Ticket to the Twenties Themes: Jazz (or Not) in Los Angeles and Beyond

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following up on my colleague Steve Dugan’s excellent post from yesterday about radio in 1920s Los Angeles and as we approach our Ticket to the Twenties festival this weekend, this post touches upon  jazz (or not) in Los Angeles.  The parenthetical, “or not,” actually has to do with something far more common that jazz: popular music passed off as jazz.

Most historians of the form suggest that jazz emerged from New Orleans and was a combination of many different types of music found in that very diverse city.  Sources include African, Spanish, French, Creole (all the above), military march, classical, and popular musics.  Instrumentation could vary widely, but most came from the classical and military band worlds, including saxophones, trumpets and cornets, clarinets, strings like violins and basses, and a variety of percussion instruments.

What distinguished jazz (a term many musicians don’t like) from other types of music was such aspects as particular rhythms, including ones with syncopation, where the accent or emphasis is on the upbeats (that is, say your foot taps the floor and then lifts–it’s the lift where the upbeat occurs) and the use of improvisation, whether by soloists or ensembles.

Jazz was mainly developed by black musicians and some of the giants of the early years from New Orleans included trumpeter Bunk Johnson, cornetists King Oliver and Buddy Bolden, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, soprano  saxophonist  and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, among many others.

Some researchers suggest that there were other musicians outside New Orleans who were playing jazz at around the same time, while others suggest it started in the Crescent City and spread quickly to other American cities.  The Mississippi was an obvious conduit for the music north to places like St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis and Kansas City (the latter, of course, across Missouri from St. Louis.)  New York also developed a powerful early jazz scene, as well.

Masters like Fletcher Henderson, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others came from other parts of the country.  Female blues singers were often found playing with jazz musicians and included Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and more.  Oliver and Armstrong moved to Chicago and, in the latter’s case, to New York. Armstrong, in many ways, stood head and shoulders above other jazz players, both for his the immense creativity and powerful clarity of his trumpet playing and for his unique and increasingly popular vocal delivery.

la-10-pc-jazz-band-1920s
This great 1920s photo from the Homestead collection by well-known photographer Albert Witzel shows a 10-piece band with many of the expected jazz instruments, but there was no information was provided about which band is shown (except, that is, for a partial identification of the drummer second from the right–see below).

By the late teens, white musicians, inspired by what they heard from black jazz players, formed their own bands.  The New Orleans Rhythm Kings recorded early and Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang were among musicians who were recognized for their talents.

In the classical world, one of the few “serious” composers who was intrigued and influenced by jazz was George Gershwin, whose famed “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924 became a renowned piece of music, whether it could be termed jazz (or not.)

Popular music, as it frequently does with new and innovative forms, quickly jumped on the bandwagon of the jazz craze.  For the most part, band and orchestra leaders merely appropriated instrumentation, rhythms and sounds from jazz as “window dressing” for novelty and audio special effects.  A powerful syncopated rhythm and the heavy use of improvisation was usually lacking.

Some of the more popular bands mimicking jazz included those led by the immensely popular Paul Whiteman, the so-called “King of Jazz,” Jean Goldkette, Nat Shilkret, Ted Lewis and others.  One of the young singers who got his start in bands like this was Bing Crosby, while Whiteman and Goldkette both employed Beiderbecke.  The orchestras and dance bands of the 20s were followed in the following two decades by the swing bands of Benny Goodman, the James brothers, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and others.

As for the black originators, almost none of them achieved the popular acclaim of either the popular dance bands of the Twenties or the Swing bands of the Thirties and Forties.  Louis Armstrong was a conspicuous exception and even his music moved into the popular world and his unique and entertaining vocal style became as important as his trumpet playing.

In Los Angeles, which was not a major jazz center, there were a few early performers on the local scene.  As discussed in a recent post on the first record label in town, Nordskog, Kid Ory, formerly with Oliver and later with Armstrong, played in town, as did, for a short period, Morton.  Popular band leaders who toyed with jazz stylings included Abe Lyman, Gus Arnheim, Henry Halstead and others.

jazz-drummer-sherman
Guess we can call him “Smilin’ Sherman”!  This companion photograph by Witzel of the drummer shown in the group photo above is only labeled with the name “Sherman.”  

For the most part, the jazz played in the old Central Avenue district just south of downtown (later located in south-Central) in smaller clubs would be more like that found played by black musicians like Armstrong, Morton, and others elsewhere.  The jazz-inflected popular dance music of the hotels, like the Ambassador or the Biltmore, were like those of Whiteman, Shilkret and the like.

The city’s relative isolation limited its exposure to major jazz performers and the audience to support them until after World War II, but it did have a small scene from the late teens onward.

The photos shown here were taken by well-known Los Angeles photographer Albert Witzel, who specialized in images of film stars during the 1920s.  The shot of the ten-piece jazz band, with the nicely arranged array of instruments at the center, did not include any inscriptions indicating who the leader or musicians were.  However, the playful photo of the drummer, who appears with the ensemble and then his solo turn, does have the name “Sherman” written on the reverse.

More than likely, this was one of the many dance bands of the era that used instrumentation, thythms and sounds that had jazz references, but played pop music.  It would also appear that this was an ensemble that could have played in a hotel ballroom or a large restaurant or club.  Perhaps someone out there who knows their 1920s Los Angeles music scene can identify this group?

This Saturday and Sunday, the Homestead’s Ticket to the Twenties event includes several bands that play music from or inspired by the 1920s.  Click here for lineups and more info on this fun, fast-paced and free festival.

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