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Jazz Music in the 1920s

The Beginning of Jazz

The origins can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when African-American musicians started experimenting with European musical instruments in their own distinct style. Jazz originated from New Orleans in the 1900s, and soon disseminated to Chicago, New York and Kansas City. The 1920s were the most glorious years for this genre of music. The decade also witnessed the rise of many independent (Indie) record companies. The Indie companies started recording with jazz groups, which helped the genre reach wider masses, and led to its popularity during that decade. Jazz dance form was also developed during this period. Jazz bands began to mushroom all around the United States, and became very popular with the middle and upper class Americans, despite racism being prevalent during that period. There were skeptics who considered jazz music and its respective artists to be some sort of a threat, because jazz was very different from everything that they had heard till then. It reflected the drastic alternate changes taking place in society, where African-Americans were more powerful, women voted, and people had surplus time to perform, listen, and experiment with music. The Harlem Renaissance and the jazz era was majorly influenced by the African-Americans, and the genre undoubtedly helped these people get acceptance in society through their talent. This era also reflected an eclectic mix of jazz, fashion and movies, all in co-ordinance with each other.

Famous Jazz Musicians

The roaring ’20s featured some of the most famous jazz musicians like Kid Ory, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington. These artists were some of the most popular ones around. The actual list of great 1920s’ jazz musicians is incredibly long. Most of the recognized musicians played in famous bands like the King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, instead of going solo. However, many artists later parted ways with bands like Louis Armstrong, who played cornet for the Creole Jazz Band, and spearheaded the New Orleans Jazz, later decided to perform solo. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton, along with the Red Hot Pepper’s, are other such examples. In the 1920s, jazz bands were made up of three voices and a rhythm section. The voices consisted of a cornet, clarinet and the trombone, which were prominent jazz instruments. Some of the noted musicians during these times are listed here.

Joe “King” Oliver: A mentor to Louis Armstrong in his early days, King Oliver was a prominent protagonist of the jazz scene in the 1920s. Oliver initially played the trombone, but eventually transitioned into playing the cornet, and how! His band showcased some of the greatest musicians this era ever witnessed. Oliver on the cornet, Bill Johnson on the bass, Johnny Dodds on the clarinet, and Baby Dodds on the drums, certainly proved their mettle by totally bringing it with their compositions. His brief stint with Louis Armstrong marked a popular presence, and his band was recognized as the New Orleans Jazz.

Edward “Kid” Ory: A renowned jazz trombonist of his time, his band featured young underground and talented musicians, that included King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds amongst many others. He was acknowledged as the fore-runner of the first African-American band that recorded the first jazz set featuring Ory’s Creole Trombone and Society Blues. Kid Ory successfully retired in 1966 and had gained a number of accolades during his time. He also collaborated with most of the famous jazz artists back then.

Louis Armstrong: Finding himself a mentor in Joe King Oliver, Armstrong shot to fame as a legendary cornet and trumpet player. A staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Armstrong’s skills were renowned all over with the fact of him being the best jazz soloist of his time. His wife, Lil Hardin, also a famous jazz pianist, urged him to join Fletcher Henderson, who ran the show at that time in major dance balls across New York, and had collaborated with the likes of Don Redman and Benny Carter. A pioneer in scat singing (includes vocal concoctions with random words), Louis Armstrong set behind a legacy and was duly recognized for it.

Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington’s presence in the 1920s was prominent, and he led an eventful career as an established composer of the 20th century. His band, ‘The Washingtonians’ were regular performers at Club Hollywood, which later changed to Club Kentucky, and the venue was a host for jazz lovers and the swing scene. The band’s performance of their famous ‘Jungle Nights’ show was acknowledged well, and the band escalated to a permanent venue at the ‘Cotton Club’ – a major place for jazz performances. Jazz fans from all over flocked to Ellington’s performances in huge numbers, and he gained popular recognition for his compositions that came through the years ahead.

Bix Beiderbecke: Beiderbecke was a pioneer in bringing about the jazz ballad genre, and his takes on ‘Singin The Blues’ and ‘I’m Coming Virginia’ were received well all over. He recorded his first song with The Wolverines in 1924, and went on to join and tour widely with Frankie Trumbauer. Both later joined Jean Goldkette Orchestra in 1926. The duo also went ahead to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in New York. Beiderbecke’s performance on radio broadcasts got him recognition nationally. Unfortunately, he died at an early age of 28, as he succumbed to alcohol abuse and hallucinations.

Paul Whiteman: Known as the ‘King Of Jazz’, Whiteman’s music reflected an amazing blend of symphonic music and jazz. Mississippi Mud, Rhapsody In Blue, and Hot Lips, were amongst many of his greatest hits. Duke Ellington shared a quote about Whiteman in his autobiography, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.” Whiteman, also, often showcased budding artists, that included the likes of Al Rinker, Johnny Mercer, Bring Crosby, Ramona Davies and Mildred Bailey, amongst many others. His noted performance was of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ at ‘An Experiment in Modern Music Concert’ in Aeolian Hall at New York in 1924.

Jazz Sub-genres

In the early 20th century, musicians conceived a variety of sub-genres through jazz. New Orleans Dixieland dating from the early 1910s, big band-style swing from the 1930s and 1940s, bebop from the mid-1940s, a variety of Latin jazz fusions such as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz, free jazz from the 1950s and 1960s, jazz fusion from the 1970s, acid jazz from the 1980s (which added funk and hip-hop influences), and NuJazz in the 1990s, are some of the sub-genres of jazz that are still prevalent. The work of the artists paved the way for new sub-genres, and poets transitioned their lyrics into jazz music. An example of jazz poetry and blues was the adaption of an excerpt from Langston Hughes’ first book ‘The Weary Blues’, which goes as the follows:

Me an ma baby’s,
Got two mo’ ways,
Two mo’ ways to do de Charleston,
Da, Da,
Da, Da, da!
Two mo’ ways to do de Charleston!
(Weary Blues)

Some popular sub-genres revolving around this time were:

  • Third Stream – The term was dubbed by Gunther Schuller in a lecture at Brandeis University. He proposed Musical Extemporization which includes spontaneous instrumental changes and communication of emotions in the songs whilst playing.
  • Trad Jazz – As the name suggests, the term is an abbreviation of traditional jazz, and pertains to the Dixeland and Ragtime jazz styles in the early twenties, and went on to be a major source of inspiration till the early sixties.
  • Urban Jazz – Succeeding trad jazz, this genre is a fusion of smooth jazz and R&B music, with steady basslines and percussion sets.
  • Vocal Jazz – Instrumental tunes combined with a smooth flow of vocals with unique styles of different artists, and also scat singing the composition which includes meaningless and nonsensical syllables, and random words tuned into the rhythm produced by the instruments.
  • West Coast Gypsy Jazz – Inspired by Django Reinhardt, this genre is a prototype of jazz music with dark musical scales which reflected gypsy elements. It has an element of bluegrass styles and portrays a distinct strumming with racy and uneven beats at irregular intervals, concocted into a rhythm.

Jazz music of the 1920s established jazz as a music genre, in the true sense. Many changes, improvisations, and experiments have taken place in jazz music since then. But even today, the genre cannot be defined in a few simple words. Paul Whiteman – The King of Jazz, described it as “the folk music of the machine age.” Personally, I feel jazz is the music that flows from the heart and appeals to the soul. The modern-day jazz scene has come a long way, and has been shaped with many artists like Norah Jones, Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra, The Soul Rebels, Ramsey Lewis Electric Band, Chico Trujillo, and many others. Montreal, today, is most popular for jazz music, and also hosts jazz festivals throughout the year, and is a platform for underground artists too.