“Stompin at the Savoy” was a popular instrumental tune that charted throughout the 1930s, a significant time in jazz music history. Benny “King of Swing” Goodman released its most popular rendition, though a talented African American saxophonist Edgar Sampson wrote and arranged the original. 

The story all but represents the history of jazz. Descendants of the African diaspora first created the art form in the early 1900s. African American creatives were oftentimes reduced by the cruel workings of society’s racism. Barred from the reputable venues of the day, jazz weaved its way round brothels and bars of the red-light district in New Orleans, LA, the birthplace of this spellbinding revelation. 

As the 1920s roared, Prohibition was a killer moment for jazz. Gangster-run speakeasies not only provided alcohol illegally, but also hired Black musicians to perform. Notably, some venues even allowed interracial audiences. Conservatives tried to paint jazz in a negative light, with its break from tradition and the desire for freedom it inspired. On that front, jazz helped usher in a new movement in history and culture, especially for Black people. 

The Great Depression of the early 1930s resulted in the Great Migration. Black individuals left their homes down south pursuing new lives in the big cities. Chock full of promise, despite the way things looked, they were still reduced to domestic work and discriminatory behavior. But then there were nights at the jazz clubs that made it seem worth it! Hope was a rhythmic note where youth dreamed of moving beyond the rags and blues that preceded them.

The jazz during this time took place in large rooms with big bands. Acts were commonly termed as orchestra sets, filled with any pick of brass instruments, trombones, trumpets, and string sections. In addition, at places like the Savoy Ballroom, dance ruled. The Lindy Hop and Jitterbug sent feet flying through the air, wowed crowds with aerial moves and created an eye-catching spectacle. 

One of the most popular acts from this time was Chick Webb, house bandleader at Harlem’s Savoy. Duke Ellington also cemented his career, with strategic band assemblies and countless recordings. He wrote more than one thousand compositions. He and Cab Calloway found a lot of success playing at the all-white patron Cotton Club, also in Harlem; Calloway was the first African American to sell a million records from a single song. 

The scene was packed with other heavy hitters. There was Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson and Count Basie. New Jersey-born Basie worked and traveled as part of burlesque shows, the vaudeville circuit, and comedic acts before he was 20 years old, and went on to join one of the first big bands, Walter Page’s Blue Devils. While Ellington and Calloway were running it up in Harlem, Basie toured throughout Kansas City, MO and Chicago, IL. And Chick Webb’s group made the Savoy the meeting ground for a “battle of the bands” in 1938. Women vocalists also joined the ranks, most widely recognized Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

But jazz music and clubs were about to evolve. With popularity waning, the 1940s introduced bebop style. Money crunching reduced band sizes, replacing them with trios and quartets. Instead of the music to dance to, jazz became the music to listen to. Early pioneers of this new style included young alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, Jr., who developed an interest in improvisation. Dizzy Gillespie was another early adopter. 

Whereas Ellington and Calloway greatly amplified the presence of great Black talent, Louis Armstrong is a giant among men in jazz history. “Satchmo” achieved rare crossover success thanks to his unique voice and ludicrously excellent solo performances that made him claim the deepest admiration of many. 

As jazz clubs became more intimate, the music challenged artists to be even more daring, even more inventive and even more brilliant in their capabilities. The passion certainly grew stronger for the art form.

African Americans leaned on jazz nightclubs for a brief reprieve of the hard life that they were living. Though the immense popularity of jazz faded, it set the stage for future genres and styles of Black music. With rising stardom and global interest from listeners of all hues, it carried the wave of what the music industry would be like for evermore.

Discover more about the history of jazz when NMAAM opens to the public in September 2020. And be sure to visit nmaam.org/galleries to explore our A Love Supreme gallery and to learn more about our exhibits chronicling the evolution of every genre of popular Black music in America. 

–Carlyn Pounders