Only four years before I learned to play the trumpet…the first great jazz orchestra was formed in New Orleans by a cornet player named Dominic James LaRocca. They called him “Nick” LaRocca. His orchestra had five pieces, but they were the hottest five pieces that had ever been known before. LaRocca named this band “The Old Dixieland Jazz Band.” He had an instrumentation different from anything before—and instrumentation that made the old songs sound new…They all came to be famous players and the Dixieland Band has gone down now in musical history…LaRocca retired a few years ago to his home in New Orleans but his fame as one of the great pioneers of syncopated music will last a long, long time, as long, I think, as American music lives.
-Swing That Music (Autobiography of Louis Armstrong) New York, 1936
Nick LaRocca, leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band would have been 100 years old this year. He died in 1961, but a handful of New Orleanians dedicated to his immortalization as the creator of jazz often speak of him in present tense, such was the power of his presence. For instance, his widow, Ruth LaRocca. Her blue eyes sparkle when she tells of being literally swept off her feet by a man known almost as well for his dancing as for his trumpet playing.
The story of Nick LaRocca is the story of jazz music as it was born, recorded, and spread throughout the world. On an even broader scale, it is the story of a changing cultural climate in this country. Turn of the century America was a reflection of Victorian English culture and the dance music of the day was the waltz and the minuet. World War I sent many Americans to Europe and exposed them to other lifestyles and other types of music. America was on the verge of a reaction against polite forms—there was more experimentation in the arts, and the Roaring Twenties flappers were to personify a movement for women’s rights. Nick LaRocca rode the crest of these changing times with the foot-stomping music and the uninhibited dances it inspired. Nick wrote a significant part of American history when he took his jazz music from New Orleans and gave it to the world.
Dominic James “Nick” LaRocca was born in New Orleans on April 11, 1889. His parents were immigrants from Salaparuta, Sicily. Father Giarolamo was a shoemaker and amateur cornetist. Nick’s five brothers and sisters were all musical, but his father always discouraged his sons’ budding talents. Giarolamo proclaimed that “all musicians are bums,” and insisted that Nick study to be a doctor.
The young Nick nevertheless enjoyed hearing his father play at parties and dances and listened intently to the European musicians on the boats docked along the Mississippi. As he was exposed to the music of a dozen nationalities along the wharves, his interest in music grew. The creative young Nick began fashioning home-made musical instruments out of junk. He later began sneaking his father’s cornet, practicing at a vacant house on Jackson Avenue, or hiding in the outhouse (then known as the “backhouse”). Nick reported that neighbors threw everything from food to bricks at him when he played. Undaunted, he taught himself to play (Nick never learned to read music), and gave Giarolamo a surprise performance. His father smashed his own cornet, ending his own musical days in a vain attempt to thwart Nick’s desire to play. The determined Nick saved his pennies for a second-hand cornet that met the same fate.
After Nick’s fifteenth birthday, Giarolamo died, and the rest is history. Finances dictated that he leave the prep school that was readying him for a medical career. A job as arc light attendant at the Old French Opera House brought him more exposure to music and money for a new cornet. As Nick loved parade band music, he practiced daily to a wind-up phonograph and John Philip Sousa. From the old minstrel show musicians to parades, funerals, etc., Nick got his musical education on the streets of a city known for its music.
Historian Mike Palao points out that the proliferation of Europeans in New Orleans made for a proliferation of musical instruments. America was largely a land of wilderness at the turn of the century, and instruments were not always easy to come by. But New Orleans was in the vanguard of culture at this time, with opera, art, and fashion emanating from Europe.
In 1905, Nick began playing in bands around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. In 1908, he formed his first band. His clarinetist, Larry Shields, would become a member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). They played for little or no money; Nick was a teetotaler, but was still content to play for drinks only. He worked as a tradesman by day, adept as a carpenter, plumber and electrician. He met trombonist Eddie Edwards, another future ODJB member, who treated Nick to vaudeville shows and got him into a military band. By 1914, Nick and Eddie were playing with Jack “Papa” Laine’s famous Reliance Band(s), a military marching band whose members changed according to who showed up to play.
