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J is for Jazz (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


The “devil’s music” had such a powerful influence on American life in the 1920s that the decade is also known as the Jazz Age.

Jazz influenced fashion, dances, accepted moral standards, youth culture, race relations. But it could also be said that all these phenomena found fitting expression in jazz music and its way of performance. It’s truly very difficult to separate one from the other.

Although it’s universally accepted that jazz as a form of artistic expression was born in the South of the United States, most probably in New Orleans, the origin of jazz is still quite mysterious and shrouded in legend. Scholars tend to think it probably emerged from the mixing and evolution of different African and European forms of music that eventually created a completely new, different musical expression.

King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band
King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band

Jazz is very difficult to define because it brings together several different elements and styles. 1920s jazz, in particular, was about breaking the rules. Instead of following traditional music structure, it realises heavily on improvisation and personal interpretation, which may factor in the lyrics, melody, harmony, time signature and in fact any element of the music. In the Twenties, jazz made its own rules, and that was seen as corruptive, barbaric, disharmonic and downright ugly. At least by academics.

In the Twenties, most of the clubs were segregated and would only allow white bands in white clubs, though some very popular black bands played also in white clubs where black customers were not allowed. Black musicians were not allowed to play in most establishments, so they played where they could, which may be brothers, speakeasies and other venues of questionable repute. Because of this association with prostitution, alcohol, gambling and organised crime, jazz was considered immoral.
It also originated within the black community, and the most popular jazzmen were African Americans. Aspiring white jazzmen went to those speakeasies to listen and learn from them.

Still, there has always been a difference between black and white jazz, and this was particularly true in the earlier decades. Jazz, as interpreted by the black community, was a lot more involving and liberating. Lyrics were often very explicit on many levels, a rough language was common. Rhythms were syncopated, and especially the relation between performers and audience was fluid and tight. The “call-and-response” technique that worked between instruments inside the band also worked between performers and audience. Hence, the one influenced the other, continuously changing both the music and the audience’s reaction. This characteristic added to the perception that jazz – and especially black jazz – was barbaric and chaotic.
White jazz tended to be more sedate, and certainly, there wasn’t that element of “call-and-response”. The audience would listen to the performers, with very little interaction.

In a moment where behaviour, ways of thinking, lifestyle were breaking loose from the past, jazz, this so new, so cutting edge music, was the ideal soundtrack for this generation.


The People History – The 1920s
University of Chicago Library – Jazz
Academia – Influence of Jazz in Women’s Fashion and Society in the 1920s
PBS – The Devil’s Music: Jazz
The Guardian – A history of Jazz
All Music – 1920s Greatest Hits

Color line and jazz (pdf)

Gara, Larry, The Baby Dodds Story Edition: As Told by Larry Gara. Rebeats Pubblications, Alma (MI), 2003 (revised edition)
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Jazz - There's a reason the 1920s is also called the Jazz Age. Jazz expressed everything new and exciting abotu those time. But also everythign controversial


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 01:18

    What an appropriate topic for you!

    I love all your articles. You’re a great writer!!

    Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 06:56

      Well, I suppose I couldn’t get away with this, right ;-)
      And thanks. At the moment, I’m just someone who writes.

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 02:09

    I love some types of jazz. Like Ella Fitzgerald doing scat. Or Harry Conick, Jr. And some types I just don’t care for.
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps’ Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 06:57

      Well, jazz is a very strange beast, isn’t it?
      I love the story of how it changed people life and attitudes.

  • anna
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 04:06

    Ooo I love Jazz.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 06:59

      Have you watched Bessie Smith’s video? I think her voice is powerful even coming from the 1920s primitive recordings. Listening to her live must have been quite an experience.

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 11:51

    While I’m not a fan of jazz, I have always liked the culture that surrounds it. There’s something really empowering about music being able to break the molds of accepted behavior (something we saw again with rock, and hip-hop.)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 18:51

      That’s true. But I think that’s true of all forms of art.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 10:16

    I have to admit to never being overly fond of jazz, but it is an incredible musical phenomenon that changed so many things, so I definitely respect it. I make an exception for Ella though – such an amazing voice.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 18:45

      I’m certainly not an expert, but I like many songs. Yes, I quite like it :-)

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 12:29

    We have been reading about jazz and American culture a lot this semester in my history class. I learned a lot of things about how jazz was used in cultural diplomacy… It’s a fascinating topic :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 18:52

