The family of a white trumpeter who claimed to have invented jazz demands he be recognized among the genre’s greats…but not everyone is singing the same tune.
Carol Tyner rolls up to the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans in a beautifully restored maroon 1948 Mercury. She drives the car to promote the legacy of her father, Dominic James “Nick” LaRocca, a Sicilian-American cornetist, trumpeter and bandleader whose Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first group to record jazz. As far as Tyner is concerned, her father’s not famous enough.
“I had to go out of the country to see my father!” says Tyner, who recently traveled to Sicily to see a bust of Nick LaRocca. “I visited the one in Salaparuta at the music center named after LaRocca. My father wasn’t raised there but his parents were. In Salaparuta he’s considered alongside Louis Prima. Then I went to Palermo and found the street named after him, and then went to the music conservatory there, which has another bust. But then I walk around New Orleans and a lotta people don’t even know who Nick LaRocca is.”
At the Mint — which has served as a museum dedicated to New Orleans history both musical and otherwise since it stopped printing money in 1909 — Tyner would attend the unveiling of the third bust of her father, followed by a panel discussion titled “Marching In: Coming Home to the City Where Jazz Was Born.” Tyner looked forward to gathering with her cousins, her brother Jimmy — who now fronts her father’s band — and members of New Orleans’s large Italian-American community. Dozens of them came out to celebrate the man they believe invented jazz — a man who many in New Orleans’s jazz community consider a musical thief and an unapologetic white supremacist, whose infamy was sealed with a quote in the Ken Burns’s documentary “Jazz”:
“My contention is that the negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites,” LaRocca said. “The negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.”
This quote has since eclipsed LaRocca’s musical legacy.
The Mint event had problems from the beginning. Trouble unpacking the bust meant the ceremony had to be moved until after the panel, so Tyner and company were made to sit through yet another jazz history discussion that totally ignored her father’s contributions.
“It was the most surreal panel I’ve ever been on in my life,” recalls panelist George Ingmire, a DJ from New Orleans’s community radio station WWOZ. “Questions were presented at the end and it was almost like a mob of Nick LaRocca family members. An old guy with a walker got up and started the whole thing: ‘Nick LaRocca! Nick LaRocca!’”
The panelists remained mostly silent until the event’s moderator finally asked the crowd, “Do we have any non-Nick LaRocca questions?” remembers Ingmire. “And this woman with shades on like someone from one of those movies barks, ‘No! We don’t have any questions not related to Nick LaRocca!’” That lady was Carol Tyner.
The panel ended abruptly when several of the invited musicians marched off the stage in disgust upon discovering their event would include the unveiling of the LaRocca bust, of which they had not been warned. Ingmire was caught off guard by the uproar; despite his extensive New Orleans music knowledge, he says he “didn’t even know who the guy was.”
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In the late nineteenth century, the French Quarter seethed with racial tension between Irish immigrants and Italian businessmen, whose economic prowess had begun to attract the mafia that many of them had fled Italy to escape. After New Orleans’s newspapers reported that a “dago gang” had shot down police chief David Hennessy in 1890, some 300 Italian-Americans were rounded up and eleven were lynched.
This was the world Nick LaRocca was born into on April 11, 1889. As much as LaRocca is today seen as having accomplished much on the backs of black musicians, music writer Dave Radlauer points out, “It’s very easy to forget that LaRocca grew up and lived during a time of considerable prejudice against his particular ethnicity: Sicilian-Americans who took plenty of ethnic abuse of their own.”
LaRocca’s father came straight from Sicily playing cornet himself, though he discouraged his son from following suit. “He didn’t like the musicians down here,” says Nick’s seventy-five-year-old son Jimmy, a third-generation musician. “He had to have a trade to get his papers, so he put down ‘shoemaker,’ but he was a musician too. He wouldn’t teach Nick to play.”
Nick LaRocca, a carpenter, plumber and electrician by trade, couldn’t read music, but kept his ear to New Orleans’s streets, practiced along to John Philip Sousa records on a phonograph and finally started his own band in 1908. “The way my father explained it to me is his music built on opera,” says Jimmy LaRocca. “It’s tenor, soprano, bass, weaving in and out, to a march time. Because of that, guys today don’t get it. They’re just jamming.”
It was not in New Orleans but Chicago, however, that LaRocca’s band got its first big break in 1916.
