The roots of American jazz can be traced back to some if it’s influences in some very old musical traditions. But if there ever was a “jazz age”, it may have been the 1920s when jazz was the fuel that set off a firestorm of social change in that decade. The way that jazz caused cultural and ethnic communities that were completely separate to merge and the way that it generated such a huge amount of outrage and change reflects on the fact that jazz is and was much more than just a musical force.
The 1930s was a decade where jazz grew up. Like the rest of the culture, the entertainment sector was hit hard by the Great Depression which interrupted life at all levels of culture and in every way imaginable. Massive unemployment meant that few had the financial resources for even the simply joy of buying a jazz record or enjoying an evening at a jazz club. In fact, in 1932, the level of record sales hit a low that had never been seen since that genre of the music business got its start.
Of course, the best of the best in the music industry were able to find work particularly in large cities where jazz was a well established musical genre such as New York and Chicago. But other jazz musicians in the 1930s who were not so well known or who were performing in other parts of the country, life was difficult. They had a word for what it was for a jazz musician to barely scrape out enough to live on in the 1930s. They called it “scuffling”.
It is likely that the economic problems that caused so much heartache for individual jazz musicians contributed to the rise of the great jazz bands of the time. Many outstanding jazz innovators found a way to both make a living and express their creativity working with Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Cab Calloway. These skilled band leaders could be considered heroes of 1930s jazz because they skillfully mixed popular standard tunes with new jazz creations to advance the musical art form of jazz while keeping their musicians employed during a very tough economic time.
It during this era of the early 1930s when jazz began to evolve and thrive in the jazz band format that some of the great jazz standards of all time were composed. But change was still in the air and there were new ways that jazz would evolve just around the corner. The “Swing Era” of jazz took off in 1935 lead by one of the greatest musical innovators of the time, Benny Goodman. Goodman was well established as a big band leader and jazz composer. He made it his goal to assemble the best and the brightest of the jazz world and focus all of that talent on jazz compositions instead of mixing them with pop standards.
In addition to moving the artistic development of jazz music forward, Goodman also found brilliant ways to spread the popularity of jazz, swing and big band music using the new entertainment venue of radio. The Benny Goodman orchestra was the first to find success with a nationally syndicated radio show called Let’s Dance. The outcome was massive popularity for Benny Goodman that eventually led him and his band of jazz musicians all the way to Carnegie Hall.
But more importantly, Benny Goodman’s contribution to 1930s jazz meant that jazz was able to mature, evolve and “grow up” so that the influence and reach of jazz went far beyond the speakeasies and pubs of major metropolitan centers. Instead, jazz became the musical language of the people during the 1930s and it was the jazz revolution that lead to other musical breakthroughs that would explode upon the scene in decades to come.