Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 2
The Jazz Age

After World War 1, jazz went through something of an explosion. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term The Jazz Age with his 1922 short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age. The period was also known as The Roaring Twenties. (If some of my comments seem pedestrian, please recall that original audience of these posts is a pair of young teenagers.)

Prohibition, enacted via the 18th Amendment was another factor in the growth of jazz. Because pubs and bars were closed, speakeasies,venues selling illegal alcohol, proliferated and the entertainment in these clubs tended to be jazz. Radio broadcasts from 1922 onward expanded the reach of jazz from the clubs to the general public.

And then there was the touring. “In 1919 Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band of musicians from New Orleans played in San Francisco and Los Angeles where in 1922 they became the first black jazz band of New Orleans origin to make recordings.” ( Ory’s Creole Trombone has a definite Dixieland feel to it, but there’s a lot here that became standard in jazz. You can hear the theme develop in the first half of this 3-minute track and then listen for improvisations on the theme by several band members before resolving the theme in the last 15 seconds or so.

Hot Jazz took a leap in Chicago with Joseph Nathan “King” Oliver, a composer and cornet player who developed his technique with the mute. He also taught Louis Armstrong. Oliver started his career in New Orleans but left the south in 1918 for Chicago. (There’s probably a dissertation or two on how racism influenced the development of music in the north in the period before the Civil Rights era.) I’ve chosen Oliver’s Room Rent Blues as the theme of what to do when you can’t make the rent seems to come up regularly (cf John Lee Hooker’s John L’s House Rent Boogie; Bessie Smith’s House Rent Blues). Room Rent Blues also has a really sweet clarinet solo.

A note on instrumentation. In jazz, eventually every instrument in the orchestra came to take part. As noted in the last lesson, banjos were central to Dixieland but fell out of favor somewhat, though Oliver and Ory both called their groups Creole Jazz Bands and you’ll hear banjo and the Dixieland flavour in general in their work. The whole of the brass and woodwind sections, guitar, piano, violin, stand-up and double bass and a variety of drums all find their ways in.

And there are probably several dissertations on women in jazz. Bessie Smith, who was primarily a blues singer, came to prominence in this period. Lil Hardin (who later married Louis Armstrong) played piano with King Oliver. Josephine Baker found her initial fame in the 20s in Paris. (We’ll hear more from her in one of the next lessons.) Bessie Smith’s career is notable in a jazz context for a couple of reasons. First off is that stylistically jazz and blues music are fairly inextricable at this time. She also recorded with a large number of jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. She started performing in 1913 and landed a recording contract with Columbia in 1923. Moonshine Blues (1924) was composed by Ma Rainey, with whom Smith performed in the 1910s.

Jazz, like R&B, and later rock and roll, was a primarily black musical form which found much of its popularity when performed by white musicians. Sometimes this works to good effect, sometimes it can be rather embarrassing. That said, the man who carried the title The King of Jazz in the 1920s was a white bandleader named, no joke, Paul Whiteman. An argument can be made that the jazz his orchestra performed is rather anemic and generally catered to a conservative white audience. Note that his bands tended not to be integrated and they played from written arrangements ( On the other hand, at various times his band featured notables such as Bix Biederbecke, Bunny Berigan, and Jack Teagarden. His vocalists included Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. Whiteman’s most interesting contribution to music (not just jazz) lies in his commission of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (track 4, a recording which I’m pretty sure features Gershwin himself on piano).

Gershwin (and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin) wrote primarily for the theater, but his works include the jazz ballet An American in Paris and the score for Porgy and Bess, which itself spawned the jazz standards I Loves You Porgy and Summertime. Rhapsody in Blue takes jazz into the orchestral realm with its various movements while maintaining room for improvisation. For example, Gershwin didn’t write the score for the piano solo until after the first performance. ( I can imagine Gershwin’s “wait for nod” notation made Whitehead rather nervous, given that his band members always had scores in front of them.

