PORTSMOUTH — Gary Edwards, who grew up on The Beatles, said he probably never would have listened to jazz if not for the music’s historical connection to his family.
The Portsmouth High School graduate’s grandfather, Eddie Edwards, was a founding member of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) which, in 1917, made what’s widely regarded to be the very first jazz record: “Livery Stable Blues,” backed by “Dixie Jass Band One-Step” on the flip side.
“I’m not a jazz historian or aficionado,” said Mr. Edwards, who now lives in Oklahoma. “I’m just lucky to have had a grandfather who was involved in jazz.”
He is, however, the unofficial family archivist for the many mementos he inherited from the jazz pioneer, who died in 1963 when Gary was about 12.
“Photographs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, handbills, personal letters from (fellow ODJB founder) Nick LaRocca to my grandfather,” he said while recounting some of the documents he’s amassed. “Just a lot of personal handwritten letters from over the years and copies of early contracts with the people of Chicago.”
Using some of this material, Gary has been working with writer Hans Eeckhoff, who is preparing an article for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.
Although Eddie and the band originally hailed from New Orleans, like many early Crescent City jazz musicians — such as Louis Armstrong a few years later — they found more widespread fame after re-locating to Chicago. The Victor Talking Machine Company later recorded the band in New York City playing “Livery Stable Blues” — a swinging novelty number with band members imitating the sounds of barnyard animals — on Feb. 26, 1917.
Although jazz is considered largely to be an African-American invention, ODJB consisted entirely of white musicians who were the first to take up a record company’s offer to record the evolving new music. (Black New Orleans cornetist Freddie Keppard was approached by Victor to make a jazz record in 1915, but he famously turned down the offer. Keppard, it was said, either didn’t want other musicians to steal his material through repeated plays of a 78, or he had a problem with the $25 flat fee offered.)
“Livery Stable Blues” was a runaway success, possibly the first pop record to sell a million copies, and was key in developing jazz’s international popularity.
“I have two or three copies of that record, but they weren’t a part of what I inherited. I bought them,” said Gary. “Because they were so popular and sold so many records, the Victors are not very valuable. They also recorded for Okeh, and those records are a hundred dollars or so. They’re more rare.”
An even bigger hit for the band was “Tiger Rag,” recorded in both 1917 and 1918, which went on to become one of jazz’s most enduring standards.
Sheet music left behind
Also left behind by Eddie was sheet music of one of his unfinished original tunes. It’s now in the possession of his great-grandson, Nick Sanfilippo of Portsmouth, a jazz musician in his own right. The Berklee College of Music grad plays contemporary jazz piano at various local clubs and restaurants, such as the Wharf Tavern in Warren or the Rhumb Line in Newport.
“Honestly, it’s an interesting story,” said Nick of his family pedigree. “It’s really not why I came into music, but that has become an interesting side note later on.”
Nick said his father, professional jazz musician Ron Sanfilippo, is the real reason he got into jazz. Ron was active in the ’80s and ’90s around Newport, but still plays occasionally today.
Nick’s mom, Cindy Edwards of Portsmouth, said she’s been trying to get her son to finish his great-grandfather’s song. “My thought was, since there’s not a lot of Dixieland jazz right now, he could put a contemporary tilt to it, and maybe he can have a big hit so his mom can retire,” she joked.
Nick, however, said it’s difficult to make heads or tails out of the sheet music. “Honestly, it’s so old that I’m having trouble making sense of it. It’s a big chart, not just a lead sheet; it’s a full arrangement. It’s kind of all over the place,” he said.
Nick said it took him years to fully appreciate his great-grandfather’s place in American popular music.
“It’s one of those things as a kid that you never really knew how big anything is, especially since it was so removed. It’s not like it was current or anything,” he said. “Once I got to high school, that’s when I really began to appreciate how big ODJB were. What ODJB was doing was so innovative because essentially it was the beginning of the era.”
Long career in music
Eddie Edwards stayed with ODJB until the group disbanded in 1923, right around the time fellow New Orleans jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton made their first recordings. After a spell in Jimmy Durante’s band, he retired in 1936 only to return to music by playing with different revival bands until his death.
Nick never met his famous great-grandfather, but his grandmother, Dorothy Edwards, remembers the jazz legend fondly. Mrs. Edwards, a former state representative and Town Council member who lives in Island Park, recalls hearing the musician first play in the early ’40s in Providence.
“My boyfriend invited me to go and see his father play. I said, ‘Sure,'” said Mrs. Edwards, 89.
That boyfriend — later to become her husband — was Eddie Edwards’ son, Edwin B. Edwards Jr.
Did she enjoy it? “I did. It was different. I wasn’t used to jazz,” said Mrs. Edwards, who got to know Eddie better when he became her father-in-law. “I enjoyed him tremendously. He toured a lot. He was a very interesting person.”
Gary and Cindy Edwards remember their grandfather, but have different recollections of seeing him perform. Gary recalls watching a live appearance by Eddie on the “I’ve Got a Secret” television show hosted by Gary Moore around 1961.
Cindy, however, has a faint memory of seeing her grandfather perform once in the flesh during a family trip to New York not long before his death.
“They took us to see this club where my grandfather was playing. I was only 6, so we could only peep in to see what was going on,” said Cindy, before adding, “I do remember that The Three Stooges were staying in the same hotel as us.”
Cindy’s twin sister, Debbi Pappas, also recalls the family trips to New York to see Eddie. She doesn’t remember much about her grandfather, she said, other than he was “a big guy — bigger than my father.”
While she’s not a big fan of jazz, Debbi does keep one of ODJB’s songs in her pocket.
“I have (“Tiger Rag”) as a ringtone when my mother calls,” said Debbi, the records clerk for the Portsmouth Police Department.
Despite his love for the Big Apple, Eddie Edwards was laid to rest in his native city after his death at the age of 71. “We went to New Orleans a year after my grandfather died and visited the cemetery where he was buried,” said Cindy.
Eddie’s final resting place is Metairie Cemetery, where he shares space with two popular New Orleans trumpeters and band leaders — Louis Prima and Al Hirt.
These days, in the age of pop divas and hip-hop, Gary says most people have only a passing interest in his grandfather’s musical legacy. People who love vintage jazz find it fascinating that his grandfather was an early pioneer, he said. Otherwise, the reaction is, “Oh, really? That’s nice.”
His family, however, is proud to count a relative among “America’s music’s” early trailblazers.
“My grandfather’s band didn’t feature the smooth sounds of later jazz to follow, such as Louis Armstrong, but they were definitely the pioneers in bringing jazz to the masses in 1917,” he said.
Listen to a recording of “Livery Stable Blues,” recorded in 1917: