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[Detail] Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Introduction | Jazz in the 1930s | Jazz in the 1940s

Jazz in the 1930s

Jazz is an American invention, developed by African-American musicians. It emerged in the early 1900s as its creators combined elements from West African musical traditions with elements from religious music and from other types of popular music based on European traditions. While some ingredients of jazz were borrowed from other musical genres, the music that emerged was unique, an art form of its own. A key element of jazz is improvisation, the adaptation of a melody or countermelody as a song is being performed. Thus, a song may be different every time it is played.

The new musical creation was dubbed jazz around 1915, although the exact origins of the term are not known. New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz, but Chicago, New York, and Kansas City soon emerged as important centers for jazz musicians.

By the 1930s, when William Gottlieb began taking the photographs that comprise the William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz collection, swing had become the most popular form of jazz. Swing has been described as having an optimistic feeling—and the nation needed that optimism as the Great Depression showed no signs of relenting. People wanted to dance to the music played by large swing bands led by such musicians as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman, and featuring such renowned soloists as Ella Fitzgerald. Swing bands played their music live on the radio, as well as in dance clubs, bars and restaurants, and concert halls.

Jazz groups and audiences of the time were often segregated. Although African-American musicians played at such venues as Roseland in New York City, black people were not allowed in the audience. Still, some musicians broke the color barrier. When renowned African-American vocalist Billie Holiday toured with white bandleader Artie Shaw, audiences were shocked. White bandleader Benny Goodman worked with such noted African-American instrumentalists as Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and Charlie Christian (guitar).