When one thinks of the 1920's as it is portrayed by the mass media, the images of dixieland, college kids wearing raccoon coats, the Charleston, gangsters and speakeasies come quickly to mind. It was termed "The Jazz Age" by F. Scott Fitzgerald and was thought of nostalgically as a somewhat hedonistic era by later generations who had to live through the Depression and World War II.
Although there is some truth in the stereotypes, there was much more to the decade than is seen in movies depicting the era, and there was more to its jazz scene than dixieland. The term "classic jazz" refers to music from the era and its later revivals and recreations, overlapping with New Orleans jazz and dixieland but covering a wider area.
The 1920's were arguably the most important decade in the evolution of jazz. In 1920, jazz was largely unknown to the general public and those that knew of it often disapproved, considering it barbaric and even sinful compared to more sedate dance music, marches, ragtime and classical music. By 1930, even though it was still not taken all that seriously as an art form, jazz had become a permanent influence on popular music and it was danced to by a countless number of people who had never heard of Jelly Roll Morton or King Oliver.
The number of significant developments that occured during the decade in jazz are remarkable. It was during the 1920's that important soloists first emerged in jazz, causing the music to develop beyond its brass band roots (where all of the musicians generally played at the same time) to a vehicle for creative virtuosoes. Musicians began to phrase differently, changing from a staccato approach to legato and not hitting every note right on the beat. Arrangers began to infuse dance band arrangements with the rhythm and phrasing of jazz, leaving room for soloists; even most of the more commercial orchestras featured a brief trumpet solo after the vocalist. The recording industry grew drastically, propelled by the change in the mid-1920's (mostly during 1925-27) from an acoustic to an electric process that greatly improved the technical quality of recordings. And perhaps most importantly, it was in the 20's that top black jazz musicians began to record.
In 1920, jazz was primarily known to the general public as the colorful and primitive music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The ODJB's sound dominated records of the 1917-21 period to the point where most groups (virtually all white) who attempted to record jazz sounded similar to the band. While the ODJB was very important in helping to introduce listeners to jazz (including in England where they visited in 1919), it is not surprising that its music scared off some listeners. The group's initial recording "Livery Stable Blues" (a big hit) found the horn players imitating the whinnying, roars and cackles of barnyard animals and, beyond its novelty value, it was not comparable on any level to the typical playing of a classical violinist.
It was up to bandleader Paul Whiteman to make jazz accessible to the general public. Called "The King Of Jazz" by a press agent (which has led to his importance being underrated and ridiculed through the years), Whiteman could more properly be called "The King Of The Jazz Age." Starting with a million-selling 1920 recording of "Whispering," Whiteman's bands featured high musicianship and versatility. Its jazz content throughout the first half of the 1920's was not that strong but Whiteman always featured superior dance music and kept his ears open. In 1924 he persuaded George Gershwin to compose "Rhapsody In Blue" and his string section often played semi-classical works, an early predecessor of Third Stream music. In Henry Busse, Whiteman had a limited but appealing trumpeter whose hot choruses were generally just doubletime repetitions but had the feel of jazz; hit versions of "Hot Lips" and "When Day Is Done" were due to the excitement that Busse could generate. By the mid-20's, Whiteman started signing up serious jazz players such as cornetist Red Nichols and trombonist Tommy Dorsey and in 1927, with the collapse of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, he added such important musicians as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang and the inventive arranger Bill Challis. When Bing Crosby joined as part of the Rhythm Boys, Whiteman during 1927-29 finally had a frequently great jazz orchestra. Other contemporary dance bands followed in his path.
While one thinks of the big band era as having begun in 1935 when Benny Goodman caught on, the 1920's were filled with preswing jazz orchestras. Shortly after Paul Whiteman began to become famous, pianist Fletcher Henderson formed his own big band and started to record on a frequent basis in 1923. Arranger Don Redman (credited with being the first to divide an orchestra musically into trumpet, trombone, saxophone and rhythm sections) wrote complex, experimental and futuristic charts for Henderson that put the orchestra at the top of its class by 1924. However it was the emergence of Louis Armstrong that made the Henderson big band into the first swinging jazz orchestra. At the time, the New York musicians were better technically than the New Orleans players who were based in Chicago, but it took Armstrong to introduce blues phrasing and swing to the East Coast. Louis was an expert at constructing dramatic statements that expertly used space and he made each note count. By the time his year with Henderson was up, Armstrong's influence had permanently changed the band and the New York jazz scene.
