As with most musical forms, the birth of jazz didn’t happen overnight but came into being by a slow process of accumulation – the gradual fusion of many different strains and the impact of many different personalities. But by the turn of the twentieth century, and largely in the city of New Orleans, the music now called “jazz” was starting to take recognisable shape. Central to its development was the red-light district in New Orleans known as Storyville which gave musicians the opportunity to perform in its many saloons, brothels, dance halls and cabarets. Among those were the great cornet virtuosi and bandleaders Freddie Keppard and Joseph “King” Oliver who experimented with music sometimes referred to as “jass”, reportedly after the jasmine perfume worn by prostitutes which was overtime corrupted into what is now known as “jazz”. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton was another who plied his trade in the most prestigious venues of Storyville, and along with his revolutionary style of playing was the first jazzman to write down his tunes, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential characteristics when notated.
The first recognised jazz pioneer and bandleader was the cornetist Buddy Bolden who created an exciting and novel fusion of ragtime, black sacred music, marching band music and rural blues. From around 1900 to 1907, Bolden and his band achieved unrivalled popularity in New Orleans and are thought to have been the first to use brass instruments for playing the blues. Unfortunately, there are no surviving phonograph cylinder recordings of Buddy Bolden and he remains very much a mythical figure in jazz history. Remarkably, and somewhat ironically, the first band to make what is widely considered the first jazz record, ’Livery Stable Blues’ in 1917, was the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band who played a lively, syncopated dance music rooted in the New Orleans tradition. They were also the first recorded band to use the word “jazz” (or “jass”) in their name. Their featured jazz standard ‘Tiger Rag’ was recorded in 1918, complete with cowbells and other dubious “novelty effects” and borrowed wholesale from the trailblazing African-American musicians of New Orleans. Despite this, the band became very influential in their own right and proved how jazz has always remained linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage. Even jazz’s greatest figure Louis Armstrong acknowledged the importance of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were also an inspiration for many future artists including the white cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, undoubtedly one of the greatest soloists of the 1920s.
When Storyville was closed at midnight on November 12, 1917, this set the scene for a whole new phase of jazz evolution as musicians began to migrate upriver to the northern cities and in particular Chicago, a place full of night spots that needed bands and afforded a better standard of living. Effectively the closing of Storyville meant a dispersal of jazz, and Chicago, more than anywhere, met the requirements as its new home. Importantly, it also enabled the rich music of early New Orleans jazz to be recorded by artists for the first time.
With the exception of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s ‘Tiger Rag’ from 1918, all of these recordings were made between 1920 and 1930, often described as the “golden age”, which marked many crucial events in jazz, not least the prohibition of alcohol law which gave rise to the Windy City becoming the home port for the major bootleggers and thus the centre of a rough, flourishing nightlife. This decade saw the rise of the first wave of jazz stars, including the great Louis Armstrong. The classic opening track ’Dippermouth Blues’ by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (featuring Louis Armstrong) is often accredited to Armstrong, partly because "Dippermouth" in the song's title, was a nickname of Armstrong himself. Armstrong had first seen his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver when hanging around the dance halls, brothels and saloons of Storyville, and jumped at the chance when invited to join Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band who had moved to Chicago, in what would become the next key chapter in jazz history.