The Jazz Age

Jazz music during the 1920s created a interracial popular culture that served largely as a unifying force, especially amongst the young, but it also alienated conservative whites who believed that the new music and social scene of the era were immoral.


The Birth and Rise of Jazz

  • Jazz music was and is considered an African-American contribution to music, with its roots in slave songs and rhythms.

  • American slaves created secular and spiritual music that involved heavy use of call and response, vocal and instrumental slurs or bends, polyrhythms, and improvisation. These techniques would become essential to the jazz style.

  • Jazz as we know had its birth in the Storyyville district of New Orleans, where black musicians were hired to play at brothels and nightclubs.

  • The music spread north during the Great Migration of the 1920s, becoming popular in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and New York.

  • Played in dance halls, roadhouses, and speakeasies, the new style of music began to permeate white mainstream culture as well, leading social observers to dub the era "The Jazz Age".

  • The movement gained even greater momentum with the advent of the phonograph and the radio, which permitted for the first time the creation of a mass American culture, of which jazz music was an essential part.

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The Black Birds of Paradise, Alabama

Where's Jazz Playing?

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  • Speakeasies - underground bars where one could drink alcohol that was obtained through bootlegging, since the Prohibition had made drinking alcohol illegal.
  • The Cotton Club - a famous night club in New York City where the most talented and famous jazz musicians would play.
  • Cities like New Orleans, New York City, and Chicago were major centers of jazz music.
    • New Orleans developed into the jazz center of the world.
    • Certain subgenres of jazz music came out of New Orleans alone, like the Dixieland style.
  • Though both whites and blacks would come to listen and dance to jazz music, audiences remained largely segregated. Bands themselves, on the other hand, sometimes had both black and white players.

The Original Dixieland "One-Step"

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Who's Playing Jazz?

Prominent musicians of the era, mostly African-American, included Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong,

Duke Ellington, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday.

Ella Fitzgerald, singer

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Duke Ellington, composer, pianist, and big band leader
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Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, ragtime pianist, bandleader and composer

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Jelly Roll Morton playing the Maple Leaf Rag

Louis Armstrong, trumpeter and singer

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Louis Armstrong playing Blueberry Hill

Who's Listening?

Amongst white Americans, it was primarily the younger generation that saw jazz as an interesting and liberating form of music and entertainment.


  • The older generations were in general more hesitant to accept any change in the societal norms. To them, jazz affected the way women acted and the way people gathered negatively.
  • Conservative Americans had felt threatened by ragtime and the way ragtime made people dance, and jazz had the same effect.
  • The rising American youth was more eager to experiment and live prosperously. For example, look at literature like The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and its characters who live in West Egg habitants. Fitzgerald also wrote a collection of short stories entitled Tales from the Jazz Age.

Young women, in particular, found the new culture jazz created to be a liberating force in their lives.

  • The fashion industry followed the desires of the younger generation's eagerness for freedom and fun in the style of dresses.
  • There were female musicians in jazz, like singers Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • The 19th Amendment had just been passed, leading to new opportunities for women and a stronger sense of personal freedom.

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Who's Not Listening?

The popularity of jazz music created a backlash from more conservative forces, who were unhappy with the music's African-American origins, its unconventional rhythmic style, its dancing, and the new subculture which surrounded it.

external image henry_van_dyke_1.jpg "As I understand it, it is not music at all. It is merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion. Its fault lies not in syncopation, for that is a legitimate device when sparingly used. But "jazz" is an unmitigated cacophony, a combination of disagreeable sounds in complicated discords, a willful ugliness and a deliberate vulgarity." -Professor Henry Van Dyke of Princeton University

The editor of Musical Courier reported on a poll of academically trained musicians: “most found the 'ad libbing' or 'jazzing' of a piece ... thoroughly objectionable, and several of them advanced the opinion that this Bolshevistic smashing of the rules and tenets of decorous music spelled disaster for American music.”

  • To some, jazz represented a frightening "loosening of traditional morals".
  • They said it had originated in the "Negro brothels of the South", and that it was "often associated with vile surroundings, filthy words, and unmentionable dances."
  • Conservative musicians believed that the swinging style of jazz and its new rhythmic feel were insulting and inferior to traditional classical music.

Connections to Today
The growth and development of jazz music during the 1920s can be compared to the emergence of rap music as a major part of pop culture, beginning in the 1980s and 90s, and continuing into today.

Both jazz in the twenties and rap today...

  • have origins in African-American culture and are dominated by African-American musicians.
  • are musical movements centered in cities and driven by the urban lifestyle.
  • serve as an interracial cultural meeting point. We see this today in the rise of non-black rappers, and extension of rap's popularity beyond its original urban, African-American demographic.
  • make older generations worry the that youth and morals of society are being compromised.

See the newspaper articles at this link for more thoughts on modern-day rap versus jazz in the 1920's.