Jazz Through The Ages, Part II: The Rise of Swing and the Birth of Cool

Over the next several posts, we’re exploring Jazz through the ages in an effort to further crystallize this essential and transcendent music genre — one we hold in high regard as it relates to the discerning audiophile listening experience and overall enjoyment of Marantz products. Part 2 takes a deeper look at the cultural and economic shifts in the 1920s that gave way to a new era of jazz — one that was marked by the underground of Prohibition and the escapism of a generation marred by economic distress.

The 1920s were a period of considerable social, cultural, economic and to some extent political transformation for the U.S., as well as much of the world. Perhaps then, it's no accident that jazz took its first successful leap into the American public consciousness in this period. Ragtime, Dixieland and other prototypical jazz genres gave way to the big, ecstatic sound of swing. But as we'll see in this second entry of the Marantz blog series on jazz's evolution, swing was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Jazz Age: Decadence real and imagined

Conventional wisdom associates 1920s jazz with speakeasies — the open-secret clubs that served illegal liquor during Prohibition. More than a few jazz bands did play in such settings, but like Dixieland bands' role as house musicians for New Orleans brothels, the extent of the association is somewhat overblown. Agents of the status quo attempted to posit all of jazz as illicit music, seizing on its rhythmic inventiveness as evidence of deviance, and highlighting the Mafia's connection to famous speakeasies like The Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and other genre legends played. This ultimately backfired — calling it "forbidden" only intensified the attraction.

Accessibility and escapism

While phonographs that could play back recorded sounds existed since Thomas Edison invented them in 1877 it wasn't until the '20s that these machines — and home radios — were easily available to anyone other than the rich. Once the average American could buy a radio or record player, it became easier to hear jazz without the gossip that might follow you if you were caught leaving an underground club. Meanwhile, the Great Depression wreaked socioeconomic havoc on the U.S. from 1929 until the late '30s, affecting everyone from factory workers to bank executives. The need for federal and state revenue from liquor taxation motivated the end of Prohibition more than many other factors. Ending liquor's illegality meant numerous speakeasies became legitimate nightclubs.

Through the combination of better access to live or recorded jazz and the need for escapism among a downcast population, the swing bands of Ellington and Calloway — as well as Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson — were able to reach a greater audience. The growing frequency with which bands featured Black American and white players alongside one another also contributed to jazz's continuing ascent among multiple listener demographics.

Jazz's first superstars

Every medium of art has certain practitioners who rise above their peers in popularity and critical estimation through unique combinations of talent and charisma. All the bandleaders noted above were certainly quite popular, and individual players with particular flair became favorites as well: Multi-instrumentalist Lionel Hampton featured prominently in Benny Goodman's band, and Bix Beiderbecke saw a brief meteoric rise as the ace cornetist in Whiteman's ensemble. And a trumpeter for Fletcher Henderson named Louis Armstrong would become a bandleader, jazz superstar and an all-time music legend.

Armstrong was multitalented. As a composer, trumpeter, singer and arguable inventor of vocal scatting, he possessed a larger-than-life personality, virtually guaranteeing his stardom. While he wasn't exempt from racial prejudice, he nonetheless became one of America's cultural icons through a 50-year music career. In fact, his "Melancholy Blues" is one of the songs stored on the Voyager space probes NASA launched in 1977 to provide extraterrestrials examples of Earth's civilization and culture.

Jazz and its evolutions were not unlike a shark's need to keep swimming or face death: Evolution became part of its DNA. The groundbreaking soloing on Armstrong records like "Potato Head Blues" is remarkable in its own right, but also helped plant the seed of more abstract sounds like bebop, cool jazz and free jazz, which we'll explore next in this series. For his part, Armstrong wasn't necessarily enamored by the new styles he partially influenced: A 1954 item piece in the Sydney Morning Herald depicts Armstrong's reaction when asked if he could play bebop, to which he responded, "Bebop? I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking the streets with their instruments under their arms."

As we continue to explore jazz throughout the series, remember… Marantz hi-fi products are the vehicles to experience the full breadth of jazz and its genre-bending lyricism.