Sandy Brown Jazz

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On A Night Like This, The Story Is Told ...

1917 - Recording
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band

 

In February 1917, the United States had not yet entered World War I. Although the US had been supporting the Allies financially, America declared itself 'neutral' until April 1917. In April 2017, President Woodrow Wilson convinced Congress to join the conflict. So when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band went into the studio in February 2017, America, unlike Europe was not at war. The recording was released in May and sold in large numbers in the USA. It is possible that the record was not so widely available in the UK, but presumably could be heard on radio. It wasn't until after the War that the ODJB made their historic visit to London.

Original Dixielnd Jazz Band

 

'... on February 26, 1917, they recorded their two most popular compositions, "Livery Stable Blues" and "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step" ....'

'From a technical standpoint Victor succeeded where Columbia had failed. In order to understand this, we must first consider the acoustical problems confronting sound engineers in those promitive days of mechanical recording. Before the invention of the vacuum tube and the subsequent development of the electronic amplifier, no efficient means existed for the amplification of sound .... in order to attain sufficient power to drive the stubborn stylus, everything, including tonal fidelity, had to be sacrificed .... A huge tin horn was used to collect the sound and concentrate it upon the diaphragm of the recording head. This monstrous funnel of sheet metal - known as the "pickup horn" - became the central and dominant feature of every recording studio.'

The acoustical problems presented by a jazz band were new to the industry .... In recording opera singers, they (the engineers) had been able to exercise some measure of control. On particularly loud notes, for example, the singer was ODJB Recording Studioinstructed to draw away from the pickup horn to avoid "blasting". Conversely, he was literally shoved down the mouth of the horn in order to save low notes or those lacking reproduction qualities .....'

 

'The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, however, did not lend itself to control of this or any other sort. Because of the band's volume, the engineers feared distortion in placing the musicians too close to the pickup horn. But in placing them fifteen feet away, an echo was produced that turned the conrasting voices of the jazz band into a meaningless howl.'

'The problem was solved by the sound engineers at Victor, who succeeded in transcribing the band with great clarity. They placed the musicians according to the recording strength of their instruments, and many test records were made before proper balance was attained. LaRocca was located about twenty feet from the pickup horn, while Sbarbaro wielded his drum sticks about five feet behind him. (The bass drum was not used on this record because of its tendency to "blast"). Edwards' powerful trombone was only twelve to fifteen feet from the horn, accounting for its prominence. Clarinetist Shields stood about five feet away, and Ragas, on piano - the instrument least likely to be heard - was closest of all. It is important to remember, however, that these distances were not determined by the relative volume levels of the instruments. Because the sensitivity of the recording apparatus varied widely from one tonal range to another, certain instruments were more easily picked up than others. In actuality, LaRocca, Edwards, and Shields were very evenly matched in loudness.'

The picture above is of the ODJB recreating their Livery Stable Blues recording in the mid-1930s. It was captured in a short film now at the Smithsonian Institute and available here online.

 

 

 

Listen to the Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.

 

 

 

 

'LaRocca describes the first recording session in these words: "First we made a test record, and then they played it back to us. This is when they started moving us around in different positions. After the first test record, four men were rushed in with ladders and started stringing wires near the ceiling. I asked them what all these wires were for, and one of the men told me it was to sop up the overtone that was coming back into the horn. The recording engineer at Victor had the patience of a saint. He played back our music until it sounded right."

'But despite these efforts at balancing the instruments, the trombone and clarinet dominated the final records. LaRocca attributes this to nervousness on the part of his fellow musicians ....'

The stamping of a foot would be heard very clearly, and at this time they had not yet discovered a method of "erasing" an unwanted sound from a record. For this reason LaRocca was not allowed to "stomp off" his band in the usual fashion. Instead, the musicians were instructed to watch the red signal light, count two after it came on, and then begin playing. It is indeed miraculous that they were able to start out together, and even more of a wonder that they immediately fell into the same tempo."

Listen to Livery Stable Blues. Perhaps try to imagine this played on a wind-up gramophone for a group of people in 1917 new to the sounds of 'Jazz'. The record was described by Victor as a Fox Trot 'For Dancing' by the Original Dixieland 'Jass' Band.

 

 

 

 

From: The Story Of The Original Dixeland Jazz Band by H. O. Brunn

 

Dancing to the gramophone

 

 

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2020

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