Loud, syncopated, and somewhat controversial!
This was the beginning of the jazz age in the 1920s.
The era following the First World War gave the country a lot to think about. Not only was this a new and exciting era for culture, fashion, and industry, but it was also a wonderful time for music!
Today, we’re going to look at some of the most famous jazz musicians of the 1920s!
The Birth of a Jazz Era
Pioneered by African Americans, jazz combined diverse types of musical style into something at the heart of America culture. By the early 1920s, Black musicians were combining African rhythms, melodies, and arrangements with western forms including classical music to create a new sound. The jazz artists in the 1920s were true musical pioneers.
Jazz history begins with the New Orleans style of jazz that arose from the city's creole roots.
The 1920s brought about a new wave of talent, especially those coming from the south. New Orleans was a particular jazz music hotbed, though so were northern cities like Chicago. The jazz recordings of that day often called “race records,” were sold in black neighborhoods and enjoyed by primarily city folks, such as those in Chicago, Kansas City and New York.
Despite prohibition happening in America at the time, dance bands, blues, and jazz artists began taking center stage. The music of this time was often teeming with life, offering upbeat, celebratory melodies and rhythms.
Let’s dive in and learn more about some of the iconic musicians that came out of this era.
If you're really intrigued by the birth of jazz, you've got to check out the excellent book Visions of Jazz by Gary Giddins (affiliate link).
The 17 Best Jazz Musicians of the 1920s
Now let's get into these iconic musicians! Some of them were composers, some were singers, some were instrumentalists. But they all had one thing in common: they helped create the iconic American art form known as jazz!
I've focused this list on musicians who had massive amounts of success in the 1920s, although some of them, like Louis Armstrong, continued to popular for decades. I've left out most artist who may have been active in the 1920s, but wouldn't see their big success until the 1930s.
But if you think there's someone that should be added to this list, please let me know in the comments below!
Jelly Roll Morton
Morton would often introduce himself to crowds and say, “I invented jazz.”
Was he a bit cocky? Maybe a bit arrogant?
Absolutely! Though it just so happens he was probably right. Many regard Jelly Roll Morton as one of the first true jazz composers. He was the very first person to write down his arrangements, many of which would become staples in the jazz community for decades to come.
Jelly was born in 1885 to a middle-class family in New Orleans before receiving formal guitar lessons at the age of eight. However, it was only a little while until he got the job as a piano player, thanks to Countess Willie Piazza.
When he reached his early twenties, he was already very in demand, playing songs up and down the entirety of the Gulf Coast. By 1917, he had moved to the west coast to tour. Some of his most innovative and memorable music appeared during that time, including “Kansas City Stomp,” “New Orleans Blues,” and “King Porter Stomp.”
By 1938, Jelly put a cap on his music career when he did a grand recording session for the Library of Congress. Throughout his life, he wrote more than 100 individual compositions and more than 52 records.
I'm sure he’d be the first to say that his records were some of the greatest records around.
Louis Armstrong is arguably one of the most famous musicians to have ever come out of the United States. He was born in New Orleans and began playing music at a very early age.
During the early half of the 1920s, Louis Armstrong played in King Oliver’s band. However, as the decade was coming to a close, he was already moving into the higher echelon of music. Soon enough, he’d be playing around the world with just about every famous jazz musician during the time.
People often say Armstrong, otherwise known as “Pops” or “Satchmo,” was the basis for jazz in the 1920s. Armstrong experimented with just about any popular music of the time you could think of, including bluegrass, gospel, and Hawaiian.
Several people believe that without Armstrong, jazz would not have reached such popularity throughout the world. His career would end up spanning for more than five decades before he passed away in 1971.
One of Armstrong’s most popular songs to this day is “What A Wonderful World.” You can still go to Corona, Queens, to visit the home of he and his wife, which is still preserved today!
Before Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Harrison, and Miff Mole rolled onto the scene in the later half of the 1920s, Edward “Kid” Ory was already a force to be reckoned with. He would eventually become one of the most influential jazz trombonists of all time.
He would use what he called a “tailgate” style to play rhythmic bass lines and harmonies with his trombone over loud and bombastic New Orleans jazz bands.
For many years, the trombone was somewhat of a comic prop used in vaudeville. Trombonists would slide all over the place and use the instrument to make humorous sounds. On the other hand, Ory was very serious when it came to playing. He developed a unique style very early on, which he would stick with throughout his career.
