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The Riffs And Rhythms That Led To Jazz As We Know It
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The Riffs And Rhythms That Led To Jazz As We Know It

Music Reviews

The Riffs And Rhythms That Led To Jazz As We Know It

The Riffs And Rhythms That Led To Jazz As We Know It
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The Original Dixieland Jazz Band's first recording in Feb. 1917 is often cited as the first jazz record ever, but critic Kevin Whitehead says that the roots of jazz stretch a little further back.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A year from now, we'll be hearing a lot about the hundredth anniversary of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's first recording in February, 1917, which is usually cited as the first jazz record. But our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says there are a couple of earlier records that may be contenders, one of them recorded on February 3, 100 years ago. Before we hear them, let's hear the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from 1917.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND SONG, "DIXIELAND JASS BAND ONE STEP")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: That's the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in February, 1917. With "Dixieland Jass Band One Step," the flip side of "Livery Stable Blues." You can hear why folks call it the first jazz record, the way cornet, clarinet and trombone mix it up helped define New Orleans-style jazz. You can hear its military roots in that opening call to arms and ragtime behind the shambling beat. But there was a new breeziness to the rhythm. When the band repeat a section, you can hear they're not really improvising as much as paraphrasing themselves. But it gives everything the right, off-book flavor. That's hot stuff in 1917.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND SONG, "DIXIELAND JASS BAND ONE STEP")

WHITEHEAD: The white Original Dixieland Jazz Band wasn't the first jazz group but part of a wave that had been building for a decade and a half. Jazz had evolved out of ragtime, brass bands, field hollers, dance music and anything else handy. You can't point to one moment and say, jazz starts here. Though, it would've been well before 1917. There are earlier recorded examples of that same rhythmic freshness and improvised feel. But first, let's hear some 1913 music on the cusp of jazz but not quite there, African-American bandleader James Reese Europe's "Down Home Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES REESE EUROPE SONG, "DOWN HOME RAG")

WHITEHEAD: James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra in late 1913 sound like cowboys headed for the corral, riding herd on a dozen mandolins. A bit over two years later, on February 3, 1916, the black vaudeville act The Versatile Four cut a miniaturized covered of that arrangement, right down to the yelling. But on their version, something fundamental had changed. The two banjo players are more free with those punchy riffs, and drummer Charlie Johnson swings like crazy for 1916.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERSATILE FOUR SONG, "DOWN HOME RAG")

WHITEHEAD: You can hear military rudiments in Charlie Johnson's jazz percussion. But he takes them somewhere else. He plays accents and press rolls (ph), emphasizes the backbeat, crashes on a rude symbol and doubles up his time on wood blocks. It's hip 1920s drumming a few years early.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERSATILE FOUR SONG, "DOWN HOME RAG")

WHITEHEAD: That little riff that "drives" "Down Home Rag" repeats five times every two bars for a wheels-within-wheels effect. That so-called secondary rag syncopation also propels Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" and a hundred country fiddle solos. The composer of "Down Home Rag," clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman, recorded his version in December, 1916, where you can hear those country fiddles coming. Sweatman doesn't really improvise either here, but he does catch that free, jazzy phrasing on clarinet a little before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He floats above the violin and his mostly earthbound band.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILBUR SWEATMAN SONG, "DOWN HOME RAG")

WHITEHEAD: We might do better to think not of one first jazz record but of a few records and piano rolls that track how jazz broke free of its ancestors. Singers help point the way too. Vaudeville comic Bert Williams caught some of the surges and hesitations of swing on record by 1906 and cut his own "Ode To Syncopation" in 1914. Even so, by then, pioneering cornetist Buddy Bolden's career was already over. And later in 1914, The Creole Band from New Orleans toured the western U.S. and Canada on a vaudeville circuit. So jazz was already around by the mid teens. It just took record companies some time to catch on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO SYNCOPATION")

BERT WILLIAMS: (Singing) Syncopation (unintelligible). It's called a sensation, you can't get away now. Lawyers and physicians, even men of high positions, great big politicians all come around...

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Tone Audio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Peter Bergen author of the new book "United States Of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists." He's CNN's national security analyst and has been reporting on jihad for decades. He interviewed bin Laden in 1997. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

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