Recordings have played a crucial role in disseminating jazz. From 1917 to 1920, the years when ‘jazz’ began appearing with increasing frequency as a stylistic label, record companies were mainly issuing 8-, 10-, or 12-inch discs that were played at 78 r.p.m. The performances, most lasting between three and four minutes, were recorded by acoustical methods; microphones did not come into widespread use until after 1925. Thus the glimpses of early jazz afforded by recordings are compromised by the technology of the day. The balances of sound and timbral qualities heard on these recordings, for example, may have been quite different in live settings, while the relatively short duration of recorded performances may have been extended when bands played live. The acoustical recording process also affected instrumentation: drummers often had to limit their activity to wood blocks and cymbals since drums could cause distortion in the sound. In addition, the pieces recorded by bands may not have reflected what they performed regularly outside the studio: record producers and publishers often selected the repertory as part of a larger marketing effort to help sell sheet music copies of newly published compositions. Finally, race was a factor that helped determine who could record and what they could perform. Black jazz musicians only began to record in significant numbers during the period 1923–5 and even then found themselves expected to play a repertory emphasizing blues and hot jazz (fast, rhythmically energetic dance music) that ostensibly would appeal to the black American consumers record companies were seeking to reach in their segregated race series (see Race record). As Duke Ellington's saxophonist, Otto Hardwick, observed, ‘The field for recording was quite limited … if you didn't play the blues, there was no room for you’.
For all these reasons, recordings may offer unreliable sonic representations of early jazz performing practice. But at the very least they preserve evocative echoes of the varied jazz styles that were beginning to circulate in the USA and overseas by the early 1920s.
The historical distinction for being the first group to record jazz goes to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A quintet of white musicians from New Orleans, it made its first recordings early in 1917 in New York, where the band had been attracting attention through appearances at Reisenweber's Restaurant on 58th Street. Though the Original Dixieland Jazz Band lacked both banjo and a bass instrument (string bass or tuba), its other instruments became standard for small New Orleans jazz units, consisting of three lead or melody-carrying instruments (cornet, clarinet, trombone) with piano and drums providing accompaniment in the rhythm section. Pieces they recorded show a mixture typical for early jazz bands: blues, ragtime, popular songs and novelty numbers. Improvisation, however, is minimal. Often the band seems to be following set routines: Livery Stable Blues (1917, Vic.), for example, uses a common multi-part strain form derived from 19th-century marches and ragtime (e.g. AABBCCABC); when individual strains are repeated, they vary little from previous statements. The band must have impressed listeners with its ebullience and extroverted humour: the group was a seasoned vaudeville act, and its crowd-pleasing tactics, for example the imitation of animal noises in Livery Stable Blues, may have reflected more its stage experience than its New Orleans jazz background. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, another white band, showed more restraint, demonstrated in their smoother and more rhythmically supple rendition of Livery Stable Blues (1922, Para.) when compared with recordings of the same piece made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 and again in 1923 under the title Barnyard Blues (OK).
Another example of early jazz recorded by New Orleans musicians, this time a black American group, was provided by Kid Ory and a five-piece band (cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano and drums) that recorded in Los Angeles in 1922. Though its instrumentation is identical to that of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Ory's band displays a gentler, more lilting rhythmic style on Ory's Creole Trombone/Society Blues (Nordskog). A greater sense of relaxation pervades these performances, in contrast to the more febrile qualities of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In other respects, though, the multi-strain formal patterns, the ‘set’ quality of many of the instrumental lines (though the cornettist Mutt Carey does take liberties in embellishing parts), the functions of instruments within the ensemble and the use of breaks (short passages played by soloists while the rest of the band stops) all resemble aspects heard in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's performances. As with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, virtually nothing played by Ory's band would qualify as ‘collective improvisation’. Instead it was repetitive, highly ordered and predictable music, probably intended for dancers though, as Gushee has noted (G1977, p.5), it is likely that the band's lack of a full rhythm section (one that included bass, banjo and a complete drum kit) made it sound different on record from what listeners heard live.
