Jazz 101: Revivalism in the ’40s


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, and look at the era of jazz revivalism that popped up in the 1940s.

In the last article of this series, we took a look at swing, which was a major transition in the evolution of jazz. We saw how swing became such a powerful cultural force, and remained popular until after World War II. We also looked at some of the big names during the swing era, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Now we’ll look at the next step in the evolution of jazz, which started with a group of jazz musicians and enthusiasts looking back to the past. The result was a rebirth of New Orleans jazz.

The 1940’s Revivalism

Right when jazz seemed ready for a new era, a new collective of traditionalists helped get the revivalism of jazz started. “Writers, record collectors, and some fans began to look backwards and, through a mixture of research of and fantasy, sparked a series of revivals that would help lay the groundwork for the beginnings of a jazz history” (p. 151).

This phase got its start sometime around 1938-39, by a few key figures attempting to locate the origins of jazz in the blues and gospel singing. In the early 1940’s, a group of fans born too late to experience early New Orleans jazz visited the city. There, they found what was left of the original musicians and interviewed and recorded them to preserve their history. “It was the first of a long series of ‘rediscoveries’ in American music, allowing those who missed it or didn’t get it the first time around to have another chance” (p. 152).

But not all were happy with the new surge of rediscovered jazz. While some of the recorded musicians bore some resemblance the the early era of New Orleans jazz, there were some key differences. For example, one technique “Compared the the New Orleans music recorded in the 1920s, this music has fewer solos, is lighter and more concerned with texture, and is simpler rhythmically — in other words, a big disappointment to some” (p. 153).

Revival Musicians

While some found the revival musicians a little disappointing, and only considered them marginal discoveries at the time who never recorded or played outside of New Orleans, this was not the case.

“First, these revival musicians might represent an earlier stage of New Orleans jazz before Oliver, Morton, Armstrong et all — a more collective and less soloist-oriented music that had not been heard because most of the musicians who were recorded had left New Orleans some time before and had already adapted to out of town tastes and styles” (p. 153).

When looking at the revival musicians, it’s hard not to compare them to others we’ve discussed. In a previous article, we talked about the impact of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But according to Szwed, it “may have represented a more conservative stage of development than what these musicians played” (p. 153).

The New Orleans revival continued to spread in the late 1940s. During this time, developing bands played in all of the New Orleans styles. The New Orleans style experienced a second revival in the 1960s as well. Throughout history, the New Orleans style has had the longest continual run of any jazz style. Although, Szwed adds the disclaimer that it was “a rather frozen and uninfluential one” (p. 154).

Final Thoughts

This was a bit of a puzzling era to cover and learn about. I’ll admit that sometimes, Szwed tends to be a bit cryptic in his explanations. He’s so careful in his writing to present an objective view.

But there are moments when his personal opinions seem to bleed through. On one hand, he seems to be arguing that revivalism was a benefit to jazz. It exposed more people to the genre, and kicked off the process of preserving jazz history. On the other, however, he doesn’t seem to have as much respect for the music that came out of this period. He calls it “frozen and uninfluential”, and a “big disappointment” throughout the chapter.

We may never know John F. Szwed’s full opinions on this period of jazz evolution, but that’s okay. I only point it out because it was something I noticed in my reading. But with that, we’ll wrap up our discussion on jazz revivalism.

Next time, we’ll look at five jazz musicians who helped make a revolution in the genre of swing. Their revolution helped bring about the era of bebop, which we’ll talk more about in future articles.






Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.