Not a Million-Seller: Myth-Busting the First Jazz Record (Victor 18255 • February 26, 1917) – With Updates

In observance of the first jazz recordings’ hundredth birthday, we dismantle some of the most persistent tall-tales surrounding it.

From a modern standpoint, these performances bear about as much resemblance to jazz as Velveeta does to real cheese. But there’s no denying that such raw energy had never before been heard on a phonograph record (excepting the brief drum barrage at the end of Jim Europe’s 1914 “Castle House Rag”), and that the record had a profound influence on American popular music.

Updates: MTR announcement and additional information added 2/20; Aeolian-Vocalion and English Columbia MP3 files added 2/21; pressing figures and other Victor ledger and blue-card data added 2/22.

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MSP_victor_18255b

The first edition: An “A”- / “A”-stamper copy of Victor 18255. The styling of the band’s name evolved during their first Victor period, progressing from ‘Jass’ (in quotes) to Jass (sans quotes), then finally to Jazz.

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On February 26 a century ago, a white quintet from New Orleans made the first recordings of something that is recognizably jazz, albeit of a crude sort. Gunther Schuller perhaps best summed up the band’s performance style and its place in jazz history:

“[The Original Dixieland Jazz Band] took a new idea, an innovation, and reduced it to the kind of compressed, rigid format that could appeal to a mass audience. As such, it had a number of sure-fire ingredients, the foremost being a rhythmic momentum that had a physical, even visceral, appeal. Moreover, this drive was cast in the most unsubtle terms, as was the ODJB’s melodic and harmonic language, with none of the flexibility and occasional subtlety shown by the best Negro bands of the period. But in its substitution of sheer energy for expressive power, the ODJB had found the key to mass appeal.” (Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968)

As momentous as this first jazz session seems today, attitudes in 1917 were quite different. Critics dismissed the ODJB’s music as little more than a noisy fad that would soon pass. It’s quite likely that the Victor executives saw the band as just another novelty act to be briefly exploited before record buyers moved on to the next new thing — after all, they sat on the masters for five days before even assigning them numbers, an indicator that they were less than enthusiastic. The company didn’t even bother to call the ODJB back following the initial release, allowing them to stray to competitors Columbia and Aeolian-Vocalion. It would be a full year before the ODJB was finally given an exclusive Victor contract.

The result of that milestone February 26 session, issued in May 1917 on Victor 18255, has been the victim of rampant  myth-making for decades. Here are four of our favorite tall-tales, most of them perpetuated by Rudi Blesh — an early pop-culture writer who was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story — along with what we now know to be true as the result of more rigorous research:

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MYTH: “Monday the 29th [of January], Victor’s leading competitor [Columbia] signed the ODJB to a term contract and hustled them into the studio to wax two numbers for a single… Scared out of their wits by what they heard, the executives paid off the band, shelved the masters, and unilaterally tore up the pact.” — Rudi Blesh

FACT: None of that ever happened, but this did: On January 29, 1917, E. A. Donovan (the head of Columbia’s Personal Recording Department) wrote a letter inviting the band to contact him about “a matter which may prove of mutual benefit and interest” — presumably, a solicitation to make Columbia Personal Records. (The Personal division was a custom service for folks who wanted to make their own records. Clients paid all recording and manufacturing costs, took delivery of the finished pressings, and handled their own marketing and sales. Personal records were not used for commercial releases or listed in the Columbia catalogs.)

No evidence has been found in the Columbia files that the ODJB  took Donovan up on his offer, or that they made any recordings for the company prior to their single May 1917 Columbia date. Think about it: Had Columbia executives indeed been “scared out of their wits” and “unilaterally” torn up the supposed contract, is it likely that they would have invited the ODJB back in May (at which time Victor 18255 was a brand-new and still-unproven release that was far from becoming a hit), or that the band would have accepted their invitation?

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MYTH: “[Studio carpenters] were hammering away while we tried to play.” — Eddie Edwards, as reported by H. O. Brunn

FACT: This almost certainly never happened, although there could be some basis for the myth. Victor’s 38th Street studio had opened just a few weeks earlier, so it’s conceivable that some construction work was still under way while the band was on the premises. However, construction work never would have been allowed to continue within earshot of an actual recording session; noise at that level would have registered, rendering the masters unusable. As we know from trade-paper reports of the period, sound-proofing of studios was a serious consideration, even with the relatively insensitive acoustic recording process. There are references throughout the early Victor files to masters that had to be scrapped because extraneous noises were captured (Camden factory whistles being a frequent culprit).

Incidentally — despite tales of the epic struggles they went through to capture the band on wax — neither Harry nor Charles Sooy (Victor’s recording engineers) recalled anything out of the ordinary about the session in their memoirs. Harry made a passing reference to the session, noting that “the Victor Company made records of the real ‘Jazz’ and ‘Blues” type of music for dancing” on that day; Charles didn’t even mention the session in his memoirs. For such well-seasoned engineers (who had recorded everything from the Liberty Bell to twenty-five piece military bands and small symphonic orchestras), recording the ODJB probably did not require “patiently making test after test,” as Blesh alleged.

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MYTH: “Victor rushed the coupling out… [It] released on March 5, 1917.” — Rudi Blesh

FACT: Wrong on both counts, as the original Victor documentation confirms. In fact, production appears to have proceeded at Victor’s usual pace, suggesting no rush whatsoever on the company’s part.

