New Orleans may be where jazz was born, but New York's Garment District is where jazz spoke its first words. As I write in today's Wall Street Journal (go here), the very first jazz record was made 95 years ago this coming Sunday on West 38th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues [pictured]. Back then—on February 26, 1917—the Original Dixieland Jass Band boarded the building's freight elevator and rode up to the 12th floor, where the Victor Talking Machine Co. had just leased space for its new recording studio.
While no one is still alive from the original session (they'd be closing in on age 112 if they were), the building is still there. The 12-story structure went up in 1916 and has remained there ever since. When I realized late last year that the anniversary of recorded jazz was coming up, I called the building's managing agent for permission to visit. With permission granted just after New Year's Day, I rode the building's freight elevator up, traveling through the same shaft as the ODJB.
As I passed each floor, I couldn't help wondering what the white quintet from New Orleans was thinking that day nearly 100 years ago. Were they nervous? Were they laughing and talking? Were they silent during the ride? At the top floor, the building's super hauled open the heavy door, and I stepped off and made my way to the floor's largest tenant—a maker of designer ties and socks.
Puzzled at first to see a writer for the Wall Street Journal, Jack, the company's co-owner, asked why I had come up to see him. "Do you know what happened here?" I asked, cryptically. "Oh no, don't tell me," Jack groaned. "Look, if someone was murdered here, I don't want to know. If something terrible happened, I don't want to know. If it's anything bad, don't tell me. I want to sleep tonight and I don't want to dread coming to work."
Laughing, I told him the event wasn't bad. Then I asked if he liked jazz. "Jazz? I love jazz," Jack said, giving me the fish eye. "Good," I said, "because the very first jazz record was made in your office space." Jack went nuts. Rocking in his office chair, he said with disbelief, "Here? Get out. You're kidding, right? Oh wow. I love jazz."
After we spoke for a few minutes, I asked Jack if he had a CD player. Jack said he did. I pulled out a CD that I had burned before I left my office of the ODJB's recordings. The first two tracks on the CD—Dixie Jass Band One-Step and Livery Stable Blues—were the two sides that the band recorded there that day.
Jack took the CD and put it into the office boom box. He hit "play," and like any music lover, Jack quickly turned the volume up. Out through the speakers came the wailing, frantic syncopated music that became an overnight sensation so many years ago. We both listened in silence.
"Can you imagine if these walls could talk?" Jack said. "How many musicians did you say there were? Five? My god, it sounds like a full orchestra. Actually, if you think about it, the last time this music was heard up here was probably when these guys were standing around playing it."
How true. And while the office's walls have changed over the years—subdividing the space in varied configurations for different occupants—the walls by the window were the same. And they surely must have remembered. As you can imagine, listening to these recordings in the exact same space so many years later was poetic, romantic and a whole lot of fun.
JazzWax clips: Here's the A-side of the first jazz record recorded on February 26, 1917—Dixie Jass Band One-Step...
And here's the B-side, Livery Stable Blues...