      It is. And I’m particularly fiscinated by the way this music intermigle witht he society at large during the Twenties. Go figure ;-)

  • Diane Coto
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 15:14

    I loved that period of time for Jazz. I like a lot of older music. :)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 18:53

      Hi there. Thanks so much for stopping by. I liked your posts about mysteries and sleuths :-)

  • Sabina
    Posted April 11, 2015 at 15:24

    It doesn’t differ from “traditional music structure,” it differs from European music structure. It actually matches quite well the traditional music structure of West African music, which is most obvious in blues–like the call-and-response technique you mention. Other than that, you hit the nail on the head here! (I’m currently taking a course about blues, jazz, and other black music and its history in the U.S., so I’m hyperaware of all this stuff)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2015 at 18:55

      Ah, thanks for pointing tht out. That’s what I meant, but I didn’t express it very well. I’m a self-taught amateur, you know ;-)

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 04:53

    I’ve never been particularly into jazz, though I know it’s important to listen to it to get a feel for books set in the Twenties and Thirties. On a recent Rap Critic episode, I was really surprised to discover the so-called King of Jazz was a white guy named, for real, Paul Whiteman. I’d never heard of this guy, and would’ve thought a title like The King of Jazz would go to someone like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 06:35

      Well, in the same period Joseph Nathan Oliver (King Oliver) was called King for a reason.

      The fact is that when jazz became popular, it was discovered by white musicians as well and they thronged to the black sections of cities to listen to black jazzmen and learn from them. Then, of course, they started make their own music inspired to what they have been listening.

      Jazz was a very new, shocking-inspiring music in its original incarnation. These young white musicians took what they thought best, sanitized all the rest (as Kathy J. Ogren says in her book) and produced their own music.

      Now, they lived in segregated America. This means many places were inaccessible to African Americans and the new recording industry was one such place. Because jazz was becoming so popular, but the recording industry was barred to black musicians, it was white musicians who got to record jazz first and so the wide audience who didn’t go slamming but liked music, came in contact with jazz through these guys. Also consider that white jazz of the earlier period was easier to accept to a wide audience because all the edge of black jazz was taken off.

      So, although jazz was born inside the black community, it became widely popularized by white musicians, and I suppose this is why Paul Whiteman, who – if I remember – was the band leader of the first white jazz band, was presented as the King of Jazz. Though, personally, I think that’s disputable ;-)

  • Jody
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 05:39

    I love jazz, at least I think I do. I don’t listen to a lot of music, but I like music that I can feel to the core and that makes me want to move or moves me in some way. So I like jazz because it speaks to my feet and to my heart.

  • Post Author
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 06:35

    It tends to have that effect, doesn’t it?

  • Celine Jeanjean
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:41

    Jazz is a funny one – I really want to like it, and I like some jazz, but I just don’t seem to click with it as much as I would want to. I love the overall aesthetic associated with jazz, but the music itself doesn’t resonate as much with me as I’d like.

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 03:20

    I’m not a huge fan of Jazz but I do like some of music from the Big Band era. It’s interesting to see how music has had such a profound effect on society over all these years.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2015 at 06:57

      You know? Jazz had such a huge impact on everyday life and way of thinking, that is very very dificult to pin it down. This is one of those things I’m not confident I described at my best in my novel. Yet ;-)

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 14, 2015 at 01:55

    It was really nice to hear you explain full out the differences between white and black jazz. The African style of call and response, that influenced some jazz, is part of African inspired musical stylings and storytelling styles.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 14, 2015 at 06:33

      That’s so true. After learning about this in Ogren’s excellent book, I was invited by a friend to a show of a spiritual group here in my city..
      I could see with my eyes the difference in how African audience responed and how Italian audience responded. It was very intersting.
      And by the way, I enjoyed the show a lot. Fantastic musicians and singers.

  • CW Hawes
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 02:12

    I’m not a big fan of Jazz, but I do like ’30s Swing. My favorite singer is Bea Wain. Lovely voice. She’s apparently still alive. In her 90s now.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 14:23

      I like jazz, instead, I enjoy the 1920s jazz too. Bessy Smith is my favourite singer. She’s incredible even on the 1920s recordings, such a powerful voice even on those first recordings. Live, she must have been absolutely outstanding. Can’t even imagine.

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