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The Jazz Age

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History

The Jazz Age was an era in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s when jazz music and dance styles quickly gained nationwide popularity. Why did jazz become so popular during this time, and what did it have to do with social change in the United States? Let’s learn about the reasons for the rise of jazz, some of the jazz greats, and the cultural impact.

How would we describe the Jazz Age?

The Jazz Age occurred in America during the Roaring Twenties, which saw an economic boom and a general rise in living standards. The Jazz Age represented a cultural change in American society this new style of music and dance stemmed from African American culture, which the masses appreciated and copied.

Jazz music spread throughout the country, although it was concentrated in urban cities such as New York and Chicago. This African American form of self-expression and artistic creation reached across racial lines and became an essential part of the lifestyle of white middle-class youth.

This era is one of the most progressive periods for American youth. It saw the transformation of American youth culture with the rise of extravagant parties, alcohol consumption, miscegenation, dance, and general euphoria.

The Jazz Age facts and timeline

  • The most famous book based on the Jazz Age is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - it was actually Fitzgerald that popularised the term 'Jazz Age'.
  • Jazz became more popular when white jazz musicians emerged, despite it being rooted in African American culture.
  • A key part of jazz is improvisation.
Below are some key events that took place during the 1920s relating to jazz.
YearEvents
1921
  • A town in Illinois banned jazz music, on the basis that it was 'sinful'
1922
  • Mamie Smith, a blues singer, recorded twenty songs
1923
  • King Oliver's band including Louis Armstrong recorded its first songs
  • Bessie Smith sold 1 million copies of her first record within six months
1924
  • George Gershwin debuted Rhapsody in Blue
  • Duke Ellington recorded his first pieces with his band The Washingtonians
1925
  • James P Johnson recorded Charleston, which led to the popularisation of the famous dance.
1926
  • Louis Armstrong pioneered scat singing.
1927
  • Duke Ellington began his residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
1928
  • Benny Goodman recorded his first pieces.
1929
  • Fats Waller, a pianist, was forced to play behind a screen during a mixed-race recording session.

Popularisation of jazz in the 1920s

So what exactly led to this popularisation of jazz? What was special about the 1920s?

The Great Migration

The Great Migration began around 1915 and was a mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to escape oppression. Many of them moved to northern cities. This influx of African Americans was crucial to the emergence of the Jazz Age jazz has its roots in African American culture and the New Orleans area of Louisiana in particular.Many jazz musicians emigrated directly from New Orleans to the northern states, including the famous Louis Armstrong. Although he is said to have followed his musical mentor, he represents the cultural impact of African American migration.African Americans brought jazz with them, took advantage of the freedoms they enjoyed in the North compared to the South and participated in the party culture.

The Jazz Age African American women in Harlem in 1925 StudySmarterAfrican American women in Harlem in 1925, Wikimedia Commons

The Roaring Twenties

The economic boom of the 1920s provided many Americans with the financial security they had not experienced before. This security led to a period of increased consumerism and increased involvement in social activities and events.

Radio became increasingly popular as an entertainment medium in the 1920s, exposing more Americans to jazz music. In addition, expendable income combined with the availability of Model T Ford cars in the 1920s meant that many families owned a car, giving young people more freedom to drive to parties and social events where jazz was played. Average Americans danced the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Black Bottom’ to their favourite jazz song.

Jazz recording

One of the main reasons jazz music could transcend the limitations of African American music was the advent of mass recording on the radio. In its original and African American form, jazz was limited to more ‘urban’ radio stations. However, radio stations began to expand their reach in the Jazz Age, catapulting this art form into the mainstream.In the 1920s, radio stations began to play African American jazz nationwide, and as more and more Americans owned radios, this ‘new’ style took over America.

The Jazz Age African American women in Harlem in 1925 StudySmarterAfrican American women in Harlem in 1925, Wikimedia Commons

The Roaring Twenties

The economic boom of the 1920s provided many Americans with the financial security they had not experienced before. This security led to a period of increased consumerism and increased involvement in social activities and events.