Folks from the earlier decades of jazz continued to have success as well. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers notably struck with a recording of King Oliver’s Doctor Jazz (track 5).

Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke taught himself trumpet and found success with a crew called the Wolverines who had a long engagement at a speakeasy in Ohio. He recorded his own composition Davenport Blues (track 6) under the name Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers in 1925. He went on to play in Whiteman’s orchestra, but a combination of Whiteman’s heavy touring schedule and his own alcohol dependence led to his death of pneumonia at the age of 28 in 1931.

However the biggest players, especially during the late 20s, were Louis Armstrong, Earl “Fatha” Hines (who collaborated with Armstrong), and Duke Ellington.

Hines started his career as accompanist to Louis Deppe, a Pittsburgh vocalist in 1920. By 1924 he had already toured much of the country with Carroll Dickerson, a jazz violinist and band leader (Jazz violin? Yeah. Later on I’ll share some Stephane Grapelli, a French jazz voilinist whose career lasted from the 1930s to the 90s.) who would shortly incorporate Armstrong into his act. Well, read one way, that’s the case. Read another, it sounds like Armstrong and Hines turned Dickerson’s band into the first of Armstrong’s Hot Fives. Hines at this time, about 1927, took over piano duties previously performed by the aforementioned Lil Hardin. Weather Bird (track 7) comes from a 1928 recording session.

Hines’ band in the late 20s, comprising from 15 to sometimes 28 musicians, played Al Capone’s Grand Terrace three to four shows per night, six or seven nights a week, often broadcast live. It doesn’t seem as though those early broadcasts have been preserved, however At the Apex Club, with clarinettist Jimmie Noone, seems to document a small combo appearance from around this period (Apex Blues, track 8).

Armstrong started playing cornet as a child, playing seriously while doing stints in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. King Oliver was a mentor, and Armstrong’s first big break was taking Oliver’s place in Kid Ory’s band (everything’s connected!), but shortly followed Oliver up to Chicago and joined his band. After a stint with Fletcher Henderson in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago where he formed and recorded with the Hot Five and Hot Seven combos. He concluded the 20s in the orchestra of a Fats Waller review called Hot Chocolates, from which he recorded (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue (track 9) several times. As previously noted, we’ll be hearing more from Armstrong in the coming decades.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was raised in Washington DC near Dupont Circle. (In the original version of this lesson, I note the proximity of Dupont Circle to where several of my/my nieces’ relatives grew up/live.) He spent the late 1910s playing society balls and embassy parties in DC and Virginia before moving up north. A 1923 gig in Atlantic City, NJ led to what became a 4-year engagement at the Hollywood Club in New York. In 1927 King Oliver turned down an offer for his group to be the house band at the Cotton Club in Harlem, an offer Ellington didn’t refuse. In the late 20s Ellington’s band recorded under several names including The Washingtonians. I’ve included the early hit East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (track 10) because it was the first Ellington composition I ever heard (on Steely Dan’s 1974 album Pretzel Logic).

Oh, and listen, another song about getting dosh to the landlord, Rent Party Blues (track 11), recorded by Duke Ellington and the Jungle Band in 1929.

I realise looking at this list that it’s quite blues heavy, so I’ve pulled a couple more 1929 Ellington recordings, the Jungle Band’s Harlemania (track 12) and A Night at the Cotton Club (Parts 1 and 2) (tracks 13 and 14) which comprises The Cotton Club Stomp, Misty Mornin’, Goin’ To Town, and Freeze and Melt. These have the feeling of live recordings, but they don’t have the feeling of a band with the freedom to stretch beyond the 3 1/2-minute limitation of a 10” 78 rpm record. My guess is that those concert broadcasts would have had more of the improvisation heard later on recordings like Ellington’s 1940 Live at Fargo, recorded direct to 16” 33 1/3 rpm acetates on which several tracks run over 5 minutes.

We’ll definitely be hearing more from, as Stevie Wonder called him, “the king of all, Sir Duke” as well.

Next up: The Swing Era!