Black and White photograph of Maxine Sullivan singing on stage, 1946.

Harlem Nights & Downtown Lights: Jazz & Swing – my favourite music from the 1920s – 1940s

The 1920s was a time of unprecedented economic growth.

For the first time more people lived in cities than on farms. The entire wealth of the U.S.A doubled in 9 years. To put the rapid development of the era into perspective, in 1912 only 16% of households had electricity.  By the mid-1920s that number skyrocketed to 60%.

New York City views, skyline c. 1935

There were many societal and cultural changes at the time. It was a time of abundance, novelty and consumerism.

It was a time of parties and excess, of alcohol and dance. And of “flappers” – a rebellious movement of women that smoked, drank, and broke taboos of the time by wearing shorter skirts (calf height) and speaking “vulgar” and wearing mascara and bright red lipstick.

Common at the time were ‘petting parties’. Defying traditional monogamy of the time.

“The boys all seem to do it and don’t seem to come back if you don’t do it also. We girls are at our wits’ end to know what to do. … I’m sure that I don’t want to marry anyone who is too slow to want to pet. But I want to discover what is right. Please help me.”

Anonymous young woman 1926

Jazz arose out of the some of the most turbulent historical events and social shifts since the industrial revolution. Such as two world wars, the Great Depression (1929–1939) and the Prohibition, all within a 30-year period.

Jazz emerged out of this chaos, and thrived during this time of upheaval, unrest, and uncertainty. By 1929 the age of the flapper came tumbling down, with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

By then, jazz had really come into its own.

Jazz covered love and romance, as well as financial ruin and loneliness and hardship. It was light-hearted fun for adults to escape the fears of the economy and war, and hence it is often over-the-top silly and “gay”, or soulful and melancholic – in the form of blues.

Contrast the lyrics from these two songs;

I Ain’t Got Nobody, and no body cares for me. I’m so sad and lonely, won’t somebody come and take a chance with me


Blue skies, smilin’ at me. Nothin’ but blues skies do I see. Bluebirds singing a song. Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long”

Historically, it was a milestone cultural movement in breaking down racial segregation, even before sports. Jazz clubs were one of the first places where young people of different races were dancing and performing music together.

Big jazz and swing bands like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra were some of the first to be comprised of different races.

Innovative and unique

Musically, there is a lot going on in Jazz. There are complex time signatures and melodies and a lot unique innovation.

The singing was clear, with clear enunciation. With the exception, of course, of a very unique element of jazz – Scat Singing:

“Originating in vocal jazz, scat singing or scatting is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”

Jazz was culturally and historically significant. Jazz had a lasting impact on the music and film, as well as the entertainment industry at large.

The jazz clubs were hot and wild with cigarette smoke and cocktails flowing with live music and close dancing. There wasn’t vulgar crassness and swearing in every sentence – in fact there was none.

A nightclub map of Harlem 1933

“The only important omission is the location of the various speakeasies, but since there are 500 of them, you won’t have much trouble”

Jazz and Hollywood

Hollywood Jazz films and Biopics

I grew up watching films from the Golden Age of Hollywood also known as Classical Hollywood Cinema. From silent films of the 1920s to Broadway musicals of the 1930s and 1940s such as Easter Parade (1948) and Anchors Aweigh (1945), on VHS tapes. 

Singin’ in the Rain 1952, Footlight Parade 1933, Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942

In these musical films tap dancing features prominently and the musical numbers are highlights of the films. And both tap and jazz were frequently performed together.

Tap dance has a lot of overlap with Jazz music, as both were a product of a unique fusion of European music and dance and African music and dance, into something truly unique and timeless.

Whether it was John Bubbles, the Nicholas Brothers or the Berry Brothers, Hollywood classical music frequently had tap dance and featured jazz music.

Armstrong and Grace Kelly on the set of High Society, 1956

In many of these films with Fred Astaire and one of my favourite actresses, Ginger Rogers, they would perform tap dance to jazz music. Some films would even feature jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong.

The Great Gatsby is a 1949 film that had Charleston dancing and captures some of the spirit of the jazz era. As a side note F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife was a flapper and they lived the high life of the 1920s.

