Michele Cinque (Director of "Sicily Jass")

Nick La Rocca: l'italoamericano che 100 anni fa registrò il primo disco di jazz

Jan 30, 2017 2226 ITA ENG

This February falls the one hundred year anniversary of the recording of the first Jazz song album ever recorded "Livery Stable Blues ", in the history of music. It was an Italian, James Dominick "Nick” La Rocca, who had this honor. 

To celebrate this controversial artist, whom the great Renzo Arbore told us about when we met him, we speak with Michele Cinque, a young talented director and author of a splendid film/documentary that tells the story about the relationship between Sicilian Jazz, New Orleans Jazz and the emigration of Italians (especially Sicilians) to Louisiana.

Michele, you are the author of a small masterpiece, "Sicily Jass": the history of Nick La Rocca, the Sicilian who emigrated to New Orleans and one hundred years ago recorded the first ever Jazz record. Please tell us about "Sicily Jass"

The idea came to me while I was shooting a biographical film about the life of Louis Armstrong, one of the most famous black jazz musicians. Reading his first autobiography I came across Nick La Rocca.

After interviewing some great jazz critics in the United States, like Dan Morgenstern, for example, I came to understand the importance of this Sicilian jazz chromosome. There is not only Nick La Rocca, there were also Louis Prima, Leon Roppolo, and a whole generation of musicians who across two centuries contributed to the Italian and Sicilian gene that is present in jazz music.

I worked on this film for 3 years. It is a documentary film that is 73 minutes long and tells about the life of Nick La Rocca.

I decided to use an interview that had never been released, and that La Rocca gave in the 1950’s. The interview is also one of the reasons that La Rocca is almost forgotten in the history of music: there are very critical statements made in the interview. From my point of view, we can say that at the end of his life La Rocca had developed almost a psychosis, with respect to the character that I had learned to know and studied. He believed that all the merits that he had achieved, and everything he had helped to create jazz, had been removed, and the recognition given totally to African Americans. This is why he seems to have a beef with them. It was a period of struggle and claim for civil rights; these declarations made him an "inconvenient" character, which was seen very badly among the critics.

I tried to get as close as possible to the humanity of his character. The film travels on two tracks. The first is that of fiction, thanks to the exceptional narrator Mimmo Cuticchio, that guides the viewer through the recovery of the historical memory of this story, accompanied by Roy Paci on the trumpet, by Salvatore Bonafede on the piano and by Salemi’s band. Music for me is a narrative element, and not only a soundtrack.

The second track of the film is that of a documentary, and an in-depth historical survey that I conducted in the United States from New Orleans and from the archives of Washington.

It is therefore a "hybrid" film, part fiction and part documentary, whose structure was designed precisely to try to tell a very difficult story, the protagonist being a character dead over half of a century ago.

The film was finished a year and a half ago, and is now still being presented around international film festivals. It was presented in Rio de Janeiro and the New Orleans Film Festival in February 2016, and will be presented in Canada at the Victoria Film Festival, while in April 2017 I will be in the United States. So, at the moment the film hasn’t been distributed yet, but we are starting to think about producing the DVD and selling it through our film website.

Who was Nick La Rocca, and how did it happen that he was the first to record a jazz song?

La Rocca was born in New Orleans in 1896, and is the son of a shoemaker from Salaparuta, a small village in the province of Trapani. His Father Girolamo Rocca and mother Vita moved to New Orleans in about 1880: they were 2 of 30,000 Sicilians who lived in New Orleans at the beginning of the century.

The Sicilian community was in contact with all the poorest levels of the population of New Orleans. There was a strong influence between Sicilian, Creole and African Americans: this is not what happened specifically to La Rocca, but much more to other characters that have made the history of the Italian or better Sicilian jazz in New Orleans. La Rocca was a difficult person: he is perhaps the first successful band leader, in fact one of the characters of the film defines his band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Beatles of the early 1900’s, the era of jazz.

La Rocca has a resounding success: in 1917 he will find himself in New York in one of the newest and most important "Victor" studios, to record the first jazz recording in history.

The story is a bit daring: he and his friend and partner Eddie Edwards were two electricians who played music as a hobby: like all the musicians of that era in New Orleans, they had another job. One day they were invited to Chicago in 1916 to play in a club, the “Shiller Café”, which was a place where gangsters use to gather. Their performance was a roaring success and Max Hart, an agent, took them to New York where they performed at Reisenweber at Columbus Circle, one of the most famous places where to perform at that time. They were so successful that a talent scout of Victor records offered them a contract to record in the studio, and two months later the band became the highest paid in the United States and sold 1 and a half million copies of the record in 1917.

In 1919 they were invited to play for the dance of the Armistice in England: thus they became one of the first American band to tour in Europe.

I am convinced that, in those years, the fact that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was a white band certainly had an important weight on their success, with respect to other African American musicians very famous at the time in New Orleans, like Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, and Bunk Johnson. La Rocca always denied that, and this was most probably one of the big problems that made him disliked and forgotten.

According to me, it is wrong to omit this part in telling the history of La Rocca, because in doing so you lose the humanity of the character: a son of a shoemaker from Salaparuta, who didn’t have the cultural tools to defend himself in the 50’s from jazz critics who had attended the best American universities. I wanted to represent a man who had a poor education, formed by the street life, who had learned to play "by ear", with a father who broke his trumpet because he didn’t want him to play: he believed that all musicians were beggars. In a way, this is a typical Italian story that highlights how misery had been elevated to richness and brilliance.

Is Sicily important in La Rocca's history?

In my story Sicily is the starting point of the film: I used the traditional imagining of the "Pupi" (the puppets) and a surreal dialog between the narrator Cuticchio and them, that are a cultural expression of popular theater in Sicily at the end of 1700’s and all the 1800’s.