New York had heard the blues before. In fact in 1920 Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" and her record started a blues craze that lasted a few years. Suddenly the word "blues" was tacked on to the titles of many songs and scores of vaudevillian-oriented female singers began to record. Although some (including Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters) were quite talented, it was not until Bessie Smith recorded Hunter's "Downhearted Blues" in 1923 that listeners began to know the difference between a singer performing a blues and a real blues singer. Throughout the 1920's, many "classic blues singers" would pop up on records but the one who made the biggest impact was Bessie Smith (rightfully called "The Empress Of The Blues"); even when faced with very primitive recording facilities and weak sidemen, Bessie (who recorded until 1933) overpowered the surroundings and created performances that still communicate to today's listeners.
It was when the blues craze was at its height that jazz began to emerge more fully on record. During 1921-22 trumpeter Phil Napoleon started recording frequently in New York with small bands that were more creative and swinging than the ODJB; the Original Memphis Five was the best known (and most prolific) of these recording groups. In Los Angeles trombonist Kid Ory in 1921 with the Seven Pods Of Pepper Orchestra (his usual band with cornetist Mutt Carey) recorded two instrumentals that were the first documentation of a black New Orleans group. During 1922-23 the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (with clarinetist Leon Rappollo) showed that not all the early jazz pioneers were black and then in 1923 King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (an octet with both Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and drummer Baby Dodds) proved to be the finest of the early New Orleans jazz bands to make it on record. A few years later pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton with his Red Hot Peppers perfectly blended together arrangements and creative frameworks with concise solos.
However classic New Orleans jazz was soon overshadowed by the rise of the great soloists. James P. Johnson, called "the father of the stride piano," was a brilliant pianist whose complex left-hand patterns ("striding" up and down between bass notes and chords) inspired youngsters such as Fats Wallerand often scared away his potential competitors. His first recorded piano solos were in 1921 and even now few listeners probably realize that this multi-faceted talent composed "Charleston." Sidney Bechet, a masterful soprano-saxophonist and clarinetist, recorded some virtuosic sides during 1923-24 although his extensive stays in Europe cut back on his impact in the U.S. Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who had a beautiful cool tone and a harmonically advanced style, recorded solos with the Wolverines (a fine Midwest jazz band) in 1924 that were full of subtlety and unexpected moments. Symbolic of the "jazz age," Beiderbecke became the top white jazz player of the decade yet was unknown to the general public. He was the star sideman with the short-lived Jean Goldkette Orchestra, recorded many brilliant solos in 1927 with recording groups headed by Frankie Trumbauer and was featured in occasional spots with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra during 1927-29 before alcoholism caused his rapid decline and death in 1931. His death at age 28 made him a jazz martyr and a legend.
But it was Louis Armstrong who, although a New Orleans player, really helped end the New Orleans era and pave the way towards swing. He was just too skilled a soloist to be confined to ensembles. After leaving Fletcher Henderson and returning to Chicago in 1925, he worked nightly with big bands and recorded a series of classics with his Hot Five and Hot Sevens. His 1925-27 records generally also included clarinetist Johnny Dodds (arguably the top clarinetist of the era) and trombonist Kid Ory who at first were nearly equals until Armstrong's rapid growth made him the dominant force. Armstrong's 1928 records with pianist Earl Hines (one of his few matches in rhythmic daring) are among the most advanced of Louis' career and his playing on the flawless "West End Blues" (with its memorable opening cadenza) was his personal favorite recording.
Even without Louis Armstrong, it seemed only a matter of time before soloists would become more important. The muffled sound of acoustic recordings were giving way to their much more lifelike electric counterparts by 1925-26 and jazz stars were destined to emerge. Dixieland was evolving from New Orleans jazz and the number of distinctive players that were inspired by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver, Bix and Armstrong were multiplying yearly. While Armstrong and Beiderbecke were the pacesetters among cornetists and trumpeters, there were also such up-and-coming brassmen as Jabbo Smith (who in 1929 at the age of 19 showed tremendous potential that he never lived up to), Red Allen (the last major New Orleans trumpeter of the era), Jimmy McPartland and Red Nichols (a Bix-inspired player who was very important during the era as the leader of many jazz-oriented record sessions in New York, often under the name of his Five Pennies). The trombone evolved from the percussive and guttural playing of Kid Ory and the wide interval jumps of the unique Miff Mole (who often teamed up with Nichols to create unpredictable music) to the more influential Jimmy Harrison and Jack Teagarden. The New Orleans clarinetists (chiefly Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone) ruled during the decade but the young Benny Goodman was showing great promise with drummer Ben Pollack's fine big band. The saxophone, considered a novelty instrument and a poor replacement for a trombone at the beginning of the decade, worked perfectly in dance orchestras and some important voices emerged including on tenor Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman, both Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter on alto, Frankie Trumbauer on the C-melody sax (which soon became nearly extinct), bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini and baritonist Harry Carney.