LaRocca was a playful, crowd-pleasing musician, who charmed audiences at the Hotel Normandy by using brass instruments to mimic animal sounds — a tradition that has continued through a lot of dance-oriented, big-band jazz. During those first Chicago gigs, a young Louis Armstrong, who’d also escaped New Orleans to find success up north, is widely reported to have been blown away by LaRocca’s playing, commenting that he’d never heard this kind of music back home in New Orleans. Armstrong went on to claim LaRocca as an influence and covered his arrangement of “Tiger Rag.”
It was in Chicago that LaRocca’s music was first labeled “jass” — believed by some to be a shortened version of the word “jackass,” possibly a white dig at the music’s African-American origins. Nick LaRocca told a different story in a correspondence that is preserved in Tulane’s archive: “About a month after we arrived in Chicago…a couple on the dance floor kept calling ‘Jass it up!’…the next day we were billed as a Jass Band — and this was the first time the word ‘jass’ was applied to any band.” For still disputed reasons, the word was later changed to “jazz.”
Soon, LaRocca wrote in one correspondence, “Jass bands are popping up like mushrooms all over the north.”
So perhaps LaRocca did “create jazz” — the word, if not the music. (Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and other New Orleans musicians were playing what would come to be known as jazz a decade earlier.) As a result, even today the word “jazz” makes some black musicians uncomfortable, as it carries the connotation of meaning the white man’s version of the black man’s music. New Orleans trumpet player Nicholas Payton started a movement to rechristen “jazz” as simply “Black American Music,” or BAM. “I am not dissing an art form,” wrote Payton on his excellent, confrontational blog:
“I am dissing the name, Jazz. Just like being called Nigger affected how Black people felt about themselves at one time, I believe the term ‘JAZZ’ affects the style of playing. I am not a Nigger and I am not a Jazz musician … ‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts of it. [sic]”
However, before walking off the jazz panel at the Mint last year, renowned New Orleans jazz scholar and clarinetist Dr. Michael White told the crowd how the word “jazz” had actually been found on a business card dating back to 1909 — seven years before LaRocca would travel to Chicago. The anger this elicited from some of the Italian-American jazz fans in attendance prompted Dr. White — a distinguished scholar who did not want to lower himself to arguing — to exit the stage.
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The entire American North seemed to have been bitten by the jazz bug by 1917, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band relocated from Chicago to New York, where Al Jolson helped them secure a residency at Reisenweber’s Café. The press fawned as the room filled with thousands of dancers. LaRocca, himself a great dancer, stepped off stage to show the women how to dance to this new music.
In New York, the ODJB went on to record the first ever “jazz” records, including the famous “Tiger Rag.” In 1917, Victor Talking Machines Company released the band’s “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jazz Band One-Step,” which sold over one million copies — outselling even LaRocca’s idol John Philip Sousa.
“The word ‘jazz’ was never known in New Orleans until the Victor Co. issued our records,” LaRocca claimed in one correspondence.
Or, as music writer Dave Radlauer put it, “ODJB did have the privilege of recording for about four or five years before any African-American bands were let into studios by record companies.”
“A lot of musicians throw it in my face,” says Jimmy LaRocca, who operates his band under the ODJB name, which he owns. “But after my father’s records were popular, the labels went right after the black bands, so that disproves that. The labels were all about making money, baby, they didn’t care who it was or what color you were.”
From there, the band traveled overseas to London, where the headlines read “The Super Jazz Band” and “Maddening Melody and Uproar at London’s New Dancing Club.” When ODJB came to town, London’s Martan Club even changed its name to The Dixie Club. “We literally brought the house down with all the screaming and crying out,” wrote LaRocca, who went on to lead his band at the London Palladium; nearly 6,000 jazz fans crammed into the Palais de Danse. The ODJB even played a command performance for King George V’s victory ball celebrating the Treaty of Versailles signing.
None of this was by accident or luck: LaRocca was indeed a business-minded man who managed his own band, hashing out royalty deals between himself and his musicians (mostly handwritten in wide calligraphic lettering) as well as with record companies (always neatly typed out), often on personal stationery labeled with the words “The Creators of Jazz” above a cartoon drawing of his band that took up half the page. LaRocca collected all of his correspondence, press clippings and photos, so that he could later donate them to Tulane University, assuring his place in history.
He also copyrighted any music the law would let him.