In December 1915, Nick was playing with a Papa Laine band on the corner of Canal and Royal Streets, advertising a prizefight between Eddie Coulon and New Orleans featherweight Pete Herman. Harry James, a Chicago club owner, heard Nick play, and after the fight went to the Haymarket Cafe, where Nick was playing with Johnny Stein’s band. He was so impressed with this music—unnamed, but different from the ragtime of the day—that he wired from Chicago in 1916 with a contract to play at his Booster’s Club. LaRocca and Stein reorganized the band and went north, where Harry James provided the cold New Orleanians with second-hand overcoats. In this first encounter with the bitter Chicago winter they also found the Booster’s Club to have just been shut down by police. Harry James quickly secured the band an audition at Schiller’s Cafe. The audition alone drew a standing room only (SRO) crowd and secured them a contract at $25 per week per man. The unsophisticated quintet did not yet realize that this pay meant near-starvation in Chicago, nor did they realize the phenomenon to come. Here the word “jass”—later to become jazz—was first applied to this new brand of dance music with a syncopated marching band beat.
In 1916 in Chicago, “jass” was literally and figuratively a four-letter word. It was a slang term of the Chicago underworld, and usage broadened its original meaning to apply to anything and everything. As the band played to Schiller’s enthusiastic crowds, an inebriated vaudevillian shouted, “Jass it up, boys!” The band was immediately billed as Stein’s Dixie Jass Band.
With Nick LaRocca as musical leader, the band continued to improve on its two-beat style. If the crowd didn’t know how to dance to it, Nick stepped off the stage and showed them. Nick composed “Livery Stable Blues” at this time, and the crowd went wild. They had never heard a cornet whinny, a clarinet crow, or a trombone bray. This was the first time instruments were used to make animal sounds, and Nick likewise composed and arranged “Tiger Rag,” “Sensation Rag,” and “Ostrich Walk.” Schiller’s was filled every night with crowds dancing until dawn, but the pittance of pay remained the same. Nick continued to emerge as a leader, and he convinced all but Stein to move on to higher-paying jobs. He even convinced a judge to let him out of the contract at Schiller’s, pleading that they could neither survive on the wages if denied the right to play elsewhere.
The Original Dixieland Jass Band was now formed, and it went on to take Chicago by storm. This 1916 group consisted of Nick LaRocca on cornet, Alcide Nunez on clarinet (soon to be replaced by Larry Shields), Henry Ragas on piano, Eddie Edwards on trombone, and Tony Sbarbaro on drums. Shields and Sbarbaro are considered by many to have been the greatest Dixieland clarinetist and drummer respectively. Sbarbaro was the first drummer to use cowbells. Nick insisted on the best musicians, and when replacements were necessary, he generally recruited out of hometown New Orleans. From the Hotel Normandy to Chicago’s Casino Gardens, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was a hit. Former members organized bands and played jazz in the city, but no one reached the heights of popularity of Nick LaRocca’s group. ODJB fans included Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Al Jolson, as well as members of Chicago’s notorious underworld (there are stories that a famous mobster once bought new overcoats for the band).
The ODJB was not without its critics, though, as the Illinois Vigilance Association was not impressed. Women were spending their time in jazz clubs, smoking cigarettes, and performing “lewd” dances until dawn…the “fall of 1,000 girls” was traced to jazz music in Chicago alone! Even the New Orleans Times-Picayune disavowed its city’s musical sons, insisting that this was strictly the music of lower-class society.
The popularity of jazz was still in its infancy. The ODJB was Chicago’s number one musical attraction, but Broadway awaited them. Friend and fan Al Jolson lured New York theatrical agent Max Hart to Chicago, who immediately signed the band at the new Reisenweber Building. On January 17, 1917, they played the formal opening of Reisenweber’s “400” Room, but the crowd was at first stunned by this unfamiliar new beat. According to one account, the patrons “after sniffing at it suspiciously like a cat with a saucer of strange food, suddenly decided that it was good and lapped it up.” Nick, of course, showed the crowds how to dance, and the “400” Room rarely closed before 8 a.m. Soon the band’s salary was upped from a generous $750 to an astounding $1000 per week. The “sugar can” that had earlier collected pennies and nickels for a cheap meal in New Orleans was now stuffed with five, ten, and fifty dollar bills from wealthy patrons. The “dirty” word “jass” was evolving to “jasz” and “jaz” and at Reisenweber’s it finally became “jazz”. The new term was first used in the New York Times on February 2, 1917, advertising “The First Eastern Appearance of the Famous Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” Reisenweber’s blazoned Columbus Circle with electric lights declaring “The Original Dixieland Band—Creators of Jazz.” There are various accounts of the exact evolution of the term “jazz”, but Nick insisted it grew from pranksters removing the “J” from signs for the “Jass” band!
