11 2.4. The Jazz Age

The Jazz Age was the period roughly coinciding with the 1920s (ending with the The Great Depression) when jazz music and dance became popular. This occurred particularly in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, France, and other countries. Jazz played a significant part in wider cultural changes during the period, and its influence on pop culture continued long afterwards.

African Americans

The birth of jazz music is often accredited to African Americans[1] but expanded and modified to become socially acceptable to middle-class white Americans. White performers were used as a vehicle for the popularization of jazz music in America. Even though the jazz movement was taken over by the middle class white population, it facilitated the mesh of African American traditions and ideals with the white middle class society.[2] Cities like New York and Chicago were cultural centers for jazz, and especially for African American artists.


The spread of jazz was encouraged by the introduction of large-scale radio broadcasts in 1922,[3] which meant Americans were able to experience different styles of music without physically visiting a jazz club. The radio provided Americans with a trendy new avenue for exploring the world through broadcasts and concerts from the comfort of their living room.[4] The most popular type of radio show was a “potter palm”: amateur concerts and big-band jazz performances broadcasted from cities like New York and Chicago.[5] Jazz artists like Louis Armstrong originally received very little airtime because most stations preferred to play the music of white American jazz singers. In urban areas, African American jazz was played on the radio more often than in the suburbs.[6] Big-band jazz, like that of James Reese Europe and Fletcher Henderson in New York, was also popular on the radio.[7]


1920s youth used the influence of jazz to rebel against the traditional culture of previous generations.[8] This youth rebellion of the 1920s went hand-in-hand with fads like bold fashion statements (flappers) and new radio concerts. Dances like the Charleston, developed by African Americans, suddenly became popular among younger demographics.[9]


With the women’s suffrage at its peak in the 1920s and the entrance of the flapper women began to make a statement within society and the Jazz Age was not immune to these new ideals. With women now taking part in the work force after the end of the First World War there were many more possibilities for women in terms of social life and entertainment. Ideas like equality and free sexuality were very popular during the time and women seemed to capitalize during this period. The 1920s saw the emergence of many famous women musicians including Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith also gained attention because she was not only a great singer but also an African American woman. She has grown through the ages to be one of the most well respected singers of all time. Singers such as Billie Holiday all the way to Janis Joplin are said to have been inspired by Bessie Smith.[10] Another exception to the common stereotype of women at this time was piano player Lil Hardin Armstrong. She was given the piano part in her husband’s big band radio performance series called Hot Five and then his next series called the Hot Seven [11] It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that many women jazz singers, such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday were recognized as successful artists in the music world.[12] These women were persistent in striving to make their names known in the music industry and lead the way for many more women artists to come.[13]

Classical music

As jazz flourished, American elites who preferred classical music sought to expand the listenship of their favored genre, hoping that jazz wouldn’t become mainstream.[14] Conversely, jazz became an influence on composers as diverse as George Gershwin and Herbert Howells.


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