As anyone who has spent even an afternoon in New Orleans knows, that city’s traditional jazz has never gone away. But those of us who spend our time in other places tend not to give that music much attention. It’s associated with decrepit and too-fast silent movie footage, and cartoons. Swing, bebop, and subsequent styles are so much more sophisticated.
Of course, the secret to New Orleans jazz is that it’s incredibly sophisticated. It’s also the bedrock of all jazz that followed, meaning that even if we don’t instantly detect it, it’s never gone away for us, either. The music is still exciting, profound, and ahead of its time today, and it’s worthy of our attention. We don’t have the sounds of jazz’s very beginning: Trumpeter Buddy Bolden is usually regarded as Jazzman Zero, but aside from anecdotes and a scratchy circa-1905 photograph, there’s no documentation of him. (The notion persists that he made an old wax cylinder record, but we have yet to find it.) For all intents and purposes, though, these 10 records give us the foundation. All except the first entry are in chronological order.
1. Jelly Roll Morton: “Black Bottom Stomp” (Black Bottom Stomp: The Complete Victor Recordings 1926; Hot Jazz, 2015 [originally recorded Sept. 15, 1926])
If any one recording or song could encapsulate the New Orleans jazz tradition, it would be this one. The foot-tapping rhythm, the three-horn interplay, the instantly memorable melody, the joyful improvisations, the hidden intricacies … they say darn near everything there is to say about the early days of the music. They say even more about Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, who (until someone finds the rumored Buddy Bolden cylinder) is jazz’s first documented genius. He wrote the tune, leads the band, and plays a wonderful piano solo that sounds muted because it’s unaccompanied, but is as raucous and syncopated as anything else on the record. (There’s no rhythm section behind it because Jelly doesn’t need one!)