Did you know that Dixieland Jazz originated on the Canary Islands? No? Not surprising, because the Isleños and the Canarios didn’t know it either! What a bold statement! But, as is well known, there’s a kernel of truth in every allegation, and I – being a curious nut case – cracked open many nuts full of information to get to it. So, here you are - the facts:
Alcide “Yellow” Nuñez – the “world’s greatest” clarinettist, Jazz pioneer and founding member of the Original Dixieland Jass Band, which changed its spelling from Jass to Jazz in 1918, thus putting the word JAZZ down in writing for the first time – composed the Livery Stable Blues, which was pressed on the very first Jazz record in 1917. The blues became a hit and sold over one million copies!!! Incredibly, the year was 1917 – even today, most artists can only dream about such sales figures! And this Alcide “Yellow” Nuñez was Isleño by birth, with real Canarian ancestors!
I actually wanted to explain in detail why the world was a handkerchief and list the numerous parallels that exist between the 1920s and the times we now live in, but first of all I’d like to bring to your attention to the following unique discovery. Let’s take this one at a time:
At the end of the 19th century, Louisiana was a potpourri of people and languages; the territory had first been in Spanish hands, then in French hands, and in the end it fell to the United States. There were black as well as white slaves who would communicate with each other on the fields by means of chants and rhythms, the “call and response” pattern. Its concept is similar to the – now endangered - whistled language of Gomera or the bush telegraph of the Bavarian mountains, also known as yodelling (don’t laugh: I am the owner of the golden yodel diploma). This manner of communicating turned into the original form of Jazz, influenced by Afro-American music (by the way, the Canarian Islands are a mere 300 kilometres off the African coast), work chants of the black as well as the white slaves, lullabies, spirituals, the blues and not to forget European, mostly Spanish music such as hymns, marches, dance and folk music (like flamenco). Back then, the region south of the Mason-Dixon Line was known as the “Dixieland”. As of the 20th century, this term represented the traditional Jazz as it was played by the whites and as it continues to be played today!
The word “Dixie” itself – for sure – dates back to the “post-French period”. In the New Orleans vernacular, it was used to denominate the ten dollar bill, on which the French word for “ten”, i.e. “dix”, was printed. Well, money makes the world go round and Dixieland had a name.
And the origins of the word “Jass”? Back then it was a dirty word, used in the brothel quarters without any connection to a music genre. Originally, it was ascribed a sexual connotation, similar to the present hip expression “that’s hot”. The phrase “to jazz it up” was also used as a synonym for “to accelerate” or “to excite”.
Well then, let’s jazz it up:
So I started researching Alcide Nuñez and got in touch with his great-grandson, Robert Nunez through an internet platform. Robert, who followed in his great-grandfather’s musical footsteps playing the Tuba – and of course traditional New Orleans Jazz - in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for 18 years could provide me with some information, indeed:
His great-grandfather, Alcide “Yellow“ Patrick Nuñez was born on March 17th, 1884 in Saint Bernard Parish. He was the youngest son of Victor Nuñez and Elisa Chalaire (of French descent) and born to a family with many children. The Nuñez family were Canarian emigrants (as is proven by ship lists, probably from La Laguna, Tenerife) and according to Robert, his ancestors arrived in Chalmette, Louisiana, in 1789 and settled in Saint Bernard (approximately 8 miles down the river from New Orleans). Robert himself was born there, too.
Alcide was brought up in humble surroundings in Saint Bernard and moved to New Orleans with his parents when he was a teenager. Jack “Papa” Laine, a famous percussionist and Alcide’s later “spiritual foster-father”, was living in the neighbourhood and would remember that Alcide had already mastered the tin-whistle as a child. And his son said that Alcide was able to craft a musical instrument out of almost any thing. This way for example, an old cigar box became some sort of banjo with the help of a few guitar strings. At that time, musicians and aspiring musicians didn’t have any money to buy expensive instruments – being simple farm workers or slaves – and necessity is the mother of invention: a cigar box was turned into a banjo, a washboard into a drum set, spoons would dictate the rhythm, tin-whistles, jars or garden hoses served as wind instruments.
Alcide’s nickname was “Yellow”, probably because of his complexion and the consequent resemblance to “Kid Yellow”, the protagonist of the same-titled and popular newspaper cartoon from 1890.
At first, Nuñez played the guitar, but changed to playing the clarinet in 1902 – just like that. Thanks to his perfect pitch, he was said to improvise in such a brilliant manner that he would play the wildest blues without missing a beat – and all that without knowing how to read a note!
