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Jazz in the 1920s

Clarinet on sheet music

Jazz in the 1920s is considered to be some of the genre's most significant music. In fact, the 1920s are referred to as the Golden Age of Jazz, and for good reason. Major cultural changes, coupled with big changes in the way music was distributed, turned jazz into a national phenomenon. Many of jazz's biggest stars started their careers in this decade, and they recorded a canon of works that are now jazz standards.

Changing Times, Changing Music

Jazz was already an established musical genre in the 1920s, but it was highly regionalized. Although jazz purists differ on exactly what is the birth place of the genre, by the time of the Teens, jazz was popular in New Orleans and the immediate delta region as well as in Chicago, where it was tied to the blues scene.

During the 1920s, jazz went national. The North experienced economic growth at a time that the South and Midwest were facing financial hardships. Jobs were bountiful in the North, so many Southerners and Midwesterners relocated to Northern cities, particularly New York City, looking for work. They brought jazz music with them, introducing the sounds to new audiences. Jazz would play a pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance, and many of the musicians involved were actually New York transplants or were at least inspired by the musical traditions of the new New Yorkers.

As jazz was spreading throughout the country via human relocation, a new musical format made it easier for mass audiences to enjoy the songs. During the 1920s, the vinyl record reached new heights in popularity and surpassed the previously popular formats, sheet music and piano rolls, in sales. Small, independent record companies began springing up all over, and the existing major labels increased in size. Both of these factors made music distribution much more efficient and widespread.

During the 1920s, music promotion was also born. Social life centered around dancing - this was the age of popular dances like The Charleston - and speakeasy clubs also began to spring up. Music promoters worked jazz records, particularly big band jazz records, hard, getting them placed in clubs and encouraging local big bands to purchase the songs to perform at their shows. These things all further increased the popularity of jazz. In fact, jazz reigned supreme in terms of popular music until the 1950s, when rock and roll burst onto the scene.

Jazz in the 1920s: Musicians

A list of musicians performing jazz in the 1920s still reads like a who's who of the genre. Here are just some of the jazz musicians who played during the Golden Age:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Duke Ellington
  • King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band
  • Tommy Dorsey
  • Benny Goodman
  • Fats Waller
  • Count Basie
  • Billie Holiday
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Artie Shaw
  • Glenn Miller
  • Benny Carter

Jazz Controversy

Although jazz's popularity soared in the 1920s, it wasn't without controversy. Many of the early jazz musicians were African-American, and there was a strong racist component to the criticism of the music. Jazz relied heavily on improvisation, and some critics suggested that the way jazz threw out the rule book of European music traditions in terms of note progression and song structure created music that was less "pure" and beneath classical music standards.

Jazz also found many critics within the Harlem Renaissance movement, particularly from one of the leading figures of the Renaissance, W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was a vocal opponent of jazz for the same reason some critics voiced - that straying from classical European music structure ended in music that was less worthy.

Despite the criticisms, the popularity of jazz grew exponentially among both black and white audiences, and in fact, jazz went on to play a major role in the Civil Rights Movement later. Like soul music in the 1960s, jazz drew integrated music audiences that helped form a foundation for broad-based support for equal rights.

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Jazz in the 1920s