Ory’s 1944 recording of “Creole Song” was the very first documented song that used Creole patois. During his long and successful career, he played with many of the strongest and most iconic musicians, including Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmie Noone, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. Ory would eventually head to Honolulu in the early 70s, where he would die in peace.
Ma Rainey was often referred to as the “Mother of The Blues,” known for her mesmerizing stage presence and deep-throated voice. She was also one of the few openly bisexual African American women of the time, and the lyrics in many of her songs reflected that.
After more than a decade of touring with a vaudeville act, she began combining what she had worked on for so long with authentic southern blues. The call-and-response style was a descendant of West Africa. This style had been passed on for many generations through enslaved Africans.
Her characteristic moaning sound would fuel her success, along with her flashy clothing, gold teeth, and the personal connection she would build with audiences.
In 1923, she signed with Paramount Records, which made her one of the very first blues musicians to get a recording deal. She would go on to record almost 100 records between 1923 and 1928, many of which became national hits. She would also go on to become a mentor for the legendary Bessie Smith and would inspire later singers like Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton.
Her story also inspired Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play that was written by August Wilson in 1982. The play would go on to have success on Broadway for many years.
Click here to see the 70 Best Female Musical Artists of All Time.
If there was ever a true master of the plunger trumpet mute, it would have been Bubber Miley. He had a unique, growly, borderline drunken wah-wah sound that he would use in his playing, which became pretty clear when he was playing in Duke Ellington’s band from 1926 to 1928.
He began playing in New York professionally in 1920 before taking over Johnny Dunn’s spot in Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. He would continue touring on and off with the band until joining the Washingtonians with banjoist Elmer Snowden in 1923.
Duke Ellington would eventually take over the band, though he loved Miley’s playing, which is why he decided to keep him on. Miley drew a lot of influence from King Oliver, though he made a style all his own, often playing with Derbys and mutes.
Miley would go on to co-write “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “East St. Louis Toodle-OO” with Ellington, starring on his now iconic recordings.
However, Miley was eventually fired from Duke’s band due to his alcoholism.
After leaving the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Miley went on to tour France with Zutty Singleton and the Noble Sissle Orchestra. He toured for a year before playing in a musical review in 1931. Unfortunately, he would pass away the following year from tuberculosis.
Artie Shaw made it to this list even though he had his true rise to prominence in the 1930s. However, it was during the 1920s that he worked his way up to the top, which is good enough for us!
After his slow rise from the time he was born in New York City on May 23, 1910, he became one of the most prominent soloists and bandleaders of the 1930s, topping the charts during the swing era. His very first public appearance as a bandleader was in 1936. This public appearance also happened to be on the first swing concerts ever, and was held at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.
Only a short time after, he would make a record that would become an all-time hit, featuring the song “Begin the Beguine.”
Just before making that record, he hired a young Billie Holiday to perform as the band’s lead vocalist. This was pretty special at the time, as he was the very first white bandleader to employ a black female vocalist as a band member.
With Holiday at his side, he was catapulted to immense fame, and became known as the King of Swing to many who followed in his footsteps.
Hoagy Carmichael gave us some of the most popular jazz tunes of all time, including “Georgia On My Mind” and “Stardust.” He became one of the most renowned American songwriters of the 20th century. “Stardust” was certainly one of those great tunes.
He got his start in music during his time at Indiana University, when he decided to organize his very own jazz band. He quickly became friends with Bix Beiderbecke when Bix visited Indiana University during the spring of 1924. This was around the time that Carmichael wrote and recorded his very first piece with Bix, known as the “Riverboat Shuffle.”
After graduating college, Carmichael introduced him to a number of famous jazz musicians at the time, including Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, and more. One of his most famous early recordings was “Washboard Blues,” which he recorded with the Paul Whiteman band.
Carmichael also had quite a significant career as a secondary actor, typically getting into roles that also involved singing. He can be seen in To Have and Have Not (1942), Canyon Passage (1945), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He also won an Academy Award for best song in 1951 for a song called “In The Cool Cool Cool of the Evening,” which Bing Crosby performed in Here Comes The Groom.
Pops Foster was probably the most humble icon of his time, often saying “I’m just another bass player trying to make a living.” However, his seven-decade career allowed him to play in the bands of some of the most famous American musicians, including Charlie Parker and King Oliver.
Foster was a pioneer of the string bass, especially in an era where tuba was a more commonly used instrument for holding down the low-end. In 1929, Foster made the Okeh record with Louis Armstrong, playing his bass on the “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” This song put string bass on the map for the first time.
