White Audience (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

White Audince (Jazz Age Jazz Series) Black jazz was wild and free, white jazz was mellow and more sophisticated. They were hardly the same music in the 1920s

Jazz Age Jazz - White Audince

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The history of jazz in the 1920s always ran on two separate tracks: black jazz on the one hand, white jazz on the other, and really very seldom they crossed paths.
These were almost two separate forms of art, happening in very different environments and following very different performing practices.

Black jazz was much more intuitive, was often more lively and relied on call-and-response both among musicians and between performers and audience.
White jazz sought more symphonic orchestrations, tended to be more mellow and less syncopated, and the call-and-response especially between performers and audience was less prominent.

Nick LaRocca

Nick LaRocca

In many respects, it could be argued that white jazz in the 1920s was less revolutionary than black jazz, and still it was far more popular and received a lot more recognition.
One of the reasons is that the first instrumental recordings specifically labelled ‘jazz’ featured the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white band from New Orleans lead by Nick LaRocca. This record was a huge success, it sold over one million copies and made jazz known to a wide public, even the one who didn’t frequented nightclubs and speakeasies.

Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman

Although subsequently many black jazzmen recorded their music, white musicians had always an easier access to recording.
One of these musicians, Paul Whiteman, is probably the most popular of his time. In the 1920s, he was the King of Jazz in most people’s mind. Besides, a large part of the public didn’t’ even have access to black-and-tan and black clubs, where most black musicians were more popular. Slumming was in vogue, but only a small amount of the public actually did it. So, between the limited access to authentic black jazz and the actual attempt at appropriation that white musicians and especially white critics were pursuing, a large part of the 1920s public were never aware that jazz had originated in the black community and was still prominently an African American form of art.

Some white performers perfected what became known as ‘nut jazz’. They consciously distorted blue notes and turned them into grossly exaggerated groans, growls, moans and laugh.
On the other side of the spectrum, other performers adopted the opposite strategy and ‘diluted’ or ‘refined’ blue notes by de-emphasising them. Because this kind of jazz was what was more often recorded (because it was played prominently by whites), it was also what became more popular, which marginalised most black and some white musicians who remained wedded to participatory and improvisational jazz performance.



Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

PBD Official Site – The Devil’s Music: 1920s jazz


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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

20 Comments on "White Audience (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. Sort of like saying something is “country” music when that means so many things! Bluegrass, classic country and that slick rap style stuff they promote now. I actually like both styles of jazz. Although I do lean more to the black style.
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…Tender Years: VBS, Sunbeams & Sunday SchoolMy Profile

    • I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz this month, searching for the right clip to post. Even if I’m not an expert, I do hear a difference between the two styles.

  2. Not remotely shocked about the white appropriation of the whole of Jazz and the muddying of its roots. At least history is beginning to take off the white wash these days.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…W – Sam Wheat & Myrtle Warren – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • Trying to be as objective as possible is the best we can do. But I’d like to hear what people will think of our ‘objectivity’ in one hundred years 😉

  3. It’s a pity that performers had to be white to be popular.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – W is for Willful – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

  4. I think the whole “slumming” thing had two purposes. First, of course, was to enjoy the music but I also think it made a lot of people feel very sophisticated and avant guarde.

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    Kathleen Valentine recently posted…W is for Wapiti & The Wilds: Blogging the #AtoZchallengeMy Profile

  5. I didn’t realize there was such a strong divide between black and white jazz, maybe because jazz today doesn’t really make the distinction.
    Megan Morgan recently posted…W – Winding Up the ClimaxMy Profile

  6. There was a disparity between black and white jazz music and musicians even then!!
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Will Power #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  7. Intriguing! I read some about white and black jazz when I took a class on Cold War era cultural diplomacy, and how Americans promoted jazz abroad…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
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  8. I must catch up with your posts as I’d planned to follow you through the month – so much to do, so little time 🙂
    Jemima Pett
    Jemima Pett recently posted…W is for Windemere #atozchallengeMy Profile

    • They will be all here, Jemima.
      I know, April is always such a busy month. Mine was just crazy… and not just because of the challenge. But we’ll have all the time we want to catch up 😉

  9. I first heard about Paul Whiteman in a Rap Critic review awhile back, when the Rap Critic was discussing cultural appropriation of Black music going back a long way. It’s kind of funny how the name of a popular white jazz musician was Whiteman.

    A blessing in disguise is that some white people were inspired to seek out the original versions of these songs, and from there discovered other African–American musicians and singers.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Grand Duchess Xenia (Kseniya) AleksandrovnaMy Profile

    • It’s especially true for musicians. Many white jazzmen went to black establishments to listen to the African-American masters and learn from them. They even played together at times, which is one of the first forms of integration in music.
      But ‘outside’ the business, on the customers’ side – that was a completely different matter.

      I always found it funny too that the most popular white jazzmen was called Whiteman. Kind of ironic.

  10. Yes I see what you mean. It does have a very white sound, a very clean sound too in comparison with black jazz. Interesting that a lot of whites thought Jazz had originated with them!

    • White and black jazz had a very different sounds, isn’t it? I’m no expert, and yet even I can hear it.
      But then, every culture interprete music its own way, so I suppose this is normal 🙂

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