My favourite film around jazz is the pre-code biopic of Paul Whiteman in King Of Jazz (1930) with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

Jazz was used for patriotic songs such as such as the Andrews Sisters singing I’m Getting Corns For My Country.

Some other notable Hollywood films about famous Jazz musicians during this time include the biopics:

  • Birth of the Blues (1941)
  • Gus Arnheim and His Cocoanut Grove Orchestra (1928)
  • Syncopation (1942)
  • Jammin’ the Blues is a (1944)
  • The Jazz Singer is a (1927)
  • Make Mine Music is a (1946)
  • Story Weather (1943)

Story Weather was a milestone film for showcasing black talent at a time when black performers were relegated to minor or stereotypical roles. It features tap and jazz.

Stormy Weather, 1943

Not Just America | джаз

Early on, jazz expanded to Europe, especially in France where it was a thriving success. It even made its way to Russia, where it alternated being shunned and tolerated, until it was banned by the C.C.C.P.

Jazz only made a real revival in the 1960s in Russia during the Khrushchev Thaw, by then Jazz in “The Land of The Free” already had its golden age.

“Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) was formed in 1923, they opposed jazz music, due to its Western roots.” source

Here is an example of soviet Jazz:

Eddie Rosner, was arrested for trying to leave the country illegally and was sentenced to 10 years in the gulag.

Eddie was known as the “White Armstrong” and an acclaimed musician in German and Poland. He fled Europe from the Nazi’s to Soviet Russia where he became a star, then a convict and deserter. In prison he formed a jazz band, but ultimately like many soviet musicians his mental health suffered greatly.  He died poor and forgotten.

“It didn’t help being a Jew playing Negro music” Eddie Rosner – Source

Some notable Jazz musicians from Russia:

  • Leonid Utesov (Леонид Утёсов)
  • Oleg Lundstrem (Олег Лундстрем)
  • Alexander Varlamov (Александр Варламов)
  • Viatcheslav Nazarov (Вячеслав Назаров)
  • Viktor Knushevitsky (Виктор Кнушевицкий
  • Alexander Tsfasman (Александр Цфасман)
  • The Moscow Jazz Orchestra (Московский Джазовый Оркестр)
  • The State Jazz Orchestra of the USSR (Государственный джаз-оркестр СССР)

“…I find it very interesting that jazz both faced opposition in both countries, but the reasoning is very different. Its no doubt that the reason why America opposed jazz was due to racial reasoning: jazz was created by African Americans people and Jim Crow was still going very strong in America at the time. With the Soviet Union however, its disdain was due to its Western origin (both of which I think are unfair prejudices).”


Soviet Jazz Films

A Soviet Russian film by one of the most celebrated film directors – Karen Shakhnazarov (Каре́н Шахназа́ров) is We Are from Jazz (Мы из джаза) (1983) about a student who is expelled from music school because he loves jazz, and was set in the 1920s.

Jolly Fellows (Весёлые ребята) 1934 was directed by Grigori Aleksandrov (Григо́рий Алекса́ндров).

A modern Russian film about a counter culture movement known as Hipsters (Стиляги) or (style hunters) protested against the current norms by wearing bright western clothes, listing and dancing to western music such as jazz, and engaging in other western influences. 

“it was dangerous to listen to or to be performing jazz in that era” – Prof. Lohr


These ‘hipsters’ smuggled western music around and made bone records – counterfeit records made on x-rays which were abundant due to a tuberculosis surge in Eastern Europe at the time.

It is interesting that many of the early white jazz pioneers arose out of poverty, and that several prominent lyricists, composers, or band leaders like Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, Artie Shaw, Irving Berlin all came from impoverished Russian immigrant families / backgrounds.

Vladimir Dukelsky was a much-respected Russian composer of classical music as well as a poet of some distinction. He became Vernon Duke, one of the most successful American songwriters writing sophisticated popular songs, such as a April in Paris (which happens to be a favourite of mine).

Jazz was created out of hardship. By a people who lived through hard times, creating beautiful music to escape through.

“Today he dances jazz, but tomorrow he will sell his homeland”
“Сегодня он танцует джаз, а завтра Родину продаст”

The stilyagi’s signature and the key idea underlying their social protest

My Favourite Jazz Stars

These are my favourites. I will include a quote from each and short tidbit about them.

