There have been many claimants to the title “Originator of Jazz” and many more who have had the title thrust upon them. Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong fell into the second group whereas ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton placed himself firmly in the first - but there was one other musician who felt that if anyone deserved the title “Originator of Jazz” it was him…
Nick La Rocca was born of Sicilian parents in New Orleans in 1889. He played the cornet and although he couldn’t read a note of music he composed one of the most recorded jazz classics of all time. He was also the founder of what is generally regarded as the first recorded jazz band, who released the first jazz record, “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917. Surprisingly Nick La Rocca was a white man and even more surprisingly he and his band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, came and played in Britain in April 1919, less than 6 months after the Armistice.
Ragtime had been popular during the first World War but the music and the dances that went with it like the turkey trot, the bunny hug and the grizzly bear were being replaced by a craze for a new music - jazz. ‘Jazzing’ had all begun in the U.K when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band opened at the London Hippodrome on the 7th April 1919. Cornetist Nick La Rocca had an uncontrollable tic in his shoulder which had made him ineligible for the draft. However, his erratic arm movements had the unexpected bonus of making him ‘disturbingly attractive’! According to the ‘Tatler’ La Rocca moved about the stage ‘like a filleted eel about to enter the stewing pot!’ The five-piece all-white band improvised all their music and were wildly popular, particularly with tunes like ‘Livery Stable Blues and ‘Hold That Tiger’. In April 1919 the band played a command performance for King George V at Buckingham Palace. This concert did not start auspiciously, with the assembled aristocracy, which included French Marshal Philippe Pétain, peering through opera glasses at the band “as though there were bugs on us”, according to La Rocca. The audience loosened up, however, after the king laughed and loudly applauded their rendition of “The Tiger Rag”.
Soon the band were booked out all over London from the London Palladium to the Hammersmith Palais where they opened on 28th November 1919. At the time the Palais was the latest and the largest dance hall in Europe and on that night over 6000 tickets were sold. The press didn’t know what to make of it all. The Star thought that the band was doing its best to murder music, the Daily Mail was disturbed by the jungle elements of the dances and the primitive rituals of ‘negro orgies’ and the Times thought that jazz was lowering the morals of the country. The medical establishment were concerned that the wild dancing of the young fans would cause permanent damage to the internal organs. There was also some concern about the latest ‘flapper’ fashions…
Skirts lengths had dramatically shortened since the end of the War with swinging beads and fringes to accentuate the movement of the hips. Legs were encased in sheer silk stockings and bandeau brassieres flattened the bosom to prevent ‘uncomfortable agitation’ of the bust while dancing. Hair was cut boyishly short and flamboyant bright lipstick was worn. As well as smoking, applying makeup in public became quite the chicest thing to do. The Duke of Portland was very worried. “It is neither becoming or attractive for an otherwise pretty and charming young woman to appear with a half smoked cigarette hanging from her vividly painted lips and with henna-coloured nails at the end of yellow nicotine stained fingers. Paint on the face or lips should be confined to use by ladies of the stage and demi-monde!”
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band tour of Britain ended in July 1920 with the band being chased to Southampton docks by a shotgun wielding Lord Harrington who was infuriated that his daughter was being romanced by the lead singer. Back home in America the band continued touring for four more years until 1925 when La Rocca suffered a nervous breakdown, and retired from music. In 1936 he reunited the O.D.J.B. for a successful tour and more recordings. He died in New Orleans in 1961 proclaiming to the end that he, Nick La Rocca, a white man of Sicilian parentage, was the true ‘Originator of Jazz’.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band 1917 recording of “Hold That Tiger”
– from Martyn Day