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Jazz Music in 1920s

This author is a professional trombonist, conductor, and educator. He has a long career in music and writes about his passion for music.

jazz-music-in-1920s

Jazz - An American Art Form

Before we start exploring Jazz Music in 1920s we need to put the period into perspective. Yes, Jazz music was in its infancy stage of popularity in the 1920s but took off like a rocket. Below is a basic chronological outline of Jazz through the years.

The Blues (the 1890s)

Of all the jazz styles, this one truly impacted the development of jazz. In the late 19th century, the blues expressed the emotions of the African American community. Both vocal and instrumental performance mediums were popular.

Ragtime (the 1890s)

A new style of syncopated music written mostly for piano. We identify this with the name Scott Joplin 1899

Dixieland Jazz (the 1910s - 1920s)

The foundation base of early Jazz music. Known as ‘New Orleans Jazz’ this music featured trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and a rhythm section. The most famous names associated with the Dixieland medium are Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.

Big Band Jazz (the 1920s -1940s)

New sounds and expanded instrumentation followed the popularity of Dixieland jazz. This was the beginning of the Big Band. Two new words became part of the music world. ‘Ensemble’ applied to the size and style of the band. ‘Swing’ was the new high-energy sound that people could dance to.

Bebop Jazz (the 1940s -1960s)

1940s small group (4-6 musicians) not designed for dancing but for listening. Complex melodies, chord progressions, and expanded improvisation. Key names associated with Bebop Jazz were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie

Free Jazz/Avant-Garde (1960s)

1960s experimental style. New and different improvisational techniques. Miles Davis

Latin Jazz (the 1960s)

Jazz music with a Latin American beat. Great for dancing and vocals. Rhythms include the samba and bossa nova.

Fusion and Jazz Rock (1970s)

"You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!" A new and exciting sub-genre that mixed styles of music together for a very appealing sound. Blood Sweat & Tears, Weather Report, and Chicago were a few bands that stood out.

Eclecticism Jazz (the 1980s & 90s)

A form of free jazz or fusion with a bit more towards the avant-garde. Artists came up with ideas from a more diverse range of influences.

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The Roaring Twenties

The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was a reflection of the economic and technological conditions in the United States. The economy was booming, technology was rapidly improving,

Unfortunately, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought this great decade to a screeching halt as the Great Depression saw years of hardship worldwide.

A few of the highlights:

  • The economy grew by 42%.
  • The modern auto and airline industries were born.
  • Great advances in technology.
  • The rise in the consumer-oriented economy.
  • The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote (1920).
  • Hollywood became a major industry.
  • New dance styles: Charleston, Tango, Lindy Hop.
  • The radio was one of the main sources of home entertainment.
  • U.S. presidents: Woodrow Wilson - 1913 - 1921, Warren Harding - 1921-1923, Calvin Coolidge - 1923 - 1929.
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Radio and The Recording Industry

Technological advances in the 1920s featured the births of radio broadcasting and the recording industry. These new industries created thousands of new jobs for musicians across the country.
Major ballrooms such as the Cinderella Ballroom in New York, Graystone in Detroit, and the Palomar in Los Angeles were all in business. Dance orchestras and jazz bands were in big demand. Live radio broadcasts from these venues gave these bands great public exposure.


Duke Ellington

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The roots of Jazz tangles up in multiple strands of America's diverse musical heritage. This melting pot of cultures produced a uniquely American form of music that blended African and European traditions with new ideas and sounds. Jazz was born in the nightclubs and dance halls of New Orleans, where musicians like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton created a unique style of music by improvising on the popular songs of the day.

Jelly Roll Morton was a fine composer. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues", published in 1915, was one of the first published jazz compositions. He also claimed to have invented the genre. Morton also wrote "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "Black Bottom Stomp".

Other top names in Jazz music in the 1920s we’re:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Benny Goodman
  • King Oliver
  • Bix Beiderbecke

Jazz quickly spread to other parts of the country, and by the 1920s, it had become a national phenomenon. It drew musicians and fans from all walks of life to this new form of music, which spoke to the experience of life in America during the 20th century.

Jazz was a democratic art form, open to anyone who could contribute something new to the mix. This spirit of collaboration was one of the things that made Jazz so unique and exciting.

As a side note, these musicians had to be excellent performers to play the music being composed.

The Charleston

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Let's Dance!

The exuberance of jazz music in the 1920s jump-started a new dance craze. People went out to dance clubs to listen and dance to jazz. The new dance was the Charleston! This energetic and physically exhausting dance had everyone working up a sweat. Two other popular dances of the 1920s were the ‘Tango’ and the ‘Lindy Hop’.

Older generations found the new dances as well as the music close to being scandalous. The sounds of the music and the way people moved to it. No surprise here if you compare the 1920s with any future generations.

Other popular dances of the 1920s were:

  • Turkey Trot - later replaced by the Foxtrot.
  • Shimmy
  • Waltz
  • Tango

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five - Fireworks

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Jelly Roll Morton - Black Bottom Stomp

Jazz Bands

As jazz music became more and more popular more bands were organized. Below is a list of a few:

  • Paul Whiteman Orchestra
  • Red Hot Peppers
  • Mc Kinney's Cotton Pickers
  • Original Memphis Five
  • Fletcher Henderson, Leo Reisman, Ted Lewis, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Lopez

An all-white band made the first jazz recording on February 26th, 1917. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band released "Livery Stable Blues," a song written by the band's cornetist Nick LaRocca.

On February 27th, 1917, another white group of musicians recorded what many consider to be the first-ever real jazz record: "Darktown Strutters Ball," performed by the Victor Military Band.

Yet three years later, in 1920, America had its first black composer of Jazz music with William Grant Still, who wrote his groundbreaking New Orleans Suite for orchestra and jazz band.

Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong began his career playing cornet in New Orleans brass bands. He was known as "Pops" and is still regarded today as the quintessential American jazz musician. His popularity earned him the title “Ambassador of Jazz”.

One of the greatest American Jazz composers was Duke Ellington. His works are fundamental examples of making the art form compelling; he could tell stories through music with just one set of lyrics and, one melody.

Many contemporary critics argue that Duke Ellington is the greatest American composer of all time for his unparalleled contributions in fields that range from orchestral instruments to jazz band instruments, to piano virtuosity, to theatrical entertainment.

Duke Ellington's primary band in the 1920s consisted of a rhythm section, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a few other instruments added to the mix depending on the type of sound he wanted to convey.

Duke Ellington

In Closing

While Jazz began in the United States, it has become a global phenomenon. There are now professional Jazz bands in almost every country around the world. No matter where it is played or by whom, Jazz is always recognizable as the product of its American roots. This unique art form has a history as fascinating as entertaining, and it is more popular than ever before.

Those who like 'modern jazz' should take a peek at the decades past to understand the early years. Jazz music in 1920s outlines the roots and pioneers who paved the roads for what we have today.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Reginald Thomas

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