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 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, 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.
In many respects, white jazz in the 1920s was less revolutionary than black jazz, and yet 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 those who didn’t frequent nightclubs and speakeasies.
Although, subsequently, many black jazzmen recorded their music, white musicians always had easier access to recording.
This explains why not a black jazzman, but a white musician, 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, most 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 did it. Between the limited access to authentic black jazz and the actual attempt at appropriation that white musicians – and especially white critics – were pursuing, it’s no surprise that the 1920s public was never aware of jazz’s origin or that it was a prominently 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