For a lot of these performers, I prefer the music from their early and mid-careers rather than their later work.

I prefer the sound of the records before electronic instruments came on the scene. There wasn’t all the electronic filters and editing that we have now and neither was there the trend as there is in modern music of being louder and noisier

Louis Armstrong c. 1950

Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996)

Lady Ella grew up in Newport News, Virginia. She did not initially plan on being a singer it was a last-minute decision to enter singing contest at 17 – which she won. She was the first African American to win a Grammy.  Her career spanned six decades, and she always remained humble and kind despite extraordinary fame and wealth.

“I know I’m no glamour girl, and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.”

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

“Pops” grew up in New Orleans, and had a career spanning 5 decades. He was a trumpet virtuoso and was pivotal in turning jazz from an ensemble musical form, to a soloist form. He and Ella were one of the first to use scat singing. He was the first African American to host a radio show.

“Never play anything the same way twice.”

Carmen McRae (1920 – 1994)

Carmen McRae initially pursued a career as a pianist and only later shifted her focus to singing, where she had a career spanning 4 decades. Her career began in Harlem in the 1940s. She was known to be an avid photographer.

“… everything I do, I choose very, very carefully, because if I don’t like it, I can’t make you like it.” – Carmen McRae

Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955)

“Bird” grew up in Kansas City. He struggled with heroin addiction and died at age of 34 as result. He was a mostly self-taught prodigy. Parker learned to play the saxophone by listening to jazz records and practicing rigorously. He was known for his incredible ear and ability to pick up music just by hearing it.

“Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.” – Charlie Parker

Glenn Miller (1904 – 1945)

Glenn grew up in Clarinda, Iowa. He founded the Glenn Miller Orchestra which became phenomenally successful, creating a distinctive sound marked by the clarinet holding the melody with saxophone harmonies.

During World War II, Glenn formed the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band and entertained troops, helping boost morale.

Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel under mysterious circumstances. His disappearance remains a mystery.

“By giving the public a rich and full melody, distinctly arranged and well played, all the time creating new tone colors and patterns, I feel we have a better chance of being successful. I want a kick to my band, but I don’t want the rhythm to hog the spotlight.” – Glenn Miller

Maxine Sullivan (1911 – 1987)

Maxine Sullivan grew up in Homestead, Pennsylvania. She had very little formal music training.

She was able to quit her job as a domestic worker and work as singer at a speakeasy The Benjamin Harris Literary Society in 1936.

“I can’t sing it straight. I have no choice but to swing it.”

Paul Whiteman (1890 – 1967)

Born in Denver, Colorado, Whiteman is credited with blending jazz with larger orchestrations, thus creating a more symphonic jazz style. He expertly combined jazz and classical music and helped shape the future of American popular music.

“Jazz is the folk music of the machine age”. – Paul Whiteman

Benjamin Goodman (1909 –1986)

“Benny” grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He was the ninth of twelve children in a poor Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia. Goodman was recognised as a musical prodigy. By the age of 10, he was already performing professionally in bands and was known for his skill on the clarinet. He was heavily influenced by New Orleans jazz musicians.

Some of the guys I played with .. didn’t go around learning more about their instruments from an intellectual point of view. All they wanted was to play hot jazz, and the instrument was just a means. I’d imagine that a lot of them criticized me-said my technique was too good. Something like that. But I’ve always wanted to know what made music. How you do it, and why it sounds good. I always practiced, worked like hell. – Benny Goodman

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)

“Lady Day”, grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ms. Holiday had a difficult childhood marked by poverty, an absent father, and a troubled relationship with her mother. She faced numerous hardships, including racial discrimination and sexual abuse.

Largely self-taught as a singer, she did not have formal music training but developed her unique singing style by listening to jazz records and drawing inspiration from musicians such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

“Everyone’s got to be different. You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything.” – Billie Holiday

Sarah Vaughan (1924 – 1990)

“Sassy” grew up in Newark, New Jersey. She often skipped school to listen to musicians at local clubs, absorbing the sounds of the contemporary jazz scene.

There’s a category for me. I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste. – Sarah Vaughan

Artie Shaw (1910 – 2004)

The “King of Swing” grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. He was mainly self-taught. He loved reading and writing and was married eight times.

