The Evolution of Jazz Music in the 1930s

Jazz is a musical art form that has expanded well beyond its own genre definition, transforming with every era and begetting countless other popular modern genre forms in the process. As an artistic invention of African American communities primarily in the Southern region of the United States, jazz finds its earliest roots in New Orleans, where black performers blended Southern blues, the startling variations of Caribbean music, and an altered form of traditional European instrumentation.

Resistance to “hot jazz” in the early twentieth century ultimately contributed to the evolution of jazz music in the 1930s. In the 1920s, jazz music had spread to the North, Chicago and New York, where bands gave their performances on the margins of society. During the Prohibition era, jazz was often performed in illegal speakeasies and the Red Light district, causing this “wild” music to be associated with the decadence of that era. However, with the onset of the depression the Dixieland jazz that had dominated up until the end of the 1920s was gradually supplanted.

The End of Dixieland

Jazz slowly began to creep in at the edges of mainstream music because of its popularity on college campuses, and in general, amongst American youth. The evolution of jazz music in the 1930s amounted to a compromise between the music industry and the older generation of white Americans, who were gradually accepting the presence of jazz music in popular culture. However, this increasing popularization affected a considerable dilution of the form, shedding much of the raw, impromptu quality of earlier Dixieland jazz.

Dixieland was characterized by the convergence of many forms – polyrhythmic ragtimes, the low pitch of blue notes, French Quadrilles, and improvisation, as well as a large rhythm section of the trombone, trumpets, tuba, guitars, clarinet, the piano, drums, and banjo. It was unpredictable, and the individual performers showcased their improvisational skills, playing from their souls not their notes.

The Rise of Big Band Swing

At the beginning of the decade white big band swing performers played “sweet” jazz, making use of violins and arranged sheet music. The reasons for this particular evolution of jazz music in the 1930s were twofold. It was more composed and less offensive to the older white American audience. At the same time, the onset of the Depression created a widespread need for inexpensive pleasantries, and jazz-inspired music gradually gained footing in the newly burgeoning radio industry.

The more recognizable swing arrangements evolved when dancing became linked to big band. Dance styles, such as the Lindy Hop, that had been popularized in black communities in the 1920s were appropriated by white teenagers and introduced in dance halls. Swing orchestras became larger, with 20-25 pieces in a typical band. Music was still arranged, but individual performers were given complex solos, and as was also typical in sweet jazz, a singer performed vocals to the music. Popular performers of the era include Shep Fields, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller.

The undomesticated “hot jazz” of black performers – including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmie Lunceford – persisted throughout the big band era, but never gained the popularity of its white counterpart. Big band singlehandedly dominated the entertainment industry, extending beyond radio to television and film in the 1940s. The evolution of jazz music in the 1930s led to its eventual popularity across the continent and later, internationally. Jazz music has been adapted globally across cultural lines, but its humble roots remain in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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