In addition to these early recorded examples by small groups from New Orleans, larger ensembles playing syncopated dance music showed another side of the emerging jazz phenomenon. Black bandleaders in New York such as James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Tim Brymn and Leroy Smith performed with groups consisting of up to 15 or more players, including strings together with brass, reeds and percussion. The relatively few recordings made by these ensembles during the period 1914–23 have often been cited as examples of late instrumental ragtime or ‘pre-jazz’. Indeed, in some ways they seem closer in sound and spirit to the bands of John Philip Sousa and Arthur Pryor, or to theatre pit orchestras and polite society dance orchestras, than to the insouciant, convention-flaunting strain of jazz that characterized the Roaring Twenties. Nevertheless, the energy and rhythmic verve of Europe's orchestra, especially when the drummer Buddy Gilmore was driving the ensemble as on Castle Walk (1914, Vic.), as well as the loosely embellished performance practice and repertory of rags, pop songs and blues, relate this group to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Ory's band, even if the overall sonic identity seems quite different in character. (The frequent unison melody lines account in large part for the difference, not just the larger size or stiffer rhythmic practice, of Europe's orchestra.) Europe, who directed the celebrated 369th US Infantry Regiment Band in France during World War I, linked his approach to jazz in 1919, explaining that ‘jazz’ was associated with certain instrumental effects (mutes, flutter-tonguing), strong rhythmic accents and ‘embroidery’ and ‘discordance’ in the instrumental parts. He also made clear his belief that jazz originated in black American culture: ‘The negro loves anything that is peculiar in music, and the “jazzing” appeals to him strongly … We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies’ (Porter, E1997, pp.126–7). A contemporary of Europe who led a large ensemble that included early jazz or pre-jazz in its repertory was Will Marion Cook. Though his Southern Syncopated Orchestra made no recordings, it travelled to Europe in 1919 and made a deep impression on listeners, among them the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet who found Bechet's blues solos ‘admirable equally for their richness of invention, their force of accent, and their daring novelty and unexpected turns’ (Walser, H1999, p.11).
Other bandleaders provided models for organizing and standardizing the instrumental components of dance orchestras playing jazz. On the West Coast during the mid- to late 1910s, Art Hickman led a ten-piece ensemble consisting of two brass (cornet and trombone), two saxophones, violin, piano, two banjos, string bass and drums. He took the orchestra east in 1919. Evidence of the impact of New Orleans jazz style upon Hickman can be heard in the final chorus of Whispering (1920, Col.), both in the arpeggiated embellishing techniques of the soprano saxophone (emulating a New Orleans clarinettist) and the loose connecting phrases of the trombone, playing in ‘tailgate’ fashion. Hickman's configuration of brass, reeds, violin and rhythm section was emulated by Paul Whiteman, another California-based bandleader who came to New York in 1920. The instrumental line-up of Hickman's and Whiteman's bands required arrangers skilled in composing embellished melodic variations and exploring different timbral combinations. One was Ferde Grofé, who worked first with Hickman in California and after 1919 as arranger and pianist with Whiteman. Grofé helped Whiteman develop a concept of Symphonic jazz by adding strings and double-reed instruments (oboe and bassoon) to the brass, single-reed (saxophone and clarinet) and rhythm sections, and by borrowing themes from the classical repertory – such as Rimsky-Korsakov's ‘Song on the Indian Guest’ (1921, Vic.) from his opera Sadko – to produce dance music that sought to evoke the ‘high art’ aesthetic of the concert hall. In Chicago Isham Jones was another prominent white bandleader who by the late 1910s was fronting an ensemble made up of three distinct sections (brass, reeds and rhythm instruments) with the addition of violin, which later would disappear from the standard dance-band ensemble. Jones's arrangements often featured ‘hot’ sections that emphasized syncopation and improvising soloists, as in the cornettist Louis Panico's muted, growling statement on Never Again (1924, Bruns.).
By the early 1920s, then, jazz could be heard on recordings made by small ensembles like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Kid Ory's group, by medium-sized dance bands like those of Hickman and Jones and by larger ensembles like Europe's society orchestra and Whiteman's concert orchestra. Yet another recording outlet for jazz musicians came in the form of small pick-up groups accompanying female blues singers. Beginning with the recordings Mamie Smith made in 1920 with her promoter Perry Bradford, and continuing with the flood of singers that followed as the blues craze took hold, it was customary to hire two to five musicians to back up vocalists for record dates, especially those made for race labels in Chicago and New York. Often these musicians had experience playing jazz in dance bands and displayed their skills as improvisers in studios. In 1920–21 the New York trumpeter Johnny Dunn and a small band with rotating personnel took part in a number of sessions with the singer Edith Wilson. The loosely organized ensemble work on recordings like Nervous Blues and Vampin' Liza Jane (1921, Col.) – with clarinet, trombone and trumpet sometimes doubling, embellishing or playing around the melody – hints at the kind of informal accompanying conventions players were using in clubs and theatres. At times the interweaving polyphonic strands suggest the New Orleans small-group model, but Dunn's style is both busier and more clipped rhythmically than that of such Crescent City lead cornettists as King Oliver and Tommy Ladnier. Other musicians with jazz credentials turn up on these blues records from the early 1920s, including the trumpeter Bubber Miley and the clarinettist Buster Bailey with Mamie Smith (1921), the trumpeter Joe Smith and the pianist Fletcher Henderson with Ethel Waters (1922), and the pianist Fats Waller with Sara Martin (1922).
