1930's and 40's: Jazzin' Up an Era

By: Niara Powell


The 1930’s and 40’s was definitely a defining time for America. From 1929-1939 was the Great Depression that arose due to a crash in the stock market. During this period, the majority of Americans had lost their jobs and women had to switch from playing the housewife role into going to work in order to provide for their families. Black people, however, face even more obstacles. Not only were they losing jobs, it was a time at which racial injustice was at one of it’s peaks and so they had lost their jobs, it was much harder to find work due to their race, and government did not provide any assistance to Black people before or following the Great Depression. Another big moment during this time period was the Dust Bowl in 1930. The Dust Bowl was an event that had caused severe drought in the agricultural plains of the Midwest and the South. Because of this drought, thousands of people and livestock were killed, many lost their jobs, and millions faced homelessness and poverty. Consequential to this event, millions of people started to migrate to the west side of the U.S. One last major event that Americans faced during the 1930’s and 40’s was the invasion of Germany into Poland thus being the start of World War II. This caused many American men to leave their homes in order to fight in the war but it did raise employment rates and was the start of women empowerment (unfortunately primarily just white women).

Despite the difficulties during this time, there was some light that was shed. With its deepest origins being in West Africa, Black people in New Orleans developed the sound of what we know of today as Jazz. The inspiration for jazz came from the previously popular styles of Black music known as Ragtime and Blues. It is a genre that was very unique and involved a lot of creativity and because of this, this genre was able to gain popularity in cities all across America, including Detroit, Chicago, Harlem, and Kansas City.

Traditional Jazz/ Swing Jazz

Traditional (Trad) Jazz aka New Orleans Jazz is a style of Jazz that arose from the Carribean influence in New Orleans. The primary instruments in this style are saxophone, trumpet, bass, and piano. Swing Jazz is a form of Jazz that originated from traditional jazzin the later 1930’s. It is a fixed upbeat sound and contains more string instruments rather than the bass instruments that Trad Jazz utilizes. Another seperating factor is that Swing Jazz was generally performed by big band groups.

Luis Armstrong , also known as “The Father of Jazz” was a major influence in the early beginnings of Jazz. In one of his most well-known songs “What a Wonderful World” you can hear the sounds of the piano and trumpets that are common in Traditional Jazz music.

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington were also two big influences in Jazz, particularly Swing Jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was known as the “Queen” of Jazz and was praised on her ability to scat, pure tone, diction, timing, phrasing, and ability to improvise. Duke Ellington was known as one of the greatest  jazz composers and band leaders during the 30’s and 40’s. In this performance of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” portrays Swing music because of the utilization of a big band and an upbeat tempo.

Bebop/Cool Jazz

As Swing started to faze out, a new style of jazz arose in the early 1940’s called Bebop. Bebop was a style of music that was fast, chaotic, and heavily improvised. It was a fast and fun upbeat sound that lifted the spirits of America during the trying times of WWII. Cool Jazz was a style of Jazz that came about in the later 1940’s. Contrary to Bebop, Cool Jazz had a much more relaxed tempo and lighter tone.

Some major artists of Bebop were Dizzy Gillespie, who was a famous trumpet player, bandleader and singer, as well as Charlie “Bird” Parker who was a famous saxophonist and bandleader. While Parker is created for being the creator of bebop, Gillespie is credited for being a major part of the evolution of bebop.

Miles Davis was a famous trumpeter, composer and bandleader during the 1940’s. He was most popularly known for his album, “Birth of Cool” in which you could hear his development of Cool Jazz as well as his style of playing Jazz with repetition. Another artist to credit would be John Coltrane who created Hard Bop in response to Cool Jazz. He included more Blues into his style of Jazz which in turn started to electrify the sound of Jazz from that point forward.

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