The smoking gun: Master numbers were not even assigned until March 1 or 2. Victor documentation confirm that these recordings were originally made as un-numbered trials. Had the master numbers been assigned at time of recording, as was normally done, they would have been in the 19310 range. But instead, they fall between a Van & Schenck master recorded on March 1 (19330), and a Lyric Quartet master recorded on March 2 (19333). In this case, the delay in assigning numbers suggests that Victor management had reservations about the material’s suitability for release. It certainly does not suggest any great enthusiasm or desire to “rush” the records out. But more importantly, production could not have gotten under way until the master numbers were assigned.

Other tip-offs: According to the blue card, the records were submitted for testing on March 9, which was not completed until the following day. Records were not approved for release until testing was completed. And it wasn’t until March 29 that a staffer in Victor’s editorial department wrote to trombonist Eddie Edwards to inform him that a special catalog supplement listing the record was being prepared, with a guess that it might be issued to dealers “inside of a couple of weeks.”

The fact that testing wasn’t even completed until March 10 rules out any possibility of a March 5 release. When, then, were the records actually released? There are clues a-plenty, but one should be ignored: a “March 1917 Special” notation on one of the two blue cards. Based on his examination of the card, Victor expert John Bolig believes that “March Special” was added many years later, next to the original May 1917 supplement notation.

Given what we know of Victor’s production processes at this time, six to eight weeks from recording date to sales outlets was average; anything significantly less would  have been considered a “rush.” The supplement containing #18255 was indeed issued to dealers in mid-to-late April, as Victor’s cataloger had estimated, along with a promotional poster. This notice appeared in The Music Trade Review for April 21, 1917:
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msp-mtr_4-21-17.
Promotional materials of this type generally were distributed several weeks in advance of a record’s official release date (note that MTR does not report that the records have yet been released, only that the tunes are popular). Advance copies of the record would have been given to sales reps and distributors at around this time. Researcher Ryan Barna has located several ads confirming that the records were being sold in some locations by late April (which he will ne posting along with other details on his Phonostalgia site), but apparently not earlier. That’s a few weeks earlier than the “official” May 17 release date, but far later than Blesh’s March 5 gaffe.

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MYTH: “[Victor 18255] was the first million-sale disc.” — Rudi Blesh among many others (never with any verifiable primary-source documentation cited)

FACT: No one knows for certain what the first million-seller was; reliable, primary-source documentation simply has not survived. Which is a side-issue in this case, since Victor 18255 is now known not to have been a million seller.

Thanks to the discovery of a microfilm copy of the blue card, as reported by both Ryan Barna and John Bolig, we have a much more accurate idea of possible sales. The blue card shows 250,983 copies pressed. The blue-card pressing figures are not necessarily authoritative, since it’s unclear who entered them, and when. But assuming that figure is reasonably accurate, actual U.S. sales would have been less than 250,983 copies, deducting for free copies, breakage, dealer returns, and any copies discarded when the record was deleted from the catalog in 1926. There was only one foreign release (or actually half-release, the Indian issue of “Livery Stable”), which presumably did not account for the additional 750,000 copies needed to hit the million mark.

Some band members reportedly also made the million-seller claim, but as far as is known, none backed it up by supplying Victor documentation (such as the royalty statements they would have been issued) that could support their claims. The same “million-seller” claim has been made for earlier records, including Alma Gluck’s 1914 “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (also not supported by the Victor files) and Columbia’s 1913 “25¢ Special Advertising Record” (as reported by Columbia’s marketing department, which later upped the figure to 3 million; not inconceivable for one the most common 78s, by far, of the period).

There’s no doubt that Victor 18255 eventually became a big seller, based on the high stamper codes and the fact that copies are still plentiful a century later (although not nearly as common as several later ODJB discs). But the million-seller claim, let alone the first million-seller is simply not supported by the surviving primary-source documentation.

— Allan Sutton

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ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JASS BAND: Livery Stable Blues

New York (46 West 38th Street, 12th floor): February 26, 1917
Victor 18255 (mx. B 19331 – 1; number assigned March 1–2, 1917)
Release — Official: May 17, 1917; Actual: c. Late April 1917
Deleted: 1926

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ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JASS BAND: Dixieland Jass Band One-Step *
* Interpolating Joe Jordan’s “That Teasin’ Rag” (uncredited)

New York (46 West 38th Street, 12th floor): February 26, 1917
Victor 18255 (mx. B 19332 – 3; number assigned March 1–2, 1917)
Release — Official: May 17, 1917; Actual: c. Late April 1917
Deleted: 1926

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For comparison, here are the later, very rare Aeolian-Vocalion vertical-cut release of “Livery Stable,” unfortunately from a badly worn copy; and the same selection as recorded in London two years later — both virtually note-for-note repeats of the Victor release, confirming that rather than truly improvising, the band was content to repeat the same well-rehearsed ruffles-and-flourishes that passed for improvisation at the time. (The slight variations in the London recording can be attributed mostly to changes in band personnel. The slower tempo on the Vocalion was probably an attempt to fill out the side; vertical-cut AV’s used very fine grooving that provided up to 4½ minutes playing time on a 10″ disc). The same phenomenon can be heard when comparing the other same-title releases on Victor, Vocalion, and English Columbia.

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ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND: Barnyard Blues
(a.k.a. Livery Stable Blues)

New York: c. August 1917
Aeolian-Vocalion 1205 (no visible mx. number)

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ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JASS BAND: Barnyard Blues
(a.k.a. Livery Stable Blues)

London: April 16, 1919
Columbia (English) 735 (mx. 76418 – 3)

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Nick LaRocca (cornet and nominal director); Eddie Edwards (trombone, replaced by Emile Christian on the London session); Larry Shields (clarinet); Henry Ragas (piano, replaced by J. Russel Robinson on the London session); Tony Sbarbaro (percussion).

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