celebration of the joys of self expression
that was present in jazz was also found
In the interpretation of Freud as a means to health
through the unrestrained libido or In the fashions of
the flapper, mutually reinforcing the reaction against
the formalism of the victorian Era Comparison of the
early musical experiences of Italians such as Nick
LaRocca or leon Roppolo with those of creoles of
color like Sidney Bechet or Freddie Keppard reveals
the operation of a generation gap which presaged
the general rebellion of youth in the 19208.
LaRocca's father forbade him to practice comet and
destroyed several, even though he himself was a
player. Roppolo came from a long line of Italian
clarinet virtuosi, who urged him to take up the violin
because there was no money to be made playing
clarinet in America Keppard rejected violin in order
to take up comet in the manner of Bolden. Bechet
started with clarinet but eventually gravitated to
soprano saxophone, largely because it enhanced his
ability to predominate in ensemble situations. In each
case, young players opted for faking over the more
traditional formal pedagogy which was prescribed by
their parents, creating similar situations in the
households of Italians and creoles of color. Jazz
was, after all, a musical vehicle for the expression of
personality, and the tribulations of the Roppolo and
Keppard families were later experienced by the
Beiderbeckes and the Toughs in Iowa and Illinois.
But there was one major difference. New Orleanians
such as Bechet, Keppard, LaRocca, and Roppolo
were reacting to the music they heard all around
them; Beiderbecke and Tough got their first
exposure by listening to ODJB records, which led
them to seek out other New Orleans bands such as
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the New Orleans
Rhythm Kings in Chicago.
There is still much to be learned about jazz history
and its early development from the story of the
Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and fortunately a
reassessment of its contributions is already
underway. if we are serious about understanding the
culture which produced jazz in New Orleans, then it
is incumbent upon us to broaden our horizons to
include each and every thread in this complex
tapestry. The Italian connection was but one strand
of many, yet the presence of Italian musicians in so
many of the early New Orleans jazz bands tells us

that It was a significant factor in the development of
the music and deserves recognition. la Rocca and
Sbarbaro with the ODJB, Roppclo with NORK, Curly
Uzana with the New Orleans Jazz Babies, Charlie
Cordilla with the Halfway House Orchestra, or the
subsequent activities of Joseph "Wingy" Manone,
Sharky Bonano, Tony Parenti, louis Prima, Irving
Fazola (an honorary Italian), and others all attest to
an Italian jazz connection which was deep and
abiding. To dismiss any of this body of wane as
imitative or derivative is to appease the critic at the
expense of the historian and to remove from
discussion some of the music's most colorful and
charismatic personalities.

Bruce Boyd Raeburn

Brunn, H.O. The Story at tfJe Original Dixieland Jazz.
Band (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1960),
Jazzmen. Charles Edward Smith and Frederic
Ramsey, Jr., eds. (New York: Harcourt, Brace &
Co., 1939),
Levin, Floyd, 'Mystery Shrouds Kid Ory 1920s
LA. Recordings," West Coast Rag
(November 1990): 17-20.
Manetta, Manuel. Taped interview, March 21,
1957, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
Menville, Myra 'Wiggs - Self-Explained,' The
Second Line, 29 (Spring 1977): 3-13.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1917.
New Orleans TimeS-Picayune, August 8,1917.
Welbum, Ronald G. American Jazz Criticism,
1914-1940. Unpublished Ph.D, dissertation,
New York University, 1983.


  1. Very interesting points you're making. I'm working on a Master's thesis concerning Francophone musicians in New Orleans today after Katrina. I have a short historical piece - however, it's focused on the Francophone contributions to the city and the development of music. Let's not forget that those claiming their Creole heritage is very new in the historical accounts of the city. And Creole in Louisiana does not only refer to Creoles of color. Creole in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana also means the first generation born in Louisiana of French parents. Had a very interesting discussion about it with a few Francophone musicians and would like to research further into this but my topic isn't completely focused on the historical aspects - so will have to do this once I get more free time. It's a lost culture that was swallowed up by Americanization and the loss of any culture is very unfortunate. Very interesting insight you have here. Thanks.

  2. Creole history is fascinating to say the least, and i agree the loss of any culture is unfortunate. Thankfully However, it also gave us Jazz....