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.
10. Bunk Johnson’s Original Superior Band: “Panama” (Bunk and the New Orleans Revival; Jasmine, 2003 [originally recorded June 11, 1942])
A contingent of jazz fans considered Armstrong’s innovations to be anathema. That was something besides jazz, they said, and only the style developed before 1925 in New Orleans was true “jazz.” This contingent called themselves the “moldy figs,” and their contribution to the jazz canon was a reboot of the career of Bunk Johnson. They tracked him down after Armstrong and Bechet had mentioned him as a key early trumpet player in New Orleans (he was an occasional member of Buddy Bolden’s band) and arranged a recording session for him there in 1942. “Panama” was a clear throwback, but it finally showcased Johnson’s long-unheard bright, agile, pretty trumpet sound; his lyrical improvisational style; and his feel for the early rhythmic structure of jazz. Johnson died six years later, and the truth about his contributions to jazz (and his stories thereabout) are still debated. Yet his place in kickstarting a New Orleans jazz renaissance is secure.