Styles & Forms | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

The 1950s was a big decade for blues and jazz – arguably, the biggest. In the wake of international triumph and the stirrings of empire, the US enjoyed a boom of babies, cars, television, and urban and suburban development, that trickled down to embolden a stronger movement for civil rights for black people, inspired immigration from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean ports, and normalized the spread of its cultural products worldwide.

Europe, so much harder hit by the previous decade’s war, was in a period of renewal, with the emergence of its first generation since the 1920s that could even imagine itself carefree. There were still conflicts, threats and dangers. The US brewed itself a Cold War with Communism as the bogeyman, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, and modernization had not yet arrived fully in Spain, Portugal, Greece and southern Italy as it had in Great Britain, France, Scandinavia, West Germany and the Netherlands.

What did this mean to music? Blues players, backing themselves with loud combos and staunch beats, raised a shout that echoed through the songs of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Fats Domino to be taken up by white teenagers, including one hip-shaking Elvis Presley. Jazz singers and instrumentalists, ever-more highly regarded for their swinging sophistication and lionized for their bohemian lifestyles, gained self-esteem as well as eager acolytes wherever their newly long-playing records were heard. Blues and jazz had spread wildly and widely since their first recordings in the teens and twenties. In the fifties, blues and jazz stepped out as ambassadors – and wherever they went, their call met with eager, imitative response.

Sources & Sounds

The 1950s was a period of sharp social and political contrasts. The decade is often regarded as a stultifyingly conservative and rather monochrome one, but the suburbanization and the solidification of middle-class values took place under the looming shadow of the Cold War in America and the physical separation of East and West in Europe. The threat of atomic weapons loomed large, and the ‘space race’ added further tensions to what were already fraught international relations. In Europe, wartime austerity carried on well into the 1950s, and the domination of US culture on a global basis became increasingly apparent – transmitted through media including films, music, Broadway musicals, radio and eventually television.

The US was at war in 1950, although the Truman administration referred to Korea as a ‘police action’. Dwight Eisenhower was elected President in 1952, partly on his promise to ‘go to Korea’. He fulfilled this promise and a truce was negotiated, which remains in place more than 50 years later. Eisenhower embarked on a programme of highway development so that the country became more accessible by car, making it much easier for bands to travel. Vast super-highways such as Routes 80, 40 and 10 now went from coast to coast. He also worked to abolish segregation in Washington, DC; this proved slightly more difficult.

Separate But Not


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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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