The Jazz Age

The term the Jazz Age has over the years come to mean something more than just the evolution of the African American art form.

It describes not only the music of the time, but also a period of time in Amercian history that saw a change in the social structure in society with the rights of women being reappraised and redefined as well as controversially, a generational divide between the young and the old, and the younger population starting to question the way things were while instigating change.      

Also in dispute is the exact time frame referred to as the Jazz Age, or as it sometimes referred to as Roaring Twenties. If taken literally the period in question is from 1920 documenting the turbulent decade through to the Great Depression in 1929, but if referring to the Jazz Age then we can view this as pre-twenties through to the thirties, and socially and musically a little beyond that.

The Jazz Age would also extend its reach further than just America reaching out across Europe and Great Britian and eventually extending to worldwide popularity.

The phrase was first coined as the earliest jazz recording started to become popular for listening and dancing too, and the wealth of live jazz music that was available became more widespread moving into other US states from its birthplace in New Orleans around 1918. In 1922 the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised the phrase in his book of short stories, ‘Tales Of The Jazz Age’.

Musically, the Jazz Age documented the rise of Dixieland jazz, an early form of the music that took its cue from the blues and ragtime music that was evolving at the beginning of the twentieth century in the Black American communities in New Orleans.

Boasting a multicultural society there were many different types of music to be heard. In addition to ragtime and the blues there was also Creole music, the early folk music of the Creoles of Louisiana. 

With this heady cultural mix of influences from Black-Americans along with European-Americans the music known as jazz or as some musicians have referred to as Black classical music was born and thrived and developed at a rapid pace.

If the instruments and harmony ere of European descent, the vital rhythms and personal expression were derived from Africa and the blues.

The legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden who reportedly played by ear and whose music was amalgamation of gospel and church music, along with ragtime and blues.

He was also a gifted improviser and looked to play in a looser style than the more inflexible rhythm imposed by ragtime.

Born in September 1877, his playing career was relatively short as he was only known to be musically active between 1890 and 1907. There are no surviving recordings of Bolden, although he allegedly made some phonograph cylinder recordings.

Hospitalised at the age of 30 where he spent the rest of his life (de died at the age of 54 in November 1931), Bolden’s name has been forever linked with the creation of jass as it was first known and was an influence on musicians such as Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard and Joe “King” Oliver. 

Perhaps Bolden’s legacy can be said to live on in the work of those he influenced and their subsequent impact on the early developments on the music, and also in Bolden’s most well-known compositions ‘Funky Butt’ which was recorded by Jelly Roll Morton as ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’, and even later by numerous artists as ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say’.

Jazz music really started to take off around 1917 with the advent of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their popular recordings, and Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band, who origins began in New Orleans but quickly expanded their reach playing in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It was here that they made their first recordings in 1922 and were the first band from New Orleans of all black origin to do so. Other notable recording debuts that year were also by the blues singer, Bessie Smith.

With the advances in recording and the ability to reproduce the music on shellac discs playing at 78rpm so the single was born. Many of the large record companies of the time would for subsidiary labels as off shoots catering for certain sectors of the populations and the age of ‘race records’ began.

This did mean that jazz was able to get a foot hold in  the mainstream music listening of the twenties, although often the audience for hot jazz would be among the white audiences.

The musicians that would dominate the music of the twenties would include the young white cornet player Bix Beiderbecke and his band The Wolverines formed in 1924, and the band leader and arranger Fletcher Henderson.

A leading dance band of the day that featured imaginative arrangements that would fee directly into the swing era of the thirties, Henderson’s band could boast having saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong among its ranks, both of whom would play important parts in the art of jazz improvisation. 

In fact, it was Louis Armstong who was responsible for the next important development in the music as an improviser par excellence, with his only near rival being the clarinettist and soprano saxophone master Sidner Bechet.

As Bechet was away touring Europe at the time, Armstrong had the field to himself, and with a little bit of encouragement from his wife, Lil Armstrong, Louis formed his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven bands and over the next five years made some of the most vibrant and influential small group jazz ever recorded.

If Armstrong led the way for the soloist, then Jelly Roll Morton paved the way for the arranger in jazz. Recording first with the mixed-race band the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and then in 1926 with Red Hot Peppers, Morton was able to arrange his music in such a way as to retain the originality of improvisation and the composition when notated. 

The pianist/composer/bandleader Duke Ellington also began his career playing in the clubs in Harlem in the twenties and going on to be one of the most influential musicians in a career lasting fifty years.

This was not unusual as the many musicians who had established their reputation in the Roaring Twenties went on to successfully evolve with the music as swing and dance music would take jazz into a new decade and era of change in the way the music was perceived and performed.

Looking at the Jazz Age from a social and cultural perspective, it was a time of change and upheaval in America. The laws of Prohibition would on paper seem to have curtailed much of the night life and clubs of the time, but the emergence of underground speakeasies serving elicit alcohol provided a place for people to enjoy themselves and for the jazz to gain an audience.

Not always welcomed, the new music and times also saw a change in the attitude of the young, often using jazz as a means to rebel against the traditional American culture. Jazz was seen by some groups within society as the “devil’s music” and leading to a breakdown in accepted morality.

The role of women was also changing radically with the women’s suffrage movement gaining momentum, and the vote for American women in August 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment. Women’s place in society began to receive recognition for their contribution to their efforts in the First World War, and place in the workforce became increasingly larger and demanding a voice.

This in turn would fuel the demand equality, and the time of the Jazz Age seemed the right time for social and cultural change. 

While there would continue to be a cultural, racial and gender divide for decades to follow, there were many female musicians of importance that came out of the twenties all with an important message to convey.

Important and sometimes outspoken female artists of the time included the blues singer Bessie Smith and pianists Lil Harding Armstrong and Corrie “Lovie” Austin, while Ella Fitzgerald was also starting to earn a reputation for herself at the end of the decade. 

A time that has been glamourised in novels and films as a glamourous time in American history. The reality may be quite different, but nonetheless it was a time that saw change in social attitudes, and helped nurture a true American art form.

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