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How jazz reached the homes of millions

Was the first jazz album recorded in New York or in Berlin? For International Jazz Day, expert Bert Noglik discusses the role of technology for pioneers of the genre, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Miles Davis.

DW: Mr. Noglik, the first jazz album was recorded in New York. How did this recording happen?

Bert Noglik: The Original Dixieland Jass Band [Eds.: the name was changed to "Jazz" by mid-1917], from New Orleans, went to Chicago to perform Dixieland jazz, a sound that no one there had heard previously. At the time, ragtime was the dominant style and Dixieland was something completely new. 

People in New York also wanted to hear Dixieland music. The band was invited to do a gig at the restaurant Reisenweber, which was a trendy location with a nightclub in Manhattan. The band performed there in January 1917. 

Shortly afterwards, the record label Columbia came knocking at their door to record them. But the label found the material too hot, too innovative, so the recordings weren't released.

Another label, Victor, then jumped in and recorded two tracks, "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step" for the A side and "Livery Stable Blues" for the B side, on February 26, 1917. It was a big hit, pressed as a 78 rpm record single and sold for 75 cents. It was a remarkable event for the music market and the history of jazz — as well as a tremendous commercial success.

Read more: 10 great films about jazz 

The B side of the first jazz record from 1917 (public domain)

The B side of the first jazz record

Was 1917 really the year the first jazz album was recorded? Some sources set this event in 1904, when the German operetta king Paul Lincke recorded a jazz-like composition with the choir of the Apollo Theater in Berlin. How do you see this?

This obviously depends on your definition of jazz. Without a doubt, there were earlier recordings of ragtime music and other pre-forms of jazz. However, some essential stylistic elements of jazz, such as swing, appeared much later. The recordings with the Original Dixieland Jass Band at the end of February 1917 already featured many of the characteristics of what we would later define as jazz. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the record business in the US and Europe was still developing — but it probably couldn't be characterized as an industry yet?

It was in its first steps. It developed over the following years. And radio only became widespread in Germany and in the US in 1923. Jazz developed a wider audience through records and radio by the end of the 1920s.

Who earned money with the new jazz records at the time?

The record labels, of course; they were already determining what could be marketed. Columbia was initially cautious with this new sound, but quickly jumped on the bandwagon, recording the Original Dixieland Jass Band as well. By then, Victor had already sold its first recording of them by the millions. 

Record companies made very good deals at the beginning. When did record sales become interesting for musicians as well?

Actually, right from the start, because those records made music available anytime, anywhere — and worldwide. This was a great opportunity for musicians to become known and allowed them to play more concerts and go on international tours.

In the West, the record industry rapidly developed into a huge business. What happened in divided Germany in the 1960s? How did the market differ in East and West Germany?

You have to start by looking back at the first years of Soviet Occupation, from 1945 to 1949. There was a record label called Amiga, which documented very well the period's jazz production. We owe this label the most important testimonies of post-war German jazz. 

It later became difficult because of East Germany's strong ideological regulations. In the 1950s, jazz was considered bourgeois entertainment music, which is why authorities imposed restrictions on sales and broadcasting of jazz music. 

That changed in the 1960s. From then on, it became more difficult for the then already established East German label Amiga, because licenses had to be paid in a foreign currency, which was scarce in East Germany. This was also the case for the vinyl needed to press the albums.

What was the situation in West Germany?

In West Germany, jazz was produced by internationally operating labels such as Columbia, Brunswick, Bertelsmann or Philips. In 1964, an independent German label dedicated to modern jazz was created, called MOD Records. Towards the end of the 1950s, SABA Records was established: That was the label of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, which was renamed MPS, for Music Production Schwarzwald, in 1968.

Sound engineering developed very rapidly. How did the new and always improving technical possibilities influence jazz?

They were absolutely essential! Just imagine: At the beginning, there was this big funnel in which musicians had to play. Then the microphone appeared by the mid-1920s. That offered completely new possibilities, for example for vocalists. Crooners such as Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby found new ways to modulate their voice with the microphone. An exceptional example is also singer Billie Holiday, who essentially developed her whole art through her work with the microphone. 

Record producers also became very creative with their sound engineers…

Yes, exactly. Tape started being used in the 1940s. That made it possible to produce sound collages. After that, multi-track recordings appeared. Works like Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) used studio technology in an extremely creative way. The producer of these albums, Teo Macero, was nicknamed "Paganini of tape cutting." 

Suddenly, technology became a creative tool. This continued right up to digitization. Editing became an important component of jazz production and creative jazz.

Read more: How Miles Davis remade jazz over and over again

Bert Noglik (Patrick Hinely)

Jazz expert Bert Noglik

Just like the new recording technologies influenced the music industry 100 years ago, how are today's downloads and streaming services impacting the business and musicians?

Each storage and distribution media has had a great influence on how people receive music. Concerts used to be a way of promoting record sales. Now it's the other way around: Through music downloads and streaming, the goal of musicians is to make money through their concerts. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make money for all parties involved. 

Bert Noglik is a freelance author specialized in jazz who has directed the festivals Jazztage in Leipzig and Jazzfest in Berlin. 

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