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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Livery Stable Blues

Updated: May 15, 2022

“Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it's the slaying of syncopation.”

Nick LaRocca, cornet player, Original Dixieland Jass Band

On February 26, 1917, a quintet of musicians arrived at the Victor Talking Machine Company located on 38th Street in New York City. The quintet, comprised of a cornet, a trombone, a clarinet, a piano, and drums, headed for the 12th-floor recording studio. As America debated entry into the First World War, the band recorded a silly yet raucous tune complete with barnyard animal sounds. It was a style just starting to emerge from New Orleans. The tune was the "Livery Stable Blues". The band was the Original Dixieland Jass Band. And it is regarded as the very first jazz recording. As significant as this would be, it would not be without its controversy.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was an ensemble of white musicians that had been brought together to form a dance band in Chicago the year before. The five men grew up in the musical soup of New Orleans. New Orleans, at the turn of the 20th century and before stricter segregation, was a polyglot. English, French, Spanish, Irish, German, Italian, and African-American among others flowed into the port city making it unique among southern cities. This mix of immigrants produced a true melting pot of cultures especially when it came to music. Wandering through the streets one could hear the musical traditions of the African-American South, French Creole, Spanish Caribbean, and European brass bands. Music, along with dance, became an integral part of the cities social life such as the famed funeral processions replete with a brass band and energetic dancing. From this arose the popularity of a more earthy, vernacular, what was termed "dirty" musical styles. This was music born out of the less genteel neighborhoods and the red light districts of New Orleans. Ragtime is perhaps the most recognized form of this music.

One of the more prominent figures to emerge from this musical scene was George "Papa Jack" Laine. Laine's Reliance Brass Band recruited from all the varied ethnic groups of New Orleans. He was among the first to fuse the diverse sounds of these ethnic traditions. He would be an influence on many early Jazz artists. All five musicians of the ODJB were former members of Laine's Reliance Brass Band.

The band was formed in early 1916. A Chicago music promoter wanted to bring a New Orleans style band to Chicago where other similar bands were beginning to have success. The original five were clarinetist Alcide Nunez, drummer Johnny Stein, trombonist Eddie Edwards, pianist Henry Ragas, and cornetist Frank Christian. Christian backed out before leaving for Chicago, and he was replaced with Nick LaRocca. LaRocca would become the more vocal, and perhaps more controversial member of the band. They began playing as Stein's Dixie Jass Band and were an instant hit in the Chicago music scene. Better offers were coming in from elsewhere, but since Stein was technically the only musician under contract, the other band members split off to form their own band. They brought in a new drummer from New Orleans, Tony Sbarbaro (who would bill himself as Tony Spargo). They changed the name to The Dixieland Jass Band. But Nunez and LaRoca had personality conflicts. It was decided to switch clarinetists with another band, and Nunez was traded for Larry Shields. The name changed once more to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. About this time, they caught the attention of New York-based music agent Max Hart. At the beginning of 1917, the band was booked at the Reisenweber's Cafe on Columbus Circle.

Whereas other bands had been part of vaudeville acts, ODJB was exclusively for dancing. In this way, they built a base of fans and introduced this new musical style to New York. The recording industry was in its infancy and centered primarily in New York City. The band auditioned for the Columbia Graphophone Company, but nothing came of it. Then at the end of February, they cut two sides of a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The first side was the "Livery Stable Blues". The second side was the "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step". The record was an instant hit. In today's terms, it would be considered a million-dollar record. It would help establish jazz as an art form and increase the demand for jazz bands in cities like New York and Chicago.

The song "Livery Stable Blues" highlighted the ODJB musical genesis. It contained the lively, syncopated sound of New Orleans music. Though they lacked the improvisational abilities of better jazz musicians, the ODJB performed with drive and energy, a trait that the American public found both novel and infectious. The recording itself was not of the highest quality with the highlight being the instruments mimicking barnyard animals - a rooster, a cow, and a horse.

Early jazz music and its cousins were impromptu, informal, and improvisational. Much of it was not formally written down. This led to disputes over who composed or originated a piece of music. Alcide Nunez, the original clarinetist, claimed he and another musician, Ray Lopez, were the composers of "Livery Stable Blues". The case was brought to court where the judge decided that the music was public domain. The judge decided that the music was in bad taste and that the people who composed it didn't really know how to write or read sheet music. When the sheet music for "Livery Stable Blues" was published, credit would go to Nunez and Lopez. LaRocca and the ODJB would publish the same music under the title "Barnyard Blues".

Nick LaRocca

Nick LaRocca, who was of Sicilian descent, would later claim that he invented jazz. (He would also, in the 1920s, garner criticism from overtly racist statements.) It was a bold claim, but one that has contributed to the broader debate over how much white artists have or haven't appropriated Black culture and passed it off as their own. There are some who say that "Livery Stable Blues" shouldn't even be considered the first jazz recording. They claim an African-American quartet recorded "Down Home Rag" the year before. One legend has an African-American cornetist, Freddie Keppard, turning down an offer by Victor Talking Machine either because he was afraid of people stealing his music or not getting compensated. Others say it is hopeless to say definitively what the first recording was. Part of the issue was that early recording companies did not seek out African-American musicians. The other problem was simply trying to answer the question of what is jazz, especially in these early stages when the style was still developing.

The origins of jazz are hard to pin down. Even the word "jazz" is shrouded in mystery. One notion is that it comes from the African-American slang word "jasm" meaning "vim or energetic". It was an apt description of the music and how it was played. During this time period, there were many different ways to spell the word including "jas". This gives credence to the theory that "jas" is short for jasmine. Jasmine was a popular scent utilized by prostitutes in New Orleans brothels. This associates jazz's origin, like ragtime, with the red light districts of the city. Or it could be as simple as LaRocca's reasoning why they later changed the name of the band to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He claims he got tired of vandals crossing out the "J" in "jass" on their promotional posters.

King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band

The appeal of jazz was that it was subversive and challenged musical norms and convention, and the members of ODJB relished being billed as outsiders to the musical establishment. Yet their impact went beyond their music. They have been equated with some of the early rock and roll artists of the 1950s or the punk rockers of the 1970s. They departed, musically, from ragtime, and introduced the new style to a broader audience outside of New Orleans. They even helped coin the word jazz. In 1919, they performed in England thereby introducing jazz to an international audience. The increased interest in jazz created a demand for artists and bands. By the mid-1920s, record companies, seeing a new market, began contracting with African-American artists such as King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band. And they influenced such famous artists as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.


Further Reading:

The Mysterious Origins of Jazz: Christian Blauvelt (BBC)

The First Jazz Recording Was Made By A Group of White Guys?: John Edward Hasse (Smithsonian Magazine)

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