His surname an indicator of the rich ethnic mix in New Orleans at the close of the 19th century, James Palao figures heavily into early historic developments in jazz. The scarcity of recorded material from his career--for every musician between 1910 and 1925, for that matter--is easily overshadowed by the obvious importance of his accomplishments.
Interest in his playing on axes from three different musical families at first focuses on a fascinating type of expanded ensemble active on the New Orleans scene during these early days. Palao began as a violinist with the Imperial Orchestra in 1907, which squared up with most accounts of his birthdate would have him at somewhere around 15 years old. This type of orchestra played a type of mostly composed music that had more to do with ragtime than with New Orleans jazz, although it was obviously influential.
He then played alto horn in Allen´s Brass Band and gigged around various New Orleans clubs. When Palao went on the road with the Original Creole Orchestra in 1912, he was doubling as a violinist and a member of the saxophone section. Touring activity by groups of this sort during this era represented actual pioneering efforts in terms of spreading the sounds of New Orleans and the concept of syncopated group improvisation in general--and Palao seems to have been at the center of a great deal of it.
By the time the Original Creole Orchestra made it to Chicago in 1914, Palao had taken over leadership. According to many accounts of Chicago history, it was the arrival of this band that heralded the beginning of what would become an intense civic interest in jazz. This artist stayed put in the Windy City when the band broke up, gigging with pianist Lil Hardin, among others. In the last decade of his life there was more pioneering, Palao heading west with King Oliver: and so, jazz arrived in California. Eventually Palao returned to the midwest, touring in the last year of his life in the accompanying band for a vaudeville act called
Dave and Tressie.