As far the rhythm section went, James P. Johnson's followers and contemporaries at nightly jam sessions included Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Earl Hines (in Chicago) and the young Duke Ellington. Banjos and tubas by the late 1920's gave way to more flexible rhythm guitars and string basses. While Eddie Lang occasionally had brief guitar solos (often teaming up with the immortal violinist Joe Venuti) and bassist Steve Brown drove ensembles in the mid-1920's, their instruments were largely confined to a supportive role. The same was true of drummers who, until Gene Krupa in 1927, were not even allowed to record with a bass drum or a full set due to fears that it would overpower the recording balance. Baby Dodds, thought of as one of the era's top drummers, generally recorded with just a cymbal, woodblocks and a snare drum! It was not until the late 1920's that one can hear how a drummer really sounded.
While instrumentalists evolved quickly during the 1920's, vocalists lagged behind. Other than the female classic blues singers and the male blues performers (who were in a different musical world than players of jazz and dance music), very few vocalists on record were worth hearing before 1925. Singers were hired for their volume and ability to enunciate words, and many sounded like rejects from opera who were lowering themselves to sing pop music. An exception was Cliff Edwards (known as Ukulele Ike) but it was once again Louis Armstrong who introduced swing to singing. In addition to popularizing scat singing (substituting nonsense syllables for lyrics), Armstrong phrased his vocals like a trumpeter and virtually changed the world of pop singing. Bing Crosby, who was in Paul Whiteman's band at the time, learned from Louis' example and his rise saved the world from the pompous baritones and boy tenors who appeared on far too many jazz-oriented records through the late 1920's.
By the end of the 20's, jazz was a major part of popular music and Duke Ellington's innovations with his Cotton Club Orchestra were leading the way towards the future. Jazz, although hardly considered respectable by the middle class, was being utilized at least to a small degree by nearly every commercial dance orchestra and it was the vocabulary of talented musicians at after-hours jam sessions who indulged in freewheeling dixieland-oriented solos and of territory bands from outside the major metropolitan areas. In addition, the spontaneity of jazz by 1927 had become the soundtrack of the freewheeling 1920's.
With the onset of the Depression and the development of swing, the classic jazz era came to a close. Dixieland went underground and then re-emerged full force in the 1940's as did New Orleans jazz. Enthusiasts from later decades often tried their best to bring back the spirit and sound of classic jazz circa 1925-33 but it is a difficult task both because the recording quality has improved so much since then, and because most later musicians phrase in a more modern fashion. There have been exceptions along the way, particularly since the Stomp Off label began to extensively document the traditional jazz scene in the 1980's, but it is a tricky balancing act to recreate the excitement and joy of the early recordings and particularly to play with creativity (rather than merely copying the original records) while sticking within the older boundaries. Fortunately many (but not all) of the classic recordings are readily available on CD and, with the proliferation of so many dixieland and trad jazz festivals, the music lives on in different forms.
11 Essential Classic Jazz Recordings
The Original Memphis Five, Collection, Vol. 1 (Collector's Classics)
Fletcher Henderson, 1927 (Classics)
Louis Armstrong, (Classics)
Fletcher Henderson, 1927 (Classics)
Louis Armstrong, Vol. 4: Louis Armstrong And Earl Hines (Columbia)
Bix Beiderbecke, Volume 1: Singin' The Blues (Columbia)
Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman, Bix Lives (Bluebird)
James P. Johnson, Snowy Morning Blues (GRP/Decca)
Fats Waller, Fats And his Buddies (Bluebird)
Jabbo Smith, 1929-1938 (Retrieval)
Red Allen, 1929-1933 (Classics)
Benny Goodman and Red Nichols, BG & Big Tea In NYC (GRP/Decca)
Duke Ellington, Okeh Ellington (Columbia)
Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller (Oxford Univ. Press, 1968)
Bix - Man And Legend by Richard Sudhalter, Philip Evans and William Dean Myatt (Schirmer Books, 1974)
Jazz Masters Of The Twenties by Richard Hadlock (Da Capo Press, 1965)
Voices Of The Jazz Age by Chip Deffaa (Univ. Of Illinois press, 1990)
Ellington - The Early Years by Mark Tucker (Univ. Of Illinois Press, 1991)
By Scott Yanow