Last weekend at the Old U.S. Mint, a state-sponsored event provided a flashpoint in one the of the long-running disputes about early jazz history, as a group of local musicians ran into one figure they weren’t expecting to see.
Trumpeter Nick LaRocca died in 1961, and made plenty of musical contributions to early jazz in the form of the composition “Tiger Rag” and the release of the first-ever jazz recording. But the racial elements present in his views on the creation of jazz – on which he was vehemently outspoken toward the end of his life – have long formed a dividing line. In an infamous scene from Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz, LaRocca is quoted as saying:
“My contention is that the negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites..The negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.”
The camera then zooms in on trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who looks away from the camera for several moments before providing a response.
LaRocca’s legacy crept up again at a panel discussion last weekend in New Orleans, but this time he was present in a more physical form. A panel discussion presented by the lieutenant governor’s office and Oxford American that was part of a series called the “Louisiana Soundtrack Experience” ran right into the unveiling of a bust of LaRocca, Instead of good discourse, the two sets of music devotees present wound up confused why each other were there, and Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne was left to try to find common ground.
The Nov. 16 Preserving Our Musical Heritage panel discussion featured NOLA trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, clarinetist Dr. Michael White, singer Meschiya Lake, recording artist and sound engineer Earl Scioneaux III and WWOZ’s George Ingmire. Part of a series of similar events held across the state, the panel delved into a wide range of topics on New Orleans music history.
When moderator Alex Rawls opened up the floor for questions, a man announced that he was from an Italian Heritage organization, and asked a question about LaRocca. None of the panelists took up the questions.
The questions about LaRocca continued to rattle off. At one point, Rawls asked if any of the questions that were to be asked wouldn’t be about LaRocca. One member of the audience then shouted, “No!” according to those assembled.
Turned out, all the LaRocca enthusiasts were gathered to attend the unveiling of a bust that was made of the musician. Word about the bust had circulated among Italian-American heritage groups, whose members turned out in force. The promo materials, one of which was circulated by the American Italian Federation of the Southeast, advertised the fact that lieutenant governor Jay Dardenne would unveil a bust of LaRocca, who is dubbed the “creator of jazz.” The materials provided to the Italian heritage groups also mentioned the panel discussion.
In a separate section of their website, the AICC contains a description of how LaRocca has been allegedly been overlooked by jazz historians:
…The national new “political” media in the United States totally ignored what Nick LaRocca accomplished in favor only of others who learned to play jazz. His contribution to musical history was overlooked and almost forgotten…Sadly there are no airports or performing theaters or schools named after Dominic James “Nick” LaRocca in New Orleans, the city that jazz brought so much fame and recognition to.
According to lieutenant governor Jay Dardenne, the ceremony was actually a re-unveiling, as the bust had appeared in the Mint and the state museum in Baton Rouge before the Federal Flood, but had yet to be displayed again following the disaster. The LaRocca family contacted the state about having the bust on display once again.
There are three known busts of LaRocca, the other two of which are in Italy, Dardenne said. The lieutenant governor said they were created before his time in office, and the bust owned by the state is considered a jazz artifacts on the display at the Mint. Eventually, the Louisiana State Museum wants to make the artifacts part of a larger exhibition on the state’s music history.
Dardenne said this week that the bust was supposed to be unveiled prior to the panel, but it was not delivered to the stage in time, so the panel discussion went forward. The questions proceeded about LaRocca, and the panelists continued to decline to field questions. For his part, Scioneaux said he didn’t have anything positive to say about LaRocca.
“Nick LaRocca was a crook who effectively created the model for swindling people out of their music. He might be the worst figure in the history of New Orleans music,” he said. “On top of that, it’s daft to call any single person the ‘Creator of Jazz’ – that’s like trying to name someone the ‘Creator of English.'”
At one point, Scioneaux said he cut a questioner off after he used the word “Dixieland,” and asked whether the audience member knew the word was offensive, as it recalls the South’s racist past. The audience member tried to explain himself, but Scioneaux then left the discussion. Rawls, Ingmire, and Dr. Michael White also left at the end of the panel, before Dardenne made the official unveiling.
Scioneaux, who records under the name Madd Wikkid, said the speakers were never told about the bust unveiling, since it was not advertised in the promotional materials for the event.
Dardenne said his office didn’t send out word about the bust unveiling to the panelists because it was considered a different event. The lieutenant governor’s office didn’t officially send out the advertising materials to the Italian American heritage groups, but information about the panel discussion appeared on the promo materials.
“The re-unveiling of this bust was totally just an add-on to the event…It was just an entirely separate occasion,” Dardenne said.
At one point during the Q&A, Dardenne took the stage to attempt to find common ground. In an interview this week, the lieutenant governor said he tried to explain that there’s “plenty of room at the table” for all those who had a role in jazz and its evolution. Dardenne also said he made another point to the group: “This is not about who was the founder of jazz.”
“Any controversy, any debate notwithstanding…he’s had a role in Louisiana music,” Dardenne said this week.
The bust of Nick LaRocca is currently on view at the Old U.S. Mint.
Correction 12:41 p.m.- The sentence that read “Dr. Michael White, who is a jazz historian in addition to being a musician, also walked out soon after Scioneaux.” now reads “Rawls, Ingmire, and Dr. Michael White also left at the end of the panel, before Dardenne made the official unveiling.”