Sicily is fundamental for La Rocca’s character because he was in a very well defined social group in New Orleans: the Sicilians were very different from other immigrants. They were not racists, and were accustomed to blacks due to Arab domination back in Sicily. Many in the cotton plantations considered Sicilians the missing link between whites and blacks, and the probably spoke a very similar language, the Mediterranean language. The history of La Rocca is different: he was not a particularly tolerant or open-minded man, even if - according to me - he had unconsciously in him this type of cultural background.

And then there is the music, a very clear contributing component: La Rocca’s father was a trumpeter in the Italian Army corps under General La Marmora, and of course in the band of his small town of Salaparuta, and clearly the primary influence of Nick La Rocca was his father Girolamo.

The musical heritage brought in New Orleans and in the United States by the Sicilians - folk and popular bands, opera - is certainly part of the wealth that enriched jazz music.

New Orleans: tell us something about the Italian emigration in this fantastic city

We could talk for hours about the stories of the Italians and the Sicilians in New Orleans at the beginning of last century!

For example, there was Anthony Sbarbaro, who later took the name of Tony Spargo, the drummer of La Rocca’s band. We know little about his origins: but in the second part of his life he was part of more than one important music bands. Then there was Louis Prima, who grew as a musician with African Americans, always played with them and never ever denied their influence in his music.

We have said that at the turn of the century there were 30,000 Sicilians out of a population of about 200,000 people in New Orleans, so it was a huge "minority": they lived in what was then called "Little Palermo", and today is the French Quarter.

There were the docks, where the Sicilians used to work unloading the ships: let's not forget that New Orleans was the main port in the southern States, the Mississippi river flowed to Saint Louis carrying goods and fruits that were traveling to the United States by ship. For example, at the beginning of 1900’s the banana trade started. There were two Italian families who controlled the traffic of bananas from Central America, the Matranga Family and Provenzano Family. In this and other types of trade the Italians excelled, making money for 20/30 years after their arrival, and this made the white Americans who lived in New Orleans very angry. They were so angry towards the Sicilians that, in 1891, 11 of them were lynched within the prison of New Orleans because they were accused of having killed David Hennessy, then chief of police. Following this lynching Italy withdrew its consuls from the United States and it seemed that even a war between Italy and the United States would be possible: at that time, Italy had a much greater naval power than the United States, and as a result of this threat the United States began to build up their own fleet!

In the autobiography of Louis Armstrong there are important references to Nick La Rocca…

Yes, in 1936 Louis Armstrong wrote his first autobiography where 2 or 3 pages were dedicated to la Rocca's influence on his music: "Livery Stable Blues" was given to those who were buying the Victrola, one of the first gramophones, which had a huge success all over the United States. Louis Armstrong had a Victrola and, together with opera records, he also had La  Rocca's, which was very important for his musical education. Bix Beiderbecke, another famous white musician, fled home when he was 16 to go to New York where La Rocca was playing at that time, in 1922 or 1923.

La Rocca was a legend for all these musicians because he was the first to record a jazz song. His record had a capillary diffusion, and this is why Louis Armstrong always recognized La Rocca’s contribution to the origins of jazz.

In those times, the best seller was Enrico Caruso: however, he had never been able to reach one million copies for one of his records. The first record to ever break this goal was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's one, which sold approximately one and a half million copies in 1917 alone.

For someone like me who loves music but is not an expert: why was the recording of Nick La Rocca in 1917 crucial for jazz music?

Precisely… because it was recorded, and because it was in Victor Studios and not in another one!

For example, one of the problems at the time was the drums: it was an element that was introduced entered in popular music by jazz, the first musical style to use it. However, the drums were difficult to record, because they had quite a bit higher tone than the other instruments. Therefore, in the recording studios, it was all a question of distance: there weren't several microphones, there was only one recording point with two cones, and then the technician had to be very good to arrange the musicians at the right distance, making very difficult the recording of the song. The fact that La Rocca and the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded in this brand new Victor studio, which was just inaugurated, ensured that the quality is still listenable and enjoyable even today, unlike other records.

La Rocca’s band had already recorded about a month before with Columbia Records, which however had not considered the recording sufficiently attractive to place it on the market: but they didn’t have an adequate technique for recording. Today this seems a weird issue, but back then the recording technique was fundamental: if recorded with the proper one, then actually music would have a broader diffusion.

Moreover, the Original Dixieland Jass Band became famous also because it was one of the first bands to be very well marketed, using both television and radio, bringing them to embody the generation of those who left the United States to fight The First World War. While they were deploying, in 1917, that was the soundtrack; when they came back, in 1919, the same band played at the dance of the armistice in London. La Rocca and his band were the right people in the right place at the right time!

What is the relationship between Italy – and Sicily - and Nick La Rocca, nowadays?

Unfortunately, according to me, there is very little. There is a territory of Sicily, which is the Belice triangle, from which Leon Roccolo (an incredible clarinetist), Louis Prima and Nick La Rocca came from, as well as other important musicians of the era.

This territory, which was destroyed by the 1968 earthquake, has beauties that remained intact: but the tragedy is still alive. It really could become the new home for the Italian jazz, which for now is Perugia with its wonderful Umbria Jazz festival. Italy has a great jazz tradition, Renzo Arbore has immense merits in giving back a dignity to the chromosome of the Italian jazz; but to me, Italy should try to work on Belice, to bring international tourism in Sicily and to organize an important jazz festival this area.

For example, in Salaparuta there is the "Centro Studi Nick La Rocca": they were all very open and available to us, and helped us a lot during filming. Unfortunately, this institution is currently in a state of semi abandonment, local funding are just not enough. I'd hope that the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs would step in and take interest in it, to implement a cultural developmental project in the territory.

You may be interested