Jazz: America's Music

With the emphasis on America and all things American, the 1920s elevated music that was truly American. Jazz shook itself free from European music, which dominated American orchestras conducted by Europeans playing European compositions. Emerging from the Negro spirituals, jazz fused the harmonies of ragtime and the blues with marching band music, producing a wholly American sound that the country, and the world, embraced.

view of "Jazz, America's Music" area of exhibit

Cole Porter's crystal goblets

Jazz fit the times as people looked for excitement and turned their backs on the old world, but not the old roots of African American music. Now it was celebrated and embraced by whites who came to hear the great musicians with a new sound that thrilled the thrill-seekers and mocked that “botched civilization” which gave us the Great War.

Jazz was a direct outgrowth of ragtime, with tunes popularized by Scott Joplin. Jazz’ birthplace was New Orleans, where the musical influence of Africa, Spain and other cultures combined into the Dixieland sound.

Cole Porter's silver notepad
By the 1920s, jazz migrated north to Chicago, Kansas City and New York, with each city proclaiming itself the capital of jazz at some time during the decade.
From New Orleans came Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines and the great Louis Armstrong. In New York, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie played to larger and larger crowds in Harlem. The blues singing of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith filled the clubs. The popularity of jazz was due in no small part to advent of radio and its popularity among whites who adopted and imitated its sounds. This new musical form had arrived when the classically trained George Gershwin bridged the gap between popular jazz and accepted music.

In a decade of contrasts, jazz was no exception. While whites flocked to Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club to hear the great black musicians and singers, but those same entertainers were denied entrance into the front doors and forced to enter the back service doors.