Series Preview: The Jazz Era

Between 1920 and the mid 1950s, the orchestrated sounds of Jazz would take over the American commercial song market. Whether the light and breezy sounds of jazz bands during the 1920s and 1930s or the lush sounds of backing orchestras of the crooner years in the 1940s and early 1950s, this was an era marked by a certain style in both music and the celebrity achieved by success of recording artists in the music industry. This essay will explore the topics of the forthcoming Pop Song History essay series on the Jazz Era, including the various ways in which American social history, music trends, music technology and music industry collide to produce commercial success of titles, fads and trends of songs. Below are the sorts of subjects which will this blog will explore in detail in the forth coming series about the Jazz Era of Pop Song History.

Throughout the Jazz Era, American cultural and social history seems inextricably linked to each decade and this series will explore the changes in American society in association with the kind of songs Americans were listening to and purchasing. The 1920s would be the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties Jazz Age, flapper girls, Jazz babies and the mindset of American rebellion against the laws of Prohibition. It would also be a politically conservative time following Progressive Era reforms including seemingly endless speculation into investments and the stock market and by a Red Scare that had been “simmering just beneath the skin of American tolerance” during the early 1920s.[1] By the early 1930s, the economic and social lives of most Americans were turned upside down imparted by a catastrophic financial collapse of the Great Depression, continued economic stagnation and a decade of government attempts to rebuild the American economy from the ashes of financial tumult. Those in the Great Plains would face environmental difficulties on agricultural life in the Plains due to an oppressive drought and the resulting Dust Bowl years. The 1940s would see the United States engaged in another World War just over twenty years after concluding the First World War. Fears of Communism would be characteristic of this time with an Iron Curtain of Soviet sphere of influence sweeping over Eastern Europe and the American paranoia of a nuclear stalemate of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons and engaging in espionage. During the 1950s, financial security for many American brought an era and prosperity on a mass scale[2] and helped to create the sort of consumerism characteristic of the modern American economy. The new mass culture of America in the 1950s would also produce angst among many children of the Jazz Era who would eventually embrace a new style of Rock and Roll music. All throughout these decades, jazz music and style would reign supreme on the music market.

The Jazz Era, from beginning to end, would be characterised by style, not just musically, but also in the fashions, art, and architecture of these decades. During the 1920s and 1930s, for example, a new simpler Art Deco style became popular in art, jewellery, graphic design, fashion and architecture, the aesthetics of which are more dictated by compositional design characteristic of straight lines rather than the flourishes and embellishments of the Art Nouveau period popular during the Ragtime Era. It was an era in which Jazz bands and their leaders took the stage wearing smart-looking tuxedos and suits and female singers donned au current fashions. Beginning with a trend in so-called “oriental numbers” describing the far-off lands that had perfectly suited the minor keys of early jazz; Jazz music would evolve into a carefully arranged and harmonised style of swing by 1935.[3] By the end of the Jazz Era, Jazz music would transform from pop music phenomenon to the status of de facto American classical music and composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis to Charlie Parker are still renown for their compositions that transcend the relatively simple format of song. But not all music from the Jazz Era was explicitly jazzy. Traditional song styles of rural America like blues, country and folk music would get the commercial treatment and then transform to cultivated commercial pop song success. In the 1940s, there would be official charts measuring the nationwide popularity of songs; with R&B and Country charts documenting their respective commercial popularity by the end of the 1940s. While Jazz genre and styles associated with it are featured in the very name of the era, not everything released during this periods was about jazz.

Old methods of music production and recording pioneered during the Ragtime Era would fall by the wayside throughout the Jazz Era as new technology developed for recording and delivering music to consumers and audiences. The old business model of Tin Pan Alley song plugging from the stage would fall out of favour by the 1930s, when the theatre business slumped during the Great Depression and particularly when radio broadcasting music and variety programmes flourished.[4] Movies musicals coming from the studios of Los Angeles found a mass audience nearly as soon as movies featured sound in the late 1920s and songs found popularity after their inclusion in movies. During this time, music business celebrity would transfer from songwriter to popular recording star or band leaders. Arranged orchestras and their bandleaders would remain popular up until the mid 1940s, thereafter, a music industry awash in popular crooners took over the music market throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. New record labels like Okeh, Capitol, Brunswick and Decca would come onto the market and challenge older established names like Victor and Columbia, some of these new labels releasing niche specialty music that would eventually find pop success. Record companies faced the changing realities of music broadcasting when radio and eventually television brought new music directly in the homes of Americans for free. But perhaps the greatest transformation of music industry during this era was the transformation from acoustic recording and playback to electronics. It was a time period in which new inventions like speakers, radio, microphones created a much higher fidelity music product than the acoustic methods of the phonograph.[5] Throughout the Jazz Era, technological advancement continued to bring new products and recording techniques to the music market, but this advancement also brought changes in the music market when broadcasting began to delivery music directly into the home of potential music consumers.

