Early Jazz and the Jazz Age

February 16, 2023

In the first decade of the 20th century, jazz had begun to take hold as the next music craze in America. Artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, “The Original Creole Orchestra”, and “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band” touring the country with immense success. One marker of this new era was the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues”, by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band” in 1917. This was an all-white band; the first African American jazz recording was by Kid Ory’s band in 1922. These recordings and the successful tours brought jazz to new audiences, and the whole country loved it. In fact, groups were bringing ragtime to Europe as early as 1918, and as jazz developed in America, that would also arrive in Europe with the same positive reception. With the huge popularity of Kid Ory’s recording, by 1923 African American jazz bands and artists finally had the opportunity to record, which may have been denied to them previously due to racial discrimination. 

Multiple historical and cultural events in the 1920’s had huge impacts on jazz music, namely Prohibition (the 18th Amendment, making the sale of alcohol illegal) and the cultural changes in the “Roaring 20’s”. The rebellious nature of younger generations in the 1920’s gave jazz a huge boost in popularity, simply due to the fact that middle-upper class white people tended to see it as improper. As successful as the music became, there were always people denying its value or status as “real music”. In addition, Prohibition led to the creation of speakeasies, or private, hidden alternatives to bars. As bars/saloons were forced to close, speakeasies replaced them, but they had to operate differently: they were smaller, but more numerous; they were no longer segregated; and jazz bands were a very popular choice for speakeasy entertainment. These factors gave jazz room to grow, but the new developments in the music itself were the most important part.

Early in the decade, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson began to make a name for themselves. In 1922, Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to join his mentor, King Oliver, and his band in Chicago. Armstrong was a master of the New Orleans style, but he also began to spearhead a new style of jazz, featuring soloists. In 1923, Fletcher Henderson formed the “Fletcher Henderson Orchestra”, which some see as the first proper jazz big band. Originally a dance band, over time the group developed more towards what we now see as big band jazz. Coincidentally, in 1924, Louis Armstrong joined the “Fletcher Henderson Orchestra” as featured soloist, marking a turning point in Armstrong’s development of the “soloist’s art” and Henderson’s development of big band jazz. In 1925, Armstrong made his first recordings with his group, “The Hot Five”, where he would later popularize scat singing. In 1924, Duke Ellington made his first recordings with “The Washingtonians”, and then in 1927 began a residency at the Cotton Club, foreshadowing his immense influence in the coming decade. 

From the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s, big band swing took over as the dominant music of the time. Groups like Henderson’s, Ellington’s, Count Basie’s, and Benny Goodman’s gained immense popularity and influence. In 1932, Ellington’s orchestra recorded “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If it Ain’t Got That Swing”, the first known composition to use “swing” in the title. Also in 1932, Benny Goodman began playing with Henderson’s band. In 1934, facing financial difficulties, Henderson sold his arrangements to Goodman, who began to perform with his band with even more success. Henderson remained as Goodman’s arranger, and this band became one of the most important of the time, like Henderson’s had been in the last decade. Ellington also developed a unique style of orchestral jazz during this time, incorporating complex arrangements and different instrumentation and harmony than many other groups of the time. Despite this, he was one of the most popular bandleaders of the decade. 

Another notable development of the 30’s was a relaxation of racial segregation in music. White bandleaders began to hire black musicians, and vice versa. It was very common in big bands and smaller jazz groups, which were also developing a new and interesting style. For example, Basie formed the “Barons of Rhythm”, featuring the jam session style of music and bringing it to new audiences. Benny Goodman began a racially integrated trio with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. In France, guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli had their first public performance with the Quintette du Hot Club du France, an important development in European jazz. In 1936, Nat King Cole made his first recordings with the “Solid Swingers”, and the next year would form a group with piano, bass, and guitar. 

In 1938, Benny Goodman’s band performed to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The performance also included a jam session with musicians from Ellington’s and Basie’s bands. Afterwards, the Basie band had a competition with Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy Ballroom. This may be seen as a peak of the swing era, but the success would not last for long, with the beginning of World War II forcing a shift in every aspect of culture worldwide. 


To read more about jazz and its history, keep an eye out for the next article, and check out the rest of the blog.



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Duke Ellington. (2023 January 16). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Duke-Ellington 

Fletcher Henderson. (2022 December 25). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fletcher-Henderson 

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Stewart, J. (n.d.). Jazz origins in New Orleans. National Parks Service. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.nps.gov/jazz/learn/historyculture/history_early.htm 

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