Yet, due to his lack of knowledge when it came to reading music, young Alcide wasn’t able to work as a full time musician, which is why he would earn his keep as the driver of a mule drawn carriage. By the way, the isleños were famous for training oxen and mules as work animals.
With his nephew Harry Nuñez (violinist and a further Jazz pioneer of the family), they played in Frank Christian’s Band. Later, Nuñez founded his own band, until drummer “Papa Jack“ Laine (often called the “first white Jazz musician”) employed him for his Reliance brass and dance bands in 1905. Papa Jack was known for keeping a lookout for young musicians. He was the first active and most important band leader. Old Jack Laine is reported to have said about Nuñez, “Oh boy! Wonderful” – a wonderful boy, playing in his bands “for years and years and years”. By 1910, Nuñez was the number one clarinettist in New Orleans and downright “famous” for his improvisation skills.
At the beginning of 1916, a promoter from Chicago was looking for a band to represent the “sound of New Orleans” and discovered five white musicians, who regularly played in Papa Jack Laine’s various bands. He invited them to an engagement in Chicago:
The Stein’s Dixie Band under the direction of drummer Johnny Stein and the musicians Alcide “Yellow” Nuñez (clarinet), Nick LaRocca (cornet), Eddie Edwards (trombone) and Henry Ragas (piano) made their first appearance in Chicago’s Schiller Café on March 3rd, 1916. They were a success, the audience beat a path to their doors and demanded “Give us more Jass!” After three months, the original formation broke away from band leader Johnny Stein – the musicians were demanding a better deal, more money and obtained both:
LaRocca (now band leader as well) founded the Original Dixieland Jass Band with Alcide Nuñez and Eddie Edwards in Chicago. Joining them as their drummer was Tony Sbarbaro, who Nuñez knew from New Orleans. The first white Jazz band was a hit, launched a whirlwind career and their guest performances became a “sensation”, as the Chicago Herald reported on April 30th, 1916. But with the success, LaRocca and Nuñez also came to blows at the end of 1916. Supposedly, Alcide was fired because of his drinking. It’s more plausible, though, that the founding member left the Original Dixieland Jass Band because of copyright reasons, by this time it was February 1917, they had just recorded the first ever published Jazz record that included the tracks Livery Stable Blues and Dixieland Jass Band One-Step. This very record sold one million copies! In 1917! The Original Dixieland Jass Band caused a worldwide stir with their music, a new style was born: the white Dixieland Jazz from the South of the USA.
However, from then on without Alcide, and here’s the point:
Alcide Nuñez and Ray Lopez (trumpet) composed the hit seller Livery Stable Blues and copyrighted it as well, which the guys of the O.D.J.B. “forgot”. All this resulted in a vicious lawsuit about the copyrights. In court, Nick LaRocca bragged about being the “Columbus of Jazz”, while Nuñez answered drily, saying, “Blues is blues!”. In the end, the overstrained judge granted the copyright to neither of them since it was impossible to make out the real authors. And the newspapers sneered at them, saying that “so-called Jazz musicians with their beastly music are fighting in court over notes that they can’t even read!”
Alcide Nuñez didn’t back down, however, after all he was considered to be “the world’s greatest Jazz clarinettist”. In 1918, he returned to New Orleans, becoming co-founder of the Louisiana Five, the band of drummer Anton Lada, heading for New York with them in 1919. They recorded countless records and were very popular. There are a couple of recordings left from this time that prove the masterly play of Alcide Nuñez. And so he toured all over the USA, from New York to Baltimore, and played regular gigs in the back then hip nightclub Kelly’s Stables in Chicago from 1922 on.
In the mid-20s, Nuñez developed serious problems with his teeth and began to lose them one by one. He was afraid to no longer be able to be a professional clarinettist and returned to New Orleans with his wife and kids in 1927. With the help of “false teeth”, he got a job as a clarinettist and banjo player with the New Orleans Police Band.
He also drove a patrol car, which goes together with his beginnings as a mule-driver. On September 2nd, 1934, Nuñez died suddenly at the age of 50 of a heart attack.
New Orleans, Chicago, the prohibition, Jazz pioneers of Canarian descent, Charleston, the “flappers”, women’s suffrage, gangsters, financial crisis, inventions… I wonder what else there is left of the Roaring Twenties that I didn’t know – and that you didn’t either!