Radio became increasingly popular as an entertainment medium in the 1920s, exposing more Americans to jazz music. In addition, expendable income combined with the availability of Model T Ford cars in the 1920s meant that many families owned a car, giving young people more freedom to drive to parties and social events where jazz was played. Average Americans danced the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Black Bottom’ to their favourite jazz song.

Jazz recording

One of the main reasons jazz music could transcend the limitations of African American music was the advent of mass recording on the radio. In its original and African American form, jazz was limited to more ‘urban’ radio stations. However, radio stations began to expand their reach in the Jazz Age, catapulting this art form into the mainstream.In the 1920s, radio stations began to play African American jazz nationwide, and as more and more Americans owned radios, this ‘new’ style took over America.

Although radio stations began to play black music and art in spaces previously reserved for predominantly white musicians, racial discrimination still played an important role in marginalising African American artists in the Jazz Age. As jazz became mainstream, white artists who rose to prominence received much more radio air time than their African American counterparts, such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Nevertheless, several African American artists emerged from obscurity as respected jazz musicians during this era.

Social life in the Jazz Age

As we have noted, the Jazz Age was not just about the music, but about American culture in general. So what would it have been like to live in America during the Jazz Age?

Prohibition

The Jazz Age coincided with the ‘Period of Prohibition’ between 1920 and 1933, when it was illegal to make or sell alcohol.

Hang on, didn’t we say the Jazz Age was a time of partying and drinking?Well, Prohibition was extremely unsuccessful because it simply drove the alcohol industry underground. There were more and more clandestine bars called ‘speakeasies’. In the 1920s, alcohol consumption did not decrease, but there was more partying and drinking. In these secret bars, it was common to play jazz music, and so this can also be seen as a reason for the popularisation of jazz.

The Jazz Age prohibition agents destroying a bar StudySmarterProhibition agents destroying a bar, US National Archives

Women in the Jazz Age

This era also saw the most surprising and progressive development of women’s role in society. Although women were excluded from economic and political advancements, they were granted an increasingly important role in society and entertainment in the Jazz Age.

The Jazz Age saw the rise of the ‘flappers young American women who participated in acts considered untraditional and unfeminine. Flappers drank, smoked, partied, dared to dance, and engaged in other typically masculine activities.

The flappers represented a wave of independence and defied the traditional role of women. They were characterised mainly by their extravagant and provocative dressing style.

This era also gave some African American women a small place in the jazz music industry, such as Bessie Smith. However, the role of women was still largely limited to popularising dances and appealing to the men of the era.

The Jazz Age 1920s flapper StudySmarterA ‘flapper’ from the 1920s, George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress

Jazz greats

Although the radio era was largely devoted to white jazz artists, those considered jazz greats are predominantly African American. In a time of continued racial inequality, this speaks to the progressive nature of the era and the tremendous impact these musicians had on African American progress.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was a New York-based jazz composer and pianist who led a jazz orchestra beginning in 1923. Ellington conducted the orchestra, which many historians and musicians consider the finest jazz orchestra ever formed. Ellington is considered a revolutionary in jazz composition, and his musical leadership and talent undeniably played a crucial role in the Jazz Age.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans and became famous for playing the trumpet. Armstrong is considered influential in the development of jazz through his groundbreaking solo performances as opposed to collective performances. Armstrong moved to Chicago in 1922, where his fame grew and his talents entered into the urban jazz era.

Harlem Renaissance

The Jazz Age also coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, when African American art, culture, literature, poetry, and music flourished. It began in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City, and jazz music played a major role in this cultural movement. Duke Ellington is one of the great representatives of the Harlem Renaissance.

The 1920s were a time of contrasts. Whilst African American music was becoming more popular and black Americans were enjoying more freedoms than before, this period also saw a major resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. By the mid-1920s, the KKK had about 3.8 million members, and in August 1925, 40,000 Klansmen paraded in Washington DC.