While the instrument was fairly common in New Orleans music, it was a completely different story in New York. Almost every bassist in town at the time was playing the tuba.
However, it was Foster’s driven approach that gave him national acclaim during the 20s. He ended up becoming a key member in the Luis Russell Orchestra during the late 1920, which was one of Louis Armstrong’s most celebrated bands. Many bassists would also go on to adopt his four-beat, wide and booming rhythmic playing style.
There is no doubt that without Pops Foster, the bass wouldn’t be as popular as it is today.
King Oliver was one of the main figures in the roots of jazz music beginning in the 1920s. He was the leader of the King Oliver Creole Band, which mostly played on the south side of Chicago. At the time, the south side of Chicago was also home to some of the country’s most notorious gangsters, including Lucky Luciano and Al Capone.
King Oliver was unique in that he blended a wide range of different styles, including blues, ragtime, and popular songs of the 1920s.
One of the biggest hits Oliver King ever had was a song called “Dippermouth Blues.” In fact, this was one of the very first songs to feature a full-fledged trumpet solo. Crowds would request that the band play this song almost nightly, which quickly made it one of the most popular tunes on Chicago’s south side.
Beyond basically pioneering the use of the solo trumpet in jazz music, King Oliver was also known for pioneering the use of mutes in jazz. Later on, it would almost become standard for a trumpet player to play with a mute if they were going to be playing jazz. If you’ve ever listened to Miles Davis, you know what I’m talking about!
Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Hardin Armstrong, otherwise known by her nickname, Hot Miss Lil, was one of the most prominent players in the 1920’s jazz scene. Not only was she one of the industry’s most famous women at the time, but she also happened to be a wonderful arranger, composer, and pianist. In many ways, she became the guiding light for her husband, the famous Louis Armstrong.
Lil was bandmates with Louis in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band before tying the knot in 1924. At that point, Lil had already established herself on the jazz scene, while Louis was just getting started.
After working and touring together for many years, Lil and Louie split in 1931. She maintained a successful career, performing on a series of albums for Decca Records and doing a couple of Broadway shows. She performed as a soloist and band leader in many acts at the time as well.
By the 1940s, Lil decided to give up her successful music career and pursue her love for fashion and design. She ended up designing a tuxedo for Louis to wear as her graduation project from a New York tailoring school.
One of her most famous compositions was “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” a piece that would eventually become a Dixieland standard.
Bessie Smith had one of the biggest personalities in the early jazz scene, known for her hollering voice that she could throw from the stage without ever needing a microphone. People that watched her live said that she would make people in the balconies feel like they were sitting up front.
She made such an artistic impression in the jazz world that many began referring to her as the “Empress of the Blues.”
By 1923, Bessie had recorded five hit records, one of which was a remix of “Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
From 1923 to 1933, Bessie would go on to record more than 150 songs for Columbia records, putting her up in the ranks as one of the most prolific 20th-century jazz artists. Though most of her early work featured only her booming voice and piano accompaniment, she later decided to work with smaller groups and artists, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and James P. Johnson.
After touring in New York and playing an iconic show at the Apollo Theatre, Bessie decided to return back to the South to seek out her musical roots, as her style was beginning to seem out of date to many. However, her music still lives on today as some of the most influential female jazz of the 1920s.
Sidney Bechet was a jazz composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist who became one of the most important soloists in jazz. Many people note that he was just as great an improviser as Louis Armstrong, though his temperament often held him back, which is why he didn’t achieve worldwide acclaim until the 1940s.
Bechet emerged from New Orleans and became famous for his clarinet playing, which was more refined than what anyone had heard before. It was for the first time that people thought of the clarinet as a solo instrument. Bechet would often ask the trumpet player in his band to hold back or play simpler melodic leads so he could solo around him.
Bechet would move between the US and France during the 20s and 30s, eventually honing in on the soprano saxophone. In fact, because Bechet was such a dominant player during this time, very few picked up the soprano sax to challenge him.
I highly recommend listening to his recording of “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” as it is his only recording where he plays the bass sarrusophone!
Paul Whiteman had one of the most popular bands of the 20s, representing the apex of jazz music during the time. Though many people might hand the title to someone else now, he was referred to as the “King Of Jazz” during his time, employing some of the best musicians in his era, including Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trumbauer, and Bix Beiderbecke.
Whiteman also commissioned George Gershwin to write his most famous piece, “Rhapsody In Blue,” which would become a staple of American music. Many say he even discovered Bing Crosby, featuring him in his band, The Rhythm Boys.