Just as interesting as it is to investigate the trends and changes in the music industry during the Jazz Era, it is also interesting to note who is recording the music and providing the product to consumers. Throughout the era, the home piano would become something of a relic and Americans would continue to opt for purchasing pre-recorded music rather than producing it themselves at home with sheet music. Obviously, the most associated musicians of the time were band leaders and the various orchestras of the jazz and swing periods. Also prominent throughout this period in relation to jazz proper was the “age of the Soloist” [6] in which talented instrumentalists and scat vocalists showed their skills by improvising on melodies, a staple of the early New Orleans Jazz scene going as far back as the 1890s. Also during this time, the feature, a common method of song construction in the twenty-first century Club Banger Era, in which rappers are featured on pop tunes and pop singers on hip-hop tracks, would debut in the jazz era through the employment of a crooner, like Gene Austin or Bing Crosby, who would provide the accompanying vocals of jazz band orchestras. Perhaps even more telling about this time period in America commercial history is the increasingly important role of the African American musician and composer, with various race records featuring the voices of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and the jazz performances of Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton gaining mass commercial popularity. The new development of sound and music accompanying movies would produce movie stars like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland owning their place in pop song history with tremendously successful songs. Individuals recording the music would achieve their own level of celebrity and by the late 1940s, crooners would be national stars and media staples of radio, film and television.

How people get music will also be explored throughout this series on the Jazz Era. With the wax cylinder in a precipitous decline throughout the 1910s, the disc record, and particular the 78rpm disc, would remain the dominant format throughout three decades. Discs would remain the favoured method for hard-copy music and in the late 1940s, a format battle would take place between companies developing the 45rpm single and those producing the long play record, a format which would bring the album prominence that dominated the music industry of the subsequent Rock and Roll Era. How music fits in with social spaces is also a theme which this series will explore. Films, talkies and movie musicals would proliferate the 1930s and 1940s and songs would pop from this new technological development. With the rise of the 45 single, the Jukebox would come into social spaces in much the same way that the phonograph did in the early 1890s, but the Jukebox would allow the consumer to choose the title with the jukebox’s large capacity to hold records.[7] But hard copy music was not the only methods by which music consumers had access to music and broadcasting would come of age during the Jazz Era, music plugging would be achieved through radio and television broadcasts. Beginning with radio in the 1920s, which allowed people access to news, radio variety shows and music delivered directly to the home of audiences for free, and the new era of broadcasting would challenge the status quo of music licensing law once again. Eventually in the 1950s, popular nationally broadcast television programmes like the Lawrence Welk Show also brought music into people’s home, and thanks to sponsorship and advertising, this would also be for free. Throughout the Jazz Era, how consumers had access to music also shows the changes in the music industry and such topics will be explored as well during this series of Pop Song History.

Indeed, this period in pop song history had some of the most spectacular changes in the social, technological, business and song trends of any period in American history. As well, some of the most beloved songs, which have become standards in the American song catalogue were released and recorded during the Jazz Era. The list of songs recorded and written between 1920 and 1954, the so-called “golden age of American song,”[8] that have become well-loved standards is lengthy and includes some influential titles like Swanee, Song of India, Down Hearted Blues, California Here I Come, Tea for Two, Sweet Georgia Brown, My Blue Heaven, Cheek to Cheek, Paper Doll, Over the Rainbow, Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Pennies from Heaven, A Fine Romance, A-Tisket A-Tasket, In the Mood, A String of Pearls, Begin the Beguine, Don’t Fence Me In, Beer Barrel Polka, Tuxedo Junction, and a score of other popular song titles, including the most popular and most commercially successful song in American history, White Christmas. The Pop Song History blog will explore this golden period of commercial song history and provide a number of interesting essays about the Jazz Era in the months to come. Stay tuned…

References

Bindas, Kenneth J. Swing, That Modern Sound. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press.   2001.

Burg, Daniel F. The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File. 1996.

Carlton, Don E. Red Scare: Right Wing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism and Their Legacy in Texas. Austin, TX: Texas Monthly Press. 1985.

Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

Taintor, Callie. “Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry.” PBS.org. Accessed 10 November 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/music/inside/cron.html.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History, 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2010.

[1] Don E. Carlton, Red Scare: Right Wing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism and Their Legacy in Texas, (Austin, TX: Texas Monthly Press, 1985), 135.

[2] George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America: A Narrative History, 8th ed, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 1244.

[3] Kenneth J Bindas, Swing, that Modern Sounds, (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2001), 3.

[4] Daniel F. Burg, The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History, (New York: Facts on File, 1996), 74-75.

[5] Callie Taintor, “Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry,” PBS.org, Frontline, accessed 10 November 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/music/inside/cron.html.

[6] Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 2nd ed, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 53.

[7] Taintor, “Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry.”

[8] Philip Furia, Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 117.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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