Jazz Stars: Nick La Rocca

Today's "Jazz Stars" column features the early jazz-era American cornetist and trumpeter, leader of the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and a selection of his compositions. Nick La Rocca was the author of one of the most recorded jazz classics of all time - "Tiger Rag".*

Dominic James "Nick" La Rocca (1889-1961) came from a family of poor Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans. As a child, Nick developed a keen interest in music. Against his parents' wishes, he was enthusiastic in playing the trumpet. At the age of 15, after his father died, he decided to devote his life entirely to music.

He heard an ensemble of black jazz musicians performing in the street and was captivated by their creative musical style, so dissimilar from the habitual compositions of Italian families’ Sunday concerts. In time, Nick became not only a good musician but also a very enterprising young man: no wedding or christening in the neighbourhood was held without his musical accompaniment.
From 1910 to 1916, he was a regular member of Papa Jack Laine band. Nick was not considered a virtuoso at the time; hence, he was able to play several concerts in a row on the same day.

In 1916, Nick La Rocca was invited to work in Chicago with Johnny Stein band. This group turned to become the famous Original Dixieland Jass Band (O.D.J.B.). The name was then amended to "Jazz". Due to their concert activities, the first commercially released jazz recording in New York, “Livery Stable Blues”, appeared in 1917. This piece was a hit and the band famous for it.

More than likely, it happened because the music was danceable, cheerful, hot and jazzy. The musicians played as fast as they could. The recording director insisted on it, since two pieces had to be placed on one side. “Livery Stable Blues” was particularly funny. The jazzmen imitated animals on their instruments: the cornet "roared" like a horse, the clarinet "crowed" like a rooster. The record sold over a hundred thousand copies.

The band composed or first recorded many jazz standards. It should be acknowledged that Nick La Rocca was an important figure in the period of jazz gaining international popularity; he was the leader of the most powerful jazz band between 1917 and 1921, and a good musician. His style of playing exercised a great influence over later jazz trumpet players.

In the early 1920s, many very popular jazz musicians from New Orleans came to New York. Rather strong competition emerged. O.D.J.B. lost the battle to the group that later became La Rocca’s new band. With this band, the trumpeter toured through England and the United States in the early 1920s. The band nicknamed him "Joe Blade" and recorded a song called "Joe Blade, Sharp as a Tack".

In the mid-1920s, La Rocca suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew from music. He returned to Louisiana, gave up music and was engaged in the construction business.

In 1936, Nick reunited with O.D.J.B. La Rocca claimed that he and his band were the inventors of the popular swing style. Due to personality clashes, the band broke crumbled again the following year and La Rocca retired from music again.

In the 1950s, La Rocca wrote many furious letters to newspapers, radio and television shows, claiming that he was the true and the only inventor of jazz. Naturally, this provoked a negative reaction and greatly damaged his reputation.

When Tulane University created its New Orleans Jazz Archives, nowadays the Hogan Jazz Archives, in 1958, La Rocca donated his large collection of O.D.J.B. related items to Tulane, including several scrapbooks of newspaper articles.

Musicologists and historians, most critics and jazz enthusiasts consider Nick La Rocca to be an important figure in the development of jazz international popularity, and leader of the most influential jazz orchestra from 1917 to 1921.

* "Tiger Rag" is a jazz standard that was recorded and copyrighted by the original O.D.J.B. band in 1917. It is one of the most widely reproduced jazz compositions in the world. In 2003, the 1918th recording of "Tiger Rag" was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Inventory. The Inventory includes over a thousand various recordings of this song. The song title refers to a "tiger", the lowest card in the poker game. 
This card might be used to win if it was not sloughed until the end of the game ("hold that tiger"). The word 'rag' is a short form of the word ragtime.