In 1923, six years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded its first sides, black American jazz musicians started getting more opportunities to distribute their work via recordings. That year, companies in Chicago and Richmond, Indiana, issued the first discs of such noted New Orleans figures as King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. In New York Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra began recording regularly for various labels, and Bessie Smith cut her first sides accompanied by jazz instrumentalists. In St Louis Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra made its first recordings. From this time on, recordings offered a more accurate and representative sampling of jazz activity in the USA.
The 1923 recordings of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band revealed the cohesive, relaxed yet hard-driving rhythmic style of this band of mostly New Orleanians working regularly on Chicago's South Side. Though slightly larger than the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Ory's band, Oliver's group featured a similar two-part configuration: a front line of melody-playing instruments made up of clarinet, trombone and two cornets (played by Oliver and the young Louis Armstrong) and a rhythm section of piano, banjo, drums and occasionally bass. Oliver's repertory combined older, ragtime-based strain forms (Froggie Moore, 1923, Gen.) with current pop songs (I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody, 1923, OK.) and earthy blues (Jazzin' Babies Blues, 1923, OK.). Blues lyricism was central to their brand of jazz, epitomized by Oliver's keening muted solos, like the celebrated one on Dipper Mouth Blues (1923, Gen.) which later trumpeters emulated and embellished. The fuller, more dynamic rhythm section heard in Oliver's band (compared to Ory and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band earlier) reflected the group's function playing for dancers, a point that would have been illustrated more vividly if the drummer Baby Dodds had been able to use his entire drum kit instead of being restricted largely to wood blocks and cymbals. Also, the democratic performing mode, which gave each individual a voice while working harmoniously together as a unit, showed a model of ensemble playing positioned midway between the loosely improvised accompaniments of Johnny Dunn and his Jazz Hounds and the precisely controlled arrangements of Paul Whiteman. For these reasons, and by virtue of their sheer exuberance and irresistible rhythmic momentum, Oliver's 1923 recordings made a powerful statement about the expressive potential of New Orleans jazz that resonated loudly for decades to follow.
A contrasting strain of black American jazz in about 1923 is found on recordings made in New York by Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. For Henderson, ‘hot jazz’ did not define his group's identity, as it did for Oliver in Chicago, but instead constituted one of the idioms it provided for dancers, together with ‘sweet’ popular songs, novelty numbers and waltzes (though the breadth of Henderson's repertory was never fully documented on record). It was in part Henderson's versatility, as Jeffrey Magee (G1992, pp.58–64) noted, that helped him succeed as a black bandleader competing for jobs with other white and black ensembles in New York, as when he secured a long-term engagement at the Roseland ballroom in Manhattan (1924). On recordings, Henderson and his musicians at times appear to be following commercially published stock arrangements (Oh! Sister, ain't that hot?, 1924, Emerson); at other times they play arrangements contributed by Don Redman, a member of the band's reed section. In general, the reliance on notation and three-section configuration of Henderson's groups (brass, reeds and rhythm) placed it more in the dance-band tradition of Hickman and Whiteman than in the New Orleans mould of Oliver, Ory and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, although traces of the New Orleans polyphonic weave show up occasionally, as in the final chorus of When you walked out someone else walked right in (1923, Puritan), an arrangement by Redman of an Irving Berlin song. Together with the active sectional interplay and set melodic variations dictated by arrangements, Henderson's band also featured ‘hot’ improvised (or improvised-sounding) solos by such players as Coleman Hawkins (Dicty Blues, 1923, Voc.), the trombonist Charlie Green (Shanghai Shuffle, 1924, Pathe) and Louis Armstrong (Copenhagen, 1924, Voc.).