America’s Music History: The Jazz Age

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America’s Music History: The Jazz Age

When talking about America’s Jazz age, it is hard not to think of a dimly-lit smoky bar with smooth tunes drifting from the piano.

The Jazz Age was an important period in America’s music history where a significant cultural shift was taking place post-World War One. It acted somewhat as a bridge between black and white cultures through a joint love of music, yet despite this connection, segregation continued for decades to come.


The beginning of the jazz era in the 1920s brought new joy to people who had endured dark times during the war. The popularity of jazz rose as the music style brought an element of freedom back into people’s lives, glorifying city life. It also saw new dance styles such as the Charleston in a decade referred to as the Roaring Twenties.

The jazz movement is mainly accredited to African American musicians in an era where cultural differences divided populations. New Orleans was the home to many of the early jazz musicians, but due to the racial violence and tension there, many musicians fled to other cities such as Chicago and , Kansas City and New York. This movement of musicians coincided with jazz music being played across on national radio, spreading the style to new audiences across the United States.

As the jazz movement spread, the style and content of it also changed as white practitioners modified the genre to make it more palatable to white middle class Americans.


It’s not hard to recognize jazz music with its toe-tapping beat and instrumental solos from the trumpet or saxophone. Jazz has a distinct feel to it and improvisation plays a key part.

A typical jazz piece will have an instrumental introduction, followed by the main melody of the song. Following the melody, musicians head into their improvisation or solo sections. This improvisation tends to be one of the great attractions of jazz and what makes it stand out from other music genres. The solos are an opportunity for musicians to play an improvised version of the main theme and show off their skills, often to the delight of the audience, prompting, even encouraging, reactions from those watching.

The two most common structures of a jazz piece is the blues form, or 12-bar form, and the AABA song form. As its name suggests, the 12-bar blues is made up of three four-bar segments. The AABA form is a popular 32-measure structure for many songs. It begins with the ‘A’ section, repeated, followed by a bridge, known as the ‘B’ section, returning to the A section to finish.

Jazz music tends to feel relaxed due to the swing rhythm and the fact notes can be played behind or ahead of the beat. Jazz musicians must be open to creativity and not bound to strict, traditional music theory structures.


Many musicians who became famous in the 1920s Jazz Age are still widely known today with their music influencing many modern artists.

One of the most popular early jazz bands known for the New Orleans feel was the King Oliver Creole jazz band. The band consisted of musicians who were considered some of the best of their time, including King Oliver (also known as Joe Oliver), Bill Johnson, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds and later, Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong became immediately popular and rose to fame quickly with his distinct singing voice, in addition to his trumpet playing. Some of the songs he is best known for still today include ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘La Vie En Rose’. His charismatic presence on stage and improvisation abilities drew in audiences. He continued to develop and evolve through different music eras from Swing to Broadway.

The Jazz Age also gave rise to female musicians, including blues and jazz singer Bessie Smith. Smith became one of the highest-paid black musicians of her time. Her life was cut short after a car accident in 1937, but her style continued to influence many later singers including Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.

Another famous female jazz musician was singer Ella Fitzgerald who was dubbed ‘The First Lady of Song’. Born in 1917, her rise to fame came in the 1930s after the Great Depression. She worked with many of the great jazz singers of the time, sold over 40 million albums during her singing career and won 13 Grammy Awards. her sense of style was impeccable, mastering all subgenera of jazz, including bebop— a technically challenging music.


Sadly, the jazz era ended somewhat abruptly with the Great Depression in the 1930s. However, the music genre lives on today and forms an integral part of American music education. It has faced opposition at times, with ‘purists’ not considering it to be as serious as traditional classical music. This partly was due to the fact jazz was considered too much to be entertainment rather than art form.

However, the popularity of the genre continued to rise, and many music students were drawn to the syncopated rhythms and relaxed feel. High schools and universities made up many of the jazz groups around in the 1960s. Professional jazz musicians became involved in teaching the younger generation and it fed the demand for further jazz education resources.

By the 1980s, many American tertiary institutions had implemented jazz programs, which were expanded to include vocal jazz, improvisation and performance style.
Today, students can expect to learn about the history of jazz and how it has evolved. It is used as a way of explaining cultural history in America, including the social, economic and political aspects of the Jazz Age. Jazz has become an important way to explain America’s rich cultural history.

Many jazz musicians of today have been inspired by their early forefathers and the genre has withstood a test of time, despite various other genres becoming more influential in society, such as rock and roll. Jazz education today teaches not just a musical style, but the cultural history of a nation.



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