Whiteman went down in history as one of the most prominent bandleaders of the time, churning out some incredible jazz records, including I’m Coming, Virginia, Wang Wang Blues, Whiteman Stomp, Mississippi Mud, Washboard Blues, and San.
He also, as people said, made a “lady out of jazz,” giving it a symphonic touch that paved the way for many jazz musicians in future generations, such as Gil Evans, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis. In essence, he was the person who made jazz music sweet and more commercial-friendly, which was especially strange in an era where African-American jazz musicians were topping the charts.
Ask any true jazz saxophonist and they’ll tell you how much they admire Benny Carter. He had a uniquely rich tone and original style that he played with, which no one has been able to capture to this day. Of course, he was just as brilliant of a composer as he was a saxophonist, composing pieces like When Lights Are Low and Blues In My Heart.
Carter somewhat of a self-taught musician, growing up learning how to play the piano before anything. However, during the the late 1920s, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, assuming the duties of arranger. He was widely respected by 1932, allowing him to finally launch his very own band, which featured soloists like Teddy Wilson, Sid Catlett, and Chu Berry. They would eventually disband in 1936 due to financial reasons.
In 1935, he packed up and moved to Paris to play alto sax and trumpet in the Willie Lewis band, and in 1937, he played for a season at a Dutch seaside resort in on the larger international and interracial bands at the time. Some of the icons he played with included Django Reinhardt, Coleman Hawkins, Stephane Grapelly, and more!
Carter would go on to live a Hollywood lifestyle, recording soundtracks for many years while playing a few tours around the world.
Duke Ellington is one of the most iconic creative forces of 20th-century American music. He influenced a number of genres with his talents, including jazz, pop, and classical. One of his first major roles in music was when he became the leader of his first band in New York in 1924 although he was a Washington, D.C. native.
It would be three years before his band was hired to play regularly at New York’s famous Cotton Club, which were broadcast almost every night. Soon enough, Ellington and his band had reached international fame.
He was invited to play at the White House in 1931 and toured Europe by 1933. Ellington would eventually suffer financially when big bands went out of fashion at the end of World War II, though he would continue composing and playing, paying the band with his composition royalties.
Most of Ellington’s pieces were instrumental, though he would eventually hire singers at later dates. Some of his best-known songs are “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Satin Doll,” which was sung by the great Ella Fitzgerald.
Duke Ellington put a stamp on 20th-century music and changed the way people looked at jazz. His many hit songs will surely live on for eternity.
If there were ever a great example of an American jazz virtuoso, it would be Fats Waller. He became one of the most iconic and influential pianists and performers of his time, mastering the stride piano style and finding commercial success throughout the states and overseas.
His attention to detail and decorative technique informed the playing styles of many jazz pianists going forward, including Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, and Art Tatum.
Waller got his professional start playing the organ at a silent movie theater in Harlem for $23 a week. By 1923, he recorded his first solo album for Okeh, and made several piano rolls for the company. However, it wasn’t until 1926 that he signed with RCA and his career took off. This was the era where he recorded some of his most well-known pieces, including “The Joint Is Jumpin,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Jitterbug Waltz.”
He also made several vaudeville appearances with the famous Bessie Smith and collaborated on a number of musicals with the lyricist and poet, Andy Razaf. He would go on to produce “Ain’t Misbehavin,” which would become one of a Louis Armstrong’s biggest hits.
George Gershwin was said to be anything but studious when he was a boy, which was why it was so interesting to his family when they found out he had been secretly learning the piano in his younger years. At 16, he moved out to become a song plugger at Tin Pan Alley. His first true hit was “Swanee,” which brought him to fame in 1919.
In 1924, George decided to team up with his older brother Ira, and the two of them became one of the most dominant forces in Broadway, writing poignant ballads and infections rhythm numbers. The two of them were able to craft a series of extraordinary musical comedies, including “Funny Face,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “Girl Crazy,” among others.
Of course, his biggest hit was “Rhapsody In Blue,” which introduced the American public to a brand new era of music. A famous conductor of the time, Walter Damrosch, would commission Gershwin to compose a piano concerto of this piece for the New York Symphony Society.
Many believe that this song was Gershwin’s greatest piece. To this day, his musical influenced is recognized by musicians and institutions all over the world.
From a Frustrated Producer in a Ragtag Bedroom Studio to Major Placements on TV Earning $1,000s!
My name is Evan, and I've been making music since around 3rd grade. I'm from San Diego, California, but I've lived in Washington, DC for the last 20 years.
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