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Sicily: the Island of Origin of the Pioneers of Jazz Risks Losing its Cultural Heritage

In Salaparuta, Sicily, we find a study center dedicated to Nick La Rocca, who, along with musicians Prima and Roppolo, made jazz history: an under-appreciated and unique story

Secondo da sinistra, Nick La Rocca in una performance con il suo gruppo, l'Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Rows upon rows of hills laced with vines intermingle with the curves of the G-clef: the history that has developed in Salaparuta is one-of-a-kind. With just under two thousand inhabitants, this municipality of Trapani is the symbol of the 1968 earthquake that occurred along the river Belice and destroyed the town’s historic center; but only a few people know that this small town was also the origin of three artists who quite literally made musical history.

First and foremost, Nick La Rocca, pioneer of jazz, to whom the namesake study center for research in Salaparuta is dedicated. With its incredibly rich cultural and musical assets, this center is a gem for the aficionados of the genre, but it has never been adequately appreciated.

Giuseppe Grupposo, president of the “Nick La Rocca” study center for research

“Ours is the only accredited “Nick La Rocca” study center, founded by a group of citizens in 1992,” the president Giuseppe Gruppuso tells us. “Through the years we’ve concerned ourselves with both conducting research and valorizing music, in addition to organizing various events and inaugurating an international award named after La Rocca, to whom we owe not only the invention of the word “jazz” (originally jass), but also a revolution in the very way we understand music. It was he who recorded, alongside the Original Dixieland Jass Band, the first jazz record in New Orleans, which went on to sell an astonishing million and a half copies in 1917.”

The announcement for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band at the Orpheum Theatre in 1937

Maintained solely by the dedication of its members, the “Nick La Rocca” study center struggles to capture the attention and prestige it deserves in both the Italian and international music scenes, despite having inspired some of the leading names connected to jazz and the culture around it, from Lino Patruno to Ray Gelato, from Claudio Lo Cascio to Renzo Arbore and Paolo Belli – these last two having been raised musically through Louis Prima, another native of Salaparuta.

From the left: Lino Patruno, Renzo Arbore, Jim La Rocca, son of the famous jazz musician, and the president of the study center Giuseppe Gruppuso, during an evening celebration of the stars of jazz in Salaparuta in 2012

“Prima was an exceptional musician, orchestra director, and actor, considered king of jive and swing, to the degree that he was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame,” Gruppuso explains.

The star dedicated to Louis Prima on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2010

Gruppuso recalls the time he met Arbore, who today is the honorary president of the study center and with whom he collaborated on Italian TV channel Rai’s documentary From Palermo to New Orleans… and immediately jazz! (Da Palermo a New Orleans… e fu subito jazz!): “Arbore was shocked when he discovered that Prima came from Salaparuta, and he told me: ‘We must absolutely do something!’, and put himself forward to organize an event honoring him, La Rocca, and Roppolo.”

Leon Roppolo is the third talented musician from Salaparuta who became famous both as a soloist and with his band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

Leon Roppolo with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings

Leon Roppolo

“He died at only 41 years old, but nonetheless had a huge impact on how we interpret jazz, leaving an inerasable trace due to his original use of the clarinet, which influenced classical and modern music as well as the blues,” the president says.

Gruppuso regrets that over the years the region has not been very receptive to the proposals of the study center: to begin with, the creation of a jazz museum in Salaparuta, which would represent an opportunity, maybe the only opportunity, to reactivate a land in which time seems to have stopped with the earthquake, and with it, any possibilities for the future.

The new Salaparuta

“We are nothing more than a non-profit, we live off donations,” Gruppuso emphasizes. “In 2011 we were lucky enough to have the participation of the hoteliers of neighboring Selinunte, who were enthusiastic of our Sicilian Festival of Traditional Jazz and Swing, for which the most appropriate setting would have been the town’s archaeological park. At this event we would have been joined by figures such as Lucio Dalla and Piero Angela, a jazz musician as well as a popular TV figure who speaks on a wide range of topics, and who, for the occasion, would have also talked about the site.

The archaeological park in Selinunte, Temple C (credit: ©Valentina Barresi)

But the fees asked of us were too exorbitant for our current resources.”

Il “pioniere del jazz” Nick La Rocca (1960)

“The politicians,” Gruppuso concludes, “did not understand that our initiatives could have provided an economic return for the whole Valle del Belice, where, through the help of the group of musicians and intellectuals that have married our cause, a music festival in the style of Umbria Jazz could have emerged, with which we could have created a kind of bridge. A festival placing culture, monumental heritage, and the routes of memory at its core.”

At the moment, however, everything remains on discs, correspondences, and scores. A treasure guarded by the few in a land deserted by the many.


Translated by Alyssa Erspamer

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