When researching 1920s American history, it’s impossible not to notice the staggering amount of segregation between cultures.
And because music is such an integral part of culture, you find yourself reading about completely different groups that barely ever mingled.
Music, like society at the time, was not much of a melting pot. Unquestionably, musicians were blending musical styles, but it was nothing like today when you can hear a country sample over top of a hip-hop drum beat, behind a female opera singer on Spotify.
Also, we must keep in mind that recording technology was in its infancy in the 1920s, so if you wanted to hear music, you turned on the radio or went down to the local club/pub. Phonographs were still too expensive for the less well-to-do. And many of the best musicians had very little access to recording equipment — making it difficult to immortalize legendary performances.
Despite all of this, popular music in the 1920s thrived like never before. More radio stations were popping up, playing music instead of news. This gave musicians more opportunities for exposure, and listeners the same.
Even though phonographs were somewhat expensive, record sales gave musicians, songwriters and publishers a new way of making money. Previously, money was primarily made from sheet music sales.
Technology aside, the 1920s were graced with one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen.
Louis Armstrong embodies the definition of a musical genius. Like Beethoven, he influenced not just a genre, but all music that would ever be made after him. Truthfully, 99% of every sound that we hear in today’s has been affected by Armstrong in some way or another.
While Armstrong was reinventing and redefining jazz, other artists were doing quite well commercially.
Paul Whiteman led one of the most successful bands of all time, even though you’ve probably never heard of him. By 1922, his group had 28 members and he was making over $1 million per year.
Al Jolson, a successful actor in such films as The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool, was also the biggest singer of the decade.
One example of “genre-blending” was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A song decades ahead of its time, it had the raw emotion and power of a jazz four-piece while retaining the elegance and layers of a classical masterpiece. It’s truly one of the great musical achievements of the 20th Century.