Styles & Forms | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

The 1920s was, without doubt, the Jazz Age. Workers and the newly burgeoning middle class turned into consumers due to relatively higher wages. The international political advantages that came from having just won a major war buttressed a ‘lost generation’ of artistic types, who took up residence in Europe.

New moral codes, sophistication and cynicism abounded. Some African-Americans benefited from the prosperity, but far from all of them. It was the age of the Harlem Renaissance, of black sports heroes, black revues on Broadway and exotic ‘jungle music’ in New York and abroad. Yet the Great Migration brought tens of thousands of former farm workers from the southern US to northern industrial areas, seeking jobs and fairer treatment. Although in many ways conditions were better than they had been back home, racist oppression did not end. Corrupt urban governments and landlords exploited the new immigrant population, while employers and labour unions prevented black workers from earning wages equivalent to those of their white counterparts. Meanwhile, back in the South, with the Ku Klux Klan trumpeting white supremacy, it sometimes seemed as though conditions were scarcely better than they had been under slavery.

Against the backdrop of new wealth juxtaposed with poverty and desperation, blues and jazz grew and took root as never before among African-Americans, white Americans and audiences overseas. Advances in the recording industry and radio broadcasts made them fully fledged popular musics. From acoustic guitar pickers on the streets of Texas towns to the ‘classic blues’ that women sang in well-appointed theatres backed by jazz musicians, from New Orleans orphan trumpeters to would-be Dukes from black Washington, listeners and dancers responded to a newly charged atmosphere of interchange, creativity and inspiration.

Sources & Sounds

The 1920s saw the shift of both jazz and blues music from their bases in particular communities to more widespread audiences, through touring, migration, the more frequent recording and increased circulation of jazz and blues records, and radio broadcasts.

With many seminal jazz figures heading north, the epicentre of jazz moved from its birthplace in New Orleans to Chicago. One of the events that caused this mass exodus of pioneering musicians from the Crescent City was the official closing of Storyville, the city’s red-light district, in 1917. In 1898, in an attempt to control prostitution, alderman Sidney Story had proposed a city ordinance to confine illegal trafficking to an area of New Orleans bordered on the north by Robertson and on the south by Basin Street. He was determined that such vice would be contained within this area, which became known as Storyville. It flourished as a red-light district for 20 years, providing many musicians with gainful employment in the various sporting houses that flourished there. In 1898, there were about 2,200 registered prostitutes working and advertising their services in Storyville, but by 1917, that number had dwindled to 388 and so the employment possibilities for jazz musicians were severely diminished. Storyville was eventually closed for good by the Navy on the grounds that...

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


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