The year was 1917. America was about to go to war, and Nick LaRocca was about to make recorded history. “War jitters” and jazz music seemed to go hand in hand at this time. The phonograph, or talking machine, was establishing its place in American culture. The Columbia Gramophone Company had been recording operatic personalities since 1903. The Victor Talking Machine Company (now RCA Victor) emerged as the industry sales leader by 1917 with Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa recordings. Columbia was not to be outdone, and enlisted the aid of Broadway’s latest explosion, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Columbia was still to make a major historical blunder, as it neither understood the nature of Nick LaRocca’s music nor how to record it. Despite the band’s twelve original compositions, Columbia supplied them with material—“Darktown Strutters Ball” and “Indiana”—to record. A studio accustomed to string quartets was geared to Nick LaRocca’s thunderous sounds—the recording was an acoustical disaster, the band was paid $250 and ordered out, and the world’s first jazz record was filed away.
Victor, with technical superiority in these primitive days of the recording industry, emerged victorious again. In a time of no microphones or amplifiers, Victor’s sound engineers understood to place the musicians at various distances from the large “pickup horn,” according to the strength of their instruments, to achieve proper balance. It was not easy for the ODJB to play together at these distances, but Victor successfully released the first jazz record. “Livery Stable Blues” (with its assorted animal sounds) and “Dixieland Jazz Band One-Step” were released on March 5, 1917, and sold for 75 cents. It sold over one million copies, topping Caruso and Sousa. Columbia quickly released the bad recording it had originally shelved. Temporary problems with Victor led to a contract with Aeolian, but unfortunately these recordings cannot be played on today’s equipment. The ODJB returned to Victor in 1918, and their many successful recordings included “Tiger Rag,” “Skeleton Jangle,” “Fidgety Feet,” “Ostrich Walk,” and “Clarinet Marmalade,” all original Nick LaRocca compositions.
Columbia wanted a piece of this jazz record action, but could find no competition on Broadway for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It sent Ralph Peer, its Director of Artists and Repertoire, to New Orleans to find a jazz band. After three weeks, he wired back: “NO JAZZ BANDS IN NEW ORLEANS.” Columbia finally found a “jazz” band in late 1919.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band continued to take Reisenweber’s by storm, and also played Sunday night concerts at the Winter Garden with Fred Astaire and Ed Wynn. Al Jolson hired them for private parties on Long Island. Europe was next, but not before a couple of setbacks: trombonist Eddie Edwards was drafted, and Emile Christian was recruited from New Orleans. Pianist Henry Ragas died and Jay Russell Robinson replaced him. The ODJB was signed to play the London Hippodrome beginning March 2, 1919, at the American equivalent of $1,056 per week.
London was an instant success. The Hippodrome’s comedy star could not outshine his jazzy competition and insisted they be released. Nick LaRocca and his band then played the London Palladium as well as Glasgow, Scotland, to SRO crowds. When they played London’s Martan Club, it changed its name to The Dixie Club. Opening night at the Palais de Dance boasted 5,800 paid admissions. Lord Donegall, an ardent fan, arranged a command performance for King George V. They were the hit of the victory ball celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, attended by Marshall Foch, Generals Pershing and Petain, and all the crowned heads of Europe.
In 1920, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band returned to New York performances. At the Follies Bergere, Gilda Gray shimmied on the same stage (after Gilda went on to fame with her outrageous new dance, Nick would step off the stage and do his own brand of shimmy). They played Atlantic City with Sophie Tucker and they toured Pennsylvania at $2,400 per night, billed as the “Creators of Jazz.”
In 1921, clarinetist Larry Shields got homesick and left. The ODJB was still playing Broadway, but for less money. Former band members organized a band called the Memphis Five, and fostered greats like Jimmy Durante and Tommy Dorsey. Nick LaRocca’s band survived with the advent of the Charleston, but symphonic jazz was taking over New York.
The post-war years brought a strong anti-jazz movement. The 1922 Cotillo Bill outlawed dancing after midnight on Broadway, meaning shorter hours and less pay for musicians. Vigilante societies and lawmakers outlawed shimmy and banished jazz from all respectable places of entertainment. Victor would not record more jazz. Musicians who could read music went on to orchestras. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (of whom four out of five did not read music), played for a while in Harlem, where the anti-jazz laws were not enforced. Internal problems with the band led to its ultimate demise. In 1925 a heartbroken Nick LaRocca left behind his fire-engine red Stutz Bearcat, and drove his Buick home to New Orleans.