“LaRocca was an important part of jazz getting exposed on a large scale,” admits Earl Scioneaux III, a musician and former sound engineer at New Orleans’s famous Preservation Hall jazz club, who walked off the Mint panel that day. “LaRocca took tunes he hadn’t written and leveraged his ability to do things like get up to New York and record — along with registering copyrights for things he didn’t write, and taking ownership of this stuff he hadn’t created and making money from it. There’s evidence that even ‘Tiger Rag’ actually came from a couple of other places.”
Now, Elvis Presley also “stole” black rock n’ roll music and then, consciously or not, benefitted from American racism to become a star — and yet Elvis is still given credit, even by many black folks, for being a talented and meaningful purveyor of their art form. But these days, New Orleans’s music community is loathe to give LaRocca any credit for anything.
LaRocca later wrote letters to newspapers calling himself the “Christopher Columbus of Music.” In a two-page retort to an uncomplimentary 1936 Down Beat magazine feature on the ODJB — one of the longest letters in the LaRocca archives — he called out the writer M.W. Stearns: “No matter what a smalltimer like you has to say about this great band, their name will live a long time after a disgruntled writer like you has passed on the way out,” LaRocca began the letter, which later asserts that black bands of the time were afforded equal privileges. “Gene Dalmey played at Ziegfeld Follies and was a featured attraction,” he wrote of one African-American musician. “So I cannot see how you could say the Colored people were discriminated against, holding one of the best Music jobs in New York City.”
“Jazz was a movement, and once it was out in the world you can’t restrict it to one group; anyone can take any cultural idea and start to play around with it,” says Earl Scioneaux. Ken Burns too wrote that because both black folks and Creoles with European ancestry were thrown together under the banner of segregation, New Orleans jazz was, in essence, “built on the idea of blending.”
“But later in life he was trying to actively rewrite history,” complains Scioneaux. “It’s one thing to earn royalties off others’ work, but another to then turn around and say the group you stole it from doesn’t play it as well.”
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Around 1925, LaRocca suffered a nervous breakdown and came home to New Orleans. He failed to revive the band. “I hereby give notice that The Original Dixieland Jazz Band will be disbanded,” LaRocca wrote in 1938 to the Palace Theatre in Chicago. “Owing to the internal friction, which makes it impossible to carry on, I am mailing a copy of this notice to Local #802.”
The bandleader passed away in 1961.
“His last words to me were ‘Someday I’m gonna be famous,’” says LaRocca’s daughter Carol Tyner. “But New Orleans forgot about him. They don’t mention his name, they’ve never done anything for him. I feel like we’re blackballed. Louis Armstrong has got a park named after him, an airport… I can’t even get a statue of my father.”
Tyner became especially upset at the bust unveiling when it was suggested that even her father’s band’s name was racist. Tyner’s brother proudly leads the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band,” but some older jazz bands have ditched the word “Dixieland” entirely, viewing it as a musical version of the Confederate flag. Beginning in the 1950s, many black college and military marching bands began refusing to play the Confederate army’s fight song “Dixie.”
“My cousin who I hadn’t seen in years was [at the panel] and he asks a question about Dixieland jazz and this guy Earl Scioneaux said that was an offensive word, because of the years that the negroes…the problem they had…Civil Rights and all of that,” says Tyner. “But if you look up the words ‘Dixieland Jazz’ it doesn’t bring up anything that’s offensive. Then I read an article where [Scioneaux] called my father a ‘crook.’ I think he should go back to sound engineering.”
Though she breaks down crying while talking about her father, Tyner is not oblivious to why New Orleans, and history itself, largely ignores her father. “Because what he said… Because of the quote…” She trails off, then adds, “I was fifteen years old when he died at seventy-one, so… I knew nothing about that, and when I found out I started to understand why so many doors were pushed closed.” She nonetheless continues trying to push them back open.
According to the Mint, after the panel, the LaRocca bust was put back into storage until the organization’s Jazz Museum — harmed in Katrina — can be rebuilt. When asked what further steps she and local Italian-American groups plan to take to seal her father’s place in the history of New Orleans music, she snaps back, “I’m not working with anyone. Nobody can help. This is something the LaRoccas gotta take care of.”
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Michael Patrick Welch is the author of books including “The Donkey Show,” “New Orleans: the Underground Guide,” and his latest, “Famous People I Have Met.” His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Vice, Salon, McSweeney’s and many other places. Blow him up @mpatrickwelch.
Pierre Dubois is an illustrator living in Lausanne, Switzerland.