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Jazz By Decade: 1920 - 1930

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Previous Decade: 1910 – 1920

The decade between 1920 and 1930 marked many crucial events in jazz. It all started with the prohibition of alcohol in 1920. Rather than quell drinking, the act simply forced it into speakeasies and private residences, and inspired a wave of jazz-accompanied and booze-fueled rent parties.

The audience for jazz was broadening, thanks to an increase in recordings cut, and to the popularity of jazz-inflected pop music such as that of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Also, New Orleans began to lose its centrality in musical output, as musicians moved to Chicago and New York City. Chicago briefly enjoyed being the capitol of jazz, partly because it was home to Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong.

New York’s scene increased as well. James P. Johnson’s 1921 recording of “Carolina Shout” bridged the gap between ragtime and more advanced jazz styles. In addition, big bands began to pop up throughout the city. Duke Ellington moved to New York in 1923, and four years later became the leader of the house band at the Cotton Club.

In 1922, Coleman Hawkins moved to New York, where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Inspired by Louis Armstrong who briefly toured with the group, Hawkins resolved to create an individualistic improvisation style.

The primacy of the soloist was budding thanks to Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings on Okeh Records. Famous songs included “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” and “Big Butter and Egg Man.” Saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s virtuosity was documented as well, with his 1923 recording of “Wild Cat Blues” and “Kansas City Blues.”

In 1927, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke recorded “In a Mist” with C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer. Their refined and introspective approach contrasted with the gregarious New Orleans style. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young brought the style to prominence, and offered an alternative to the gruff playing of Coleman Hawkins.

It wasn’t just in tone that the two differed. Young’s specialty was embellishing and creating melodies, while Hawkins became an expert at outlining chord changes by playing arpeggios. The convergence of these two approaches were integral in the development of bebop in later years.

By featuring virtuosic soloists and performing bombastic blues arrangements, big bands, such as those led by Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, began to replace New Orleans jazz in popularity. The concentration of that popularity also began to shift from Chicago to New York, signified by Louis Armstrong’s move there in 1929.

Important Births

  • 1920 – Charlie Parker
  • 1922 – Carmen McRae
  • 1923 – Fats Navarro
  • 1924 – J.J. Johnson
  • 1925 – Oscar Peterson
  • 1926 – Miles Davis

Next Decade: 1930 – 1940

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