What was the cultural impact of the Jazz Age?

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the extravagance of the Jazz Age ended, although the music remained popular. By the end of the 1920s, American society had changed, thanks in no small part to jazz.This era redefined the role of African Americans. African Americans could gain a foothold in the entertainment industry and achieve wealth and prestige. African Americans were allowed to mingle with white Americans and had access to the same cultural spaces as their white counterparts. This was relatively unprecedented, especially considering that African Americans who had recently arrived from the South were subject to segregation under Jim Crow laws.

Although racial discrimination persisted and America still had a long way to go before achieving racial equality, opportunities opened up for African Americans they would never have realised had they remained in the South.Women also saw their role change. Although it was not institutional, the Jazz Age represented a cultural shift that allowed women to be more expressive and penetrate traditionally male areas.

The Jazz Age - Key takeaways

  • The Jazz Age was a movement that occurred in the Roaring Twenties in the US. It consisted of the popularisation of a ‘new’ style of music and dance that had African American and New Orleanian roots.
  • Jazz music developed into an essential part of the lifestyle of the young white middle class.
  • Jazz Age musicians were mainly confined to urban cities and areas such as New York and Chicago, but the reach of their music was nationwide.
  • One of the main reasons jazz music could transcend the boundaries of the African American population was the rise of mass radio recording.
  • White artists became well known after they embraced jazz music and received much more radio air time than African Americans.
  • During the Jazz Age, the role of women changed with the advent of the ‘flappers’.
  • The Jazz Age also coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American art, culture, literature, poetry and music.
  • The Great Migration, the Roaring Twenties, jazz recording, and Prohibition all contributed to the emergence of the Jazz Age.

The Jazz Age

F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and set in the Jazz Age.

The Jazz Age was a period of social transformation in America. It saw the popularisation of an African American form of music with the mass migration of Black Americans from the rural south and it also transformed American youth culture and the role of women. 

The Jazz Age was an era in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s in which jazz music and dance styles rapidly gained nationwide popularity.

The Jazz age coincided with the prohibition of alcohol and the development of 'speakeasies'. It also saw the Harlem Renaissance which was an era when African American art, culture, literature, poetry and music flourished, concentrated in the Harlem area of New York. On the other hand, it also saw a huge revival in the KKK when it reached its peak membership.

Final The Jazz Age Quiz

Question

How did the national prohibition promote the Jazz Age?

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Answer

The alcohol industry went underground, leading to a growth in secret bars labelled ‘speakeasies’. Although alcohol was illegal, this era saw a nationwide rise in partying and drinking, allowing for a rise in Jazz music.

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Question

Name two Jazz musicians from the Jazz Age.

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Answer

Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

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Question

What was the role of women in the Jazz Age?

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Answer

Young American women defied gender norms by engaging in acts that would have been deemed untraditional and unfeminine.

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Question

How did the Great Migration promote the Jazz Age?

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Answer

Originating in New Orleans, jazz music came to Northern urban cities with the mass migration of African Americans, bringing some of the jazz greats directly to the Jazz Age.

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Question

How did the Roaring Twenties promote the Jazz Age?

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Answer

Many Americans, though not all, experienced levels of financial security, leading them to engage in various social activities and events. Many Americans liked to party and dance, and from this, jazz music experienced a boom.

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Question

Where does Jazz originate from?

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Answer

New Orleans.

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Question

How did radio promote the Jazz Age?

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Answer

Jazz music could transcend the barrier of African American exposure due to the rise of mass radio recording.

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Question

Which group of artists got more airplay?

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Answer

White Americans.

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Question

What was the Harlem Renaissance?

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Answer

The Harlem Renaissance was an era of African American art, culture, literature, poetry and music that began in the New York area of Harlem.

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Question

How did the Jazz Age improve race relations?

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Answer

In this era, African Americans were allowed to enter social spaces they had once been denied access to and intermingle with White Americans.

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