Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look into the era of early jazz beyond the city of New Orleans.
Last time, we looked at the early era of jazz specifically in New Orleans. We took a brief overview of the state of jazz in New Orleans during the first quarter of the twentieth century. We also discussed the impact of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band, and Louis Armstrong.
Now, we’ll look at the same time period, but turn our focus to what was happening in other parts of the country. Once again, we’ll start off with a brief overview before looking at specific artists.
Beyond New Orleans
Outside of New Orleans across America, jazz was quickly developing in the 1920’s with new, sophisticated arrangements of popular tunes. It was evident that this music was being made and played by a new kind of musician. Some of this involved the adoption of older instruments played in a new way, while others focused more on modifying the elements of harmony and rhythm.
In Chicago, a new wave of local musicians were getting involved in jazz. “Theirs was a different view of the music, and they were often quite accomplished instrumentally, even if they were also rough by intention” (p. 117).
One of the instruments that some musicians began to pay more attention to was the saxophone. “The saxophone had been around for nearly eighty years, and dozens of types of horn were available, but it was not until jazz musicians converted the saxophone from its role as a comedy or vaudeville instrument that anyone in music took it seriously” (p. 118).
Bix Beiderbecke was a midwesterner born in 1903 in Davenport, Indiana. According to Szwed, Beiderbecke was the natural foil to Louis Armstrong. “Bix’s horn was the softer, rounder-toned cornet, and he played with a distinctive sound — the fabled ‘bullet hitting a chime’ timbre — and a smaller, sometimes completely absent vibrato” (p. 121). His style stood out in stark contrast to the loud and expressive quality of Armstrong’s playing.
“It was Beiderbecke the stylist who heightened interest in this cooler form of jazz which offered an alternative to the hot jazz of the 1920s” (p. 123).
But Beiderbecke wasn’t a jazz artist. He played solo for the most part, but later in his career, transitioned into larger orchestras. This move away from the roots of jazz is historically considered a fall from grace. Nevertheless, Beiderbecke is known as more of a stylist. “He demonstrated that this music could be played lyrically, almost gently, with a softer, sweeter sound” (p. 123).
Following in the tradition of Armstrong and Beiderbecke, Red Nichols was also cornet player, but from Utah. “Red Nichols’ Five Pennies was only one of the many small jazz groups that blossomed in the late 1920s” (p. 124). Nichols’ band started as a small group, and later added new members. In their early days, they broke new ground, but “once they expanded in size they lost their focus and their edge” (p. 124).
Despite the changes they went through, Red Nichols’ Five Pennies helped form jazz in its early stages outside of New Orleans. The arrangements of the Nichols group “were models for big bands to come, years after they were forgotten by the public” (p. 125).
Now we’ve successfully covered jazz in the first quarter of the twentieth century. While this wasn’t a fully comprehensive overview, hopefully it shed some light on what was going on in New Orleans and elsewhere in the States.
Next time, we’ll look at the an era that takes place between 1925 and 1940. During this period, we’ll look at the rise of swing and big band jazz.