Monday, February 25, 2013

White Jazz, pt. 1

There is a video on YouTube somewhere of Leon Redbone  talking to a crowd at a show somewhere. He appears to be drunk in the video but he may or mat not be. I don't know. Anyway, he holds up a picture and tells us the picture is of Nick Larocca. And he says that this is the man who invented jazz.

He's probably being ironic. To say such a thing and mean it would get you branded racist in less time than it takes to say, "Hold that tiger". And yet there is a sense in which the claim is not completely crazy and everyone who studies the history of jazz has probably been tempted to think what Redbone teases us by saying.

The name "Nick Larocca" may not mean anything to you. Larocca was the cornet player with the Original Dixieland Jazz band. The ODJB unquestionably made the first jazz record. After that it gets complicated.

No one believes that Larocca invented jazz. I don't think anyone who looks at the history of jazz in an even half-serious manner thinks that anyone invented jazz. But here's the thing: no one thought of it as "jazz" before the ODJB. The word "jazz" seems to come from white culture and it seems to be first applied to music in Chicago or San Francisco by white audiences. And these audiences didn't mean a genre of music. They meant a way of playing music.

Jazz meant to do something with spirit and hustle. It's highly unlikely the audiences who first used the word had any special musical knowledge. They liked that the music was energetic and fast paced. The first world war was just over and there was a new spirit of rebellion in the air and the music fit in with the spirit of rebellion.

Larocca didn't invent jazz—nobody did—but he saw the opportunity to connect the music to a lifestyle and he made money doing it. There was a lawsuit about who wrote an ODJB hit called "Livery Stable Blues". It's of no legal interest. What is interesting is that when Larocca appeared in court to testify, he wore a green jacket with a striped purple shirt underneath. This was in 1917!

He did, in a sense, what lots of other whites have done ever since. And the odd thing about it, is that only whites could have done it because they weren't burdened down with the problem of being authentic. Or, to put it another way, they did it without the burden of being authentically themselves.

Because one of the odd things about early white jazz bands is that they fell over themselves trying to be very authentic about music they had no authentic connection with themselves. The band was called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band for a reason. Even before they were famous, people went to see these shows because they claimed to presenting something authentic from somewhere else.

It was a role to put on and it was a role that came from another place, another culture. And white people love that stuff. Still do. Think of world music. We love any kind of authenticity going so long as it isn't our own.

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