Jazz is a style of music that spread in popularity like wild fire in the 1920s and virtually redefined culture in that time frame. But is was the 1930s when we saw jazz begin to “grow up”, diversify and become a mature art form that could adapt and spread into all other genres of music as well. Some have called jazz the premier unique musical art form of American culture. The jazz musical genre certainly deserves that title because it is a music that brings with it the history of not one people but many people and a music that creates culture wherever it goes. That is certainly a very American trait.
Jazz actually sprung from communites that thrived in the south and primarily in the African American community. New Orleans was a cultural hot bed where the earliest recognizable forms of jazz music took shape. It was here that Caribbean music blended with European composition and southern blues to produce this very unique musical form known as jazz.
Because jazz rose up from “unacceptable” segments of society, it was considered dangerous and even subversive even into the 1920s when the popularity of jazz music literally exploded. The 1920s is when jazz migrated to the big cultural centers of the north such as New York and Chicago. And while jazz continued to be associated with wild and debauched lifestyles, there is no question that it defined the decade and changed everything about the culture of the time from music to art and fashion. Dixieland jazz grew as one of the most popular sub-genres of jazz as the depression era approached.
The 1930s saw jazz begin to makes inroads into mainstream music. The music industry could no longer ignore the importance of jazz because it was so popular particularly with young people on the campuses of American colleges and high schools. Slowly but surely, the music industry introduced the seductive music of jazz to older generations and to the white population of the country as well.
But the popularization of jazz also diluted the pure forms that made the musical genre so intoxicating in the first place. Dixieland jazz had a very unique style and structure that put a great deal of emphasis on the individual performers each of which was given their time to perform improvisational solos that could go on for as long as the musician felt moved to keep playing. As jazz became more broadly accepted and more commercial as well, the unpredictable and “wild ” nature of the music began to tame.
The impact of the Great Depression on 1930s music meant that those jazz performers who could draw from a larger audience would be the ones to succeed or at least survive. The most commonly heard form of the genre was “sweet” jazz as opposed to the “hot” jazz of the 1920s. Sweet jazz was more disciplined and brought in other instruments like violins to make it easier for a broader audience to appreciate. While this made jazz a music that became popular for the entire population, it did not sit well with hot jazz devotees and their performers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmie Lunceford.
The big band era which dominated the 1930s music scene incorporate jazz into a more palatable format but did so while integrating other forms popular music in their sets. Because big bands were able to offer the skills of dozens of jazz performers in one band, it was a great method for giving employment to struggling musicians while giving audiences an even greater exposure to a wide variety of talents and musical styles.
We can think of 1930s as the decade that jazz became civilized, sophisticated and popular throughout the culture. The outcome was that jazz evolved and began to merge with many musical forms. That evolution continues to this day, which demonstrates the versatility of jazz music to adapt to culture and reflect the outlook of culture back on its listeners as well. Because 1930s jazz forced the format to “grow up”, it also assured that jazz would continuously change and grow as the country grows. But also insured that jazz would be a musical style that would continue to be part of the American culture forever.