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Jazz History in Standard Time (1920s)

The Trends, People, and Events that Shaped the Jazz Standards Canon

Introduction  Early Period  1920s  1930s  1940s  1950s  1960s  1970s-2000

Overview

By Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

The decade of 1920s marked huge advances in the music industry. The phonograph record became the primary method of disseminating music, surpassing sales of sheet music and piano rolls. The music industry, ever keen to discover new ways of making profits, realized that record, sheet music and piano roll sales could all be tied together. The “song plugger” was born: a person who worked to make sure his company’s tunes would be performed by dance bands or by singers, live and on records, ever hopeful of a “hit.”

The decade marked the beginning of independent (or indie) record companies, smaller operations that weren’t afraid to take a chance on music and artists that the bigger companies shied away from. Some of the great early jazz, blues and country performers appeared on indie labels like Gennett, Paramount and Okeh.

Toward the end of the decade, radio went from being an expensive novelty into a major purveyor of inexpensive entertainment. With the beginning of the Great Depression, phonograph and sheet music sales would plummet and radio would become the most important medium in the music industry. As a result, indie record companies went bankrupt or merged with the bigger companies, and similar operations wouldn’t emerge again until the late 1930s.

By the late 1920s motion pictures had gone from silent to sound, creating another medium for the sale of sheet music and phonograph records. Soon Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songwriters would be exercising their craft for films.

The 1920s in Jazz

Jazz music, which had originated in New Orleans in the early 1900s, began to spread throughout the country by the late ‘teens. As more employment opportunities opened up in the North, especially in Chicago and the Midwest, both black and white musicians from New Orleans moved to Chicago. Prohibition and the advent of the “speakeasy” created many opportunities for musicians in small cabarets, dance halls and ballrooms.

Beginning in 1922, Gennett Records, an indie company located in Richmond, Indiana, began recording jazz groups performing in Chicago. The first group they recorded was the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, followed in 1923 by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with young lion Louis Armstrong on second cornet. That same year Gennett waxed a series of solo piano recordings by Jelly Roll Morton. The following year they recorded The Wolverines, a northern group which had been influenced by both the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and King Oliver’s Jazz Band and featured the up-and-coming cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Another indie company in Chicago, Paramount Records, was competing with Gennett and Okeh for jazz talent. (King Oliver’s band recorded for all three companies during 1923.)

By mid-decade jazz musicians, whose skills were honed playing the free wheeling, collectively improvised jazz of the late ‘teens and early ‘20s, were more often in reading bands performing popular tunes of the day and taking the occasional “hot” solo. Although commonly referred to as the “Jazz Age,” in retrospect the era would be more reasonably named the “Dance Age,” as America went crazy for dances like the Charleston and the Black Bottom, and the music they danced to was played by seven- to twelve-piece dance orchestras. In New York, a popular dance orchestra led by pianist Fletcher Henderson had been playing a more ragtime-influenced style of jazz until trumpeter Louis Armstrong joined up in 1925, causing a profound change in the group’s sound. Another New Orleans native, Sidney Bechet, master of the soprano saxophone, caused a similar change in the orchestra of Duke Ellington and subsequently influenced many of the decade’s saxophonists.

Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophonist with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, fell under the influence of both Armstrong and Bechet, and his style would be the primary influence on tenor players until Lester Young’s arrival on the scene in the 1930s.

The blues, which had influenced jazz from the beginning, became increasingly popular due to singers like Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith---the latter selling thousands of discs, including a national hit, “Down Hearted Blues.”

A white cornetist from Davenport, Iowa, Bix Beiderbecke, rose to prominence with The Wolverines then joined the dance bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. His influence would be widespread, continuing into the 1930s. A number of young white musicians who would become stars in the 1930s, like clarinetist Benny Goodman, trombonists Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller, and cornetist Red Nichols, began their careers working in dance bands in the 1920s.

From the mid-to-late ‘20s, Chicago’s prominence as a center for jazz would wane, and New York, already the center of the music industry, would be the magnet drawing musicians from other parts of the nation. At the same time Kansas City, with its many nightclubs, cabarets and dance halls, created a haven for jazz musicians in the South and Midwest.

The 1920s in Song

The popular song form (a 32-bar piece of music with four eight-bar sections) became the norm and would continue until the advent of rock-n-roll. Songs of the ‘20s can loosely be characterized as happy-go-lucky, “rainbow ‘round my shoulder” ditties with catchy melodies and relatively simple harmonies. Coming from Tin Pan Alley composers, these songs comprise the largest bulk of popular favorites during the 1920s. Here’s a brief song list of million-seller records of the decade:

  • Whispering
  • “Wang Wang Blues”
  • “Wabash Blues”
  • Linger Awhile
  • Who
  • My Blue Heaven
  • Sonny Boy
  • “The Prisoner’s Song”
  • “April Showers”
  • “My Mammy“
  • “Dreamy Melody”
  • “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More”

Of these twelve, only two “(Who” and “Sonny Boy”) are from Broadway shows. The underlined tunes are in the 1000 jazz standards list. Two of the tunes use the word “blues” as part of the title but aren’t really twelve-bar blues.

Based on recordings, jazz musicians in the 1920s were able to perform some original material (and compositions targeted for jazz musicians), but recording company executives wanted popular songs, too. Some of these tunes became enduring jazz standards, such as:

Generally, music written by Broadway composers, such as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans and Cole Porter, wouldn’t begin to find its way into the jazz repertoire until the 1930s, as musicians became more attuned to sophisticated melodies and harmonies.

Jazz Standards from the 1920s
Year Rank Title
1929 12 Star Dust
1929 15 Honeysuckle Rose
1925 16 Sweet Georgia Brown
1924 18 The Man I Love
1924 22 Oh, Lady Be Good!

Click here to see the full list for this period
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