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.
6. Red Onion Jazz Babies: “Cake Walking Babies from Home” (Gennett Records Greatest Hits Vol. 1; Verbatim, 2006 [originally recorded Dec. 22, 1924])
This 1924 version of “Cake Walking Babies from Home” is perhaps second to “Black Bottom Stomp” as the epitome of New Orleans jazz. The lead voices? Sidney Bechet on clarinet and 23-year-old Louis Armstrong on cornet. Listen to these two in contrast to trombonist Charlie Irvis, who joins them in the ensemble playing; he’s doing his best to keep up, but Bechet and Armstrong are simply on a higher level in their rhythms and melodic ideas. (Irvis makes up a little ground on the second chorus, before Alberta Hunter and Clarence Dodd’s vocals jump in.) The whole vibe, however, remains upbeat and exciting after 97 years, fun to listen and maybe even dance to, if you’ve got the moves for the shimmy and the Charleston.