For over a decade, Nick LaRocca worked as a building contractor in New Orleans, and music bearing his influence flourished in New York. He did not think about music or play the radio during this time. He refused an offer to reorganize the band for a music spectacular to be called “The Big Broadcast of 1937.” This apparently rekindled the flame, though, and Nick turned on the radio. When he heard a swing band playing his “licks,” he decided to prove to a new generation that swing music was just old jazz in new clothes.
Nick found Larry Shields in New Orleans—he had also not played in ten years. After building up their confidence on The Absinthe House stage, they returned to New York to round up Edwards, Robinson and Sbarbaro. After three weeks of practice the William Morris Agency signed them up for Ed Wynn’s weekly radio broadcast on the NBC Red Network. They closed with Nick’s “Tiger Rag,” attracting more listeners than guest stars on 14 previous programs. At $750 for 10 minutes’ work. Offers once again came from all over the world for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
Nick LaRocca recognized the advent of The Swing Age and realized the band had to be bigger. The new “Original” Dixieland Jazz Band recorded for Victor in 1936 with 14 men, using the same orchestration as the Goodman and Dorsey bands. The “Original Dixieland Five” stuck together, however, it made three recordings under this name. The 1936 recordings display superior technical clarity, and the slower tempo reflects the influence of Swing. It was often noticed that the original five musicians could make as much noise as any 14-piece Swing band. Nick attributed this to the unamplified conditions in the early recording studios, when each man had to blow as hard as he possibly could.
The band subsequently appeared on Benny Goodman’s weekly radio broadcast, and the “King of Swing” acknowledged his influence at an early age from the ODJB. With Nick serving as his own booking agent, the band played many radio programs including Tommy Dorsey’s Radio Show and the Cavalcade of America. The year 1937 brought a vaudeville tour with Ken Murray, appearance in the “March of Time” film documentary, and acclaim in a Saturday Evening Post article entitled “From Ragtime to Swing.”
Nick and the band returned to a hero’s welcome in New Orleans and played the St. Charles Theatre. At a banquet in their honor, the president of the St. Charles Theatre Corporation expressed hope that New Orleanians would “forget their past efforts to disclaim the parenthood of jazz and welcome the band back home in proper spirit.” The musicians continued to tour until 1938, when internal conflict again forced Nick to disband the group and return to New Orleans.
Nick refused offers in the 1940s to reorganize and play, although Dixieland jazz was in its heyday. Many feel that the ODJB could have made its mark in history at this time, with the popularity of jazz and the specialization of phonograph recording. Instead, Nick launched a campaign to answer any attempts to discredit him as the creator of jazz (this effort continues today through friend Phil Zito). He resumed his contracting business and he and wife Ruth raised a family in the Constance Street home he built. Her problems forced him to put away the trumpet, but he continued to pick out songs on the piano. Until his death in 1961, Nick composed and published songs with Joe Mares.
In the 1960 book, The Story of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, H.O. Brunn ends the Nick LaRocca story thusly:
“The rhythmic ideas, phrases and tonal effects developed by Nick LaRocca nearly a half-century ago are likely to remain fundamental to jazz for many years to come, regardless of its modern directions. But his impact upon American music may not be fully appreciated until jazz is more fully understood by more people.
“As jazz goes into the fifth decade of its history, the fashions in that contagious form of syncopation continue to change. On through the pages of history march its heroes: Whiteman, Goodman, Armstrong, and Gillespie—each hailed in his own day. But lingering like ghosts in the background—first ridiculed, then widely acclaimed, later attacked, and finally all but forgotten—are Nick LaRocca and his musicians of another age, the five pioneers who brought into existence the most phenomenal revolution in the annals of American music.”
Nick LaRocca made the first major donation to Tulane University’s William Ranson Hogan Jazz Archive. The LaRocca collection, containing 2,844 items, including photos, correspondence, scrapbooks, interview material, advertisements, film, phonograph records, posters, contracts, and affidavits is located in the Howard Tilton Memorial Library Jazz Archives.
The American Italian Renaissance Foundation Museum and Library houses early photos and additional information on Nick LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
Acknowledgments: Mr. Mike Palao; Mr. Phil Zito, President ODJB Foundation; Mr. Joseph Maselli; Mrs. Nick LaRocca; Harry O. Brunn, author of The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; American Italian Renaissance Foundation Research Library; Mr. Bruce Raeburn, Tulane University William Ranson Hogan Jazz Archives; Adrian Victor, Werlein’s For Music. Another version of this story also appeared in the Italian-American Digest.