Styles & Forms | Forties | Jazz & Blues

The 1940s encompassed a wide range of musical art, reflecting extremes of economic hardship and recovery, global war and rebuilding. Empowered by necessarily full-tilt production, US industry recovered from the Depression, though the cream of its youth was siphoned off to fight on distant fronts, and returned to a strange new world.

Great Britain suffered air strikes, privations and threat of occupation – traumas which took years to heal. Continental Europe, including Russia and on to the Far East, was gripped by government-sanctioned genocide, military invasion and destruction. At the decade’s end, the world was divided by victory and defeat.

Blues and jazz, along with all the other popular musical styles and performance arts, were pressed into service during the Second World War as uplifting propaganda and social balm. Trends of the 1930s did not come to a jolting halt, but nothing was immune from change. The draft thinned the ranks of swing bands, and intense experimentation by ambitious youngsters in smaller ensembles filled the jazz air as uncommonly complicated bebop (simultaneous with a counter-restoration of New Orleans traditionalism). The youngest of the Mississippi Delta blues artists headed for Memphis and Chicago, with newly cheap electric gear; adding soulful balladry and urgent rhythms to their folky older country repertoire, they prepared a path for a whole new brand of pop music called rock’n’roll. Rock, R&B and bebop – they were not even dreamt of when the 1940s began.

Sources & Sounds

The 1940s was a decade of wrenching, often violent change in America. War clouds were on the horizon as 1939 turned into 1940. In the autumn of 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his third term as President of the United States; he created the Fair Employment Practices Committee the following year. The idea was to investigate and report on discrimination in employment. The executive order was largely ignored in the South and where changes were attempted, such as in Mobile, Alabama or Beaumont, Texas, racial violence ensued. The Roosevelt administration offered tepid support and in 1942 the committee was folded into the War Manpower Commission.

America Emerges From The Great Depression

American industry quickly geared up for the war effort. There were no new American automobiles produced between 1942–46 but defence plants were built, modified, adapted and retrofitted with astonishing quickness. Defence plants meant jobs, and the nation was finally ridding itself of the yoke of the Great Depression. Defence jobs in California meant the migration of thousands of black people from Texas and Louisiana, while jobs in the Midwest resulted in new arrivals from Mississippi and Arkansas; much of the nation’s manpower was in uniform.

The music industry was also undergoing great changes. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the performing rights society, had been challenged by a group of radio-station owners protesting the high fees for on-air musical performances. Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was formed in 1940 as an alternative and presented an opportunity for black songwriters who had been largely...

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


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