Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: What a nice collection of firsts I am compiling from your columns.

Now I know about the first Rock and Roll records, first records to include the phrase “Rock and Roll,” award winners that are the first in their categories, and more.

Realizing it takes a question to prompt you, one you have not yet covered is the first Jazz phonograph record, as well as the first Jazz hit.

Can't wait to add these answers to my list of firsts.
—Rick Carroll, Hagerstown, Md.

DEAR RICK: All we needed is for someone to step up and be first to ask. Now the ice is broken.

One very appropriately named group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, did both.

Since no one preceded these Jazz originals, they also referred to themselves as “The Creators of Jazz.”

While this catchy label made for good PR, and surely sold some tickets, factually it is a bit of a reach. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band didn't create Jazz, though they can rightfully lay claim as first to putting it on phonograph records.

On February 26, 1917, at the New York studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company, this New Orleans ensemble recorded their two historic tracks: “Livery Stable Blues” and Dixie Jass Band One-Step.”

“Jass” is not a typo, in fact the band is even credited as the Original Dixieland Jass Band on some records.

In early March their record came out (Victor 18255), though it took a couple of months for the public to warm up to this new sound. In early June, “Livery Stable Blues” finally made the charts. As with over a dozen subsequent singles, it made the Top 10.

This means “Livery Stable Blues,” with its occasional horse whinny and other stable sounds, is both the first Jazz record and the first Jazz hit.

“Livery Stable Blues” is clearly the most significant track by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — Dominic “Nick” La Rocca; Harry Ragas; Larry Shields; Tony Sbarbaro; and Eddie Edwards — but their biggest and most memorable hit is “Tiger Rag” (Victor 18472), released 90 years ago this summer.

DEAR JERRY: I am intrigued by one of the titles on a listing of “Greatest Rock & Roll Albums Ever,” because, by all accounts, it seems more like a Jazz album.

It is “A Tribute to Jack Johnson,” by Miles Davis. I assume this is a tribute to Jack Johnson, the Jazz trombonist who killed himself a few years ago, but why is it lumped in with R&R albums?
—Pearl Baldwin, Redondo Beach, Calif.

DEAR PEARL: It seems you have your Johnsons mixed up, which can't be good.

This “Tribute to Jack Johnson” (Columbia KC-30455) is a soundtrack LP for the 1970 film, “Jack Johnson” — the story of a successful yet troubled boxer in the early 1900s.

The Jazz trombonist is James Johnson, better known as J.J., or Jay Jay, Johnson. He did indeed commit suicide, doing so on February 4, 2001 with a gun.

The list you read is right. For “A Tribute to Jack Johnson,” Miles Davis linked Jazz, Rock, and Funk, the result being a fusion form deserving of such an accolade.

IZ ZAT SO? Depending on which record you're reading, the songwriting credit for “Tiger Rag” may show either Nick La Rocca, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, or Harry De Costa and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which is how ASCAP lists it.

We do know La Rocca, while a member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, wrote the music for their “Tiger Rag.” As with most renditions, their 1918 original is an instrumental.

Harry De Costa added his “Hold that tiger” lyrics to the Jazz Band's melody, resulting in popular vocals by the Mills Brothers (1931) and Les Paul & Mary Ford (1952) — though these two differ greatly.

A No. 1 hit for the Mills Brothers, their “Tiger Rag” features an atypical solo which seems a blend of scat and yodel techniques. I've never heard anything like it, ever.

When they're not scat-yodeling, the Mills boys are singing one of two lines: either “hold that tiger” or “where's that tiger.” Those six words are the complete lyrics.

Les Paul & Mary Ford's version reached No. 2, and has its own feline foibles, including the modest meowing of a house cat. Hardly the sound of a tiger being held against its will.

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