As a first-year undergraduate at Capilano University’s Jazz Studies program in 2005, I, like the rest of my cohort, was automatically enrolled in a mandatory jazz history course. It was a survey course, designed to teach us how to listen actively, to distinguish between Armstrong and Parker and Coltrane, and to develop a sense of the historical arc of jazz in the 20th century. Our very first listening example was Livery Stable Blues, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
Something of a novelty song, its name derived from the horns’ imitation of animal sounds in stop-time sections, Livery Stable Blues has the distinction of being the very first jazz recording, released by New York’s Victor record label in 1917. It also holds a more dubious distinction: all five members of the ODJB, who billed themselves as the “creators of jazz,” were white.
To his credit, our instructor mentioned this unexpected fact, though we, as a class, did not investigate it further. There was much we could have considered: the circumstances behind the recording, the tricky concept of artistic ownership, the way in which Black American Music gets repackaged by white performers – from the ODJB to Elvis Presley to Justin Bieber – and profitably sold to white audiences. But we didn’t; instead, we moved on to the next song, and focused on learning to correctly identify excerpts for our upcoming exam.
This experience is indicative of what is still a defining characteristic of Canadian post-secondary jazz programs: namely, that they are primarily concerned with teaching students how to be competent professional performers, and that teaching students to engage with issues of race, gender and equity within their field is outside of a program’s purview. On the surface, there’s an undeniable logic to this: students come to learn performance skills, and that’s what programs deliver. One of the unintended consequences of this outlook, however, is an erasure of the lived experiences of jazz’s canonical figures, the vast majority of whom are Black.