Jazz was born out of the whiskey bottle, was raised on marijuana, and will expire on cocaine. – Artie Shaw

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

“The Jeweler” grew up in in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He was the second of four children. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He led a band that toured the Pacific, playing for troops. He was an avid read and also married eight times.

Gershwin was largely self-taught, learning to play piano by ear. He later received formal training.

Gershwin was one of the first composers to incorporate jazz elements into classical forms, bridging a gap between these musical worlds. This can be seen in his opera Porgy and Bess which incorporated jazz and blues elements. He died of a brain tumour at 38.

“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

Peggy Lee (1920 – 2002)

Peggy Grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota. She grew up in a troubled household and music was her escape. She honed her vocal skills by listening to records and practicing on her own. She soon developed a unique and mesmerizing voice that would set her apart from other singers of her generation.

She co-wrote many of her own songs. Peggy Lee was fluent in multiple languages and often included songs in various languages in her performances.

She was deeply involved in various charitable causes, championing for civil rights and animal welfare.

I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘softly with feeling.’ The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience — softly, with feeling. – Peggy Lee

The Jazz Standards

Jazz standards were defining songs that were frequently performed, loved, and improvised upon, and ultimately became part of the jazz repertoire.

Most of my favourite songs are included in The Great American Songbook – which is a collection of some of the most popular jazz standards and songs from Hollywood and Broadway from the 1920s through to 1950.

Some of these songs have an interesting backstory.

Peggy Lee’s It’s A Good Day started with housework:

“As I busied myself with housework, I began to sing a little ‘dummy’ melody, and the words kept popping in, so I lay down the vacuum and wrote them down. When it was finished, I practically ran to my sister’s apartment, called up to her window and sang the song.”

Recorded for Capitol Records on July 12, 1946, “It’s A Good Day” peaked at #16 on Billboard’s charts in January 1947.

The song It Ain’t Necessarily So – is from the Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). It is sung by a character who is a drug dealer, and in the song expresses his doubt about several statements in the Bible. My favourite version of this song is by Maxine Sullivan.

Irvin Berlin said the following about his hit White Christmas:

“I wrote it for a revue I intended producing, changed my mind and put it away until it was used in a Bing Crosby picture. At the time I had no idea ‘White Christmas’ would be a perennial hit or that Paramount would add to its popularity with a movie of the same name. When the song first became popular, I attributed it to the War and the fact that Christmas means peace. I felt that since people were singing it I ought to write another verse. But I couldn’t do it. New words would not come. Much as I’d like to take a bow and say I anticipated its future success, I must admit I didn’t.”

Some of my favourite lyricists and composers

Some of my favourite lyricists and composers include Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, Gershwin and my favourite, Irvin Berlin.

Even though Jazz is predominantly associated with black musicians – who took swing and matured it into what we know as jazz – during this era most of the popular songs were by white lyricists.

I think the reason is that a culture of discrimination prevented it being a reliable line of work, and the audience was still mostly white at this point. I found this interesting because I always associated jazz with African American and didn’t know that white people played a role in its development.

Jazz historically was always a mixed product. It was born out of European and African influences and it was performed in its earliest days by both white and black musicians.

Some of the composers and lyricists had interesting life stories as well.

Cole Porter – who after a serious horseback riding accident was left disabled and in constant pain – continued writing beautiful songs that had enduring popularity and featured in celebrated films of the time.

Many of these lyricists and composers suffered either discrimination or struggled with drug addiction, and many were alcoholics.

Here is a selection of some of the most popular standards, by decade.

1920s Standards

  • Moonlight in Vermont
  • Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town
  • Puttin’ On The Ritz
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1929)

1930s Standards

  • Memories of You
  • April in Paris
  • You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me
  • It Ain’t Necessarily So
  • The Way You Look Tonight
  • Autumn in New York
  • The Lady Is A Tramp
  • The Very Thought of You
  • Summertime
  • Nice Work If You Can Get It
  • 42 street theme song

1940s standards

  • White Christmas
  • Baby, It’s Cold Outside
  • Black Coffee
  • Skylark (1941)
  • It’s So Peaceful in the Country (1941)
  • Early in the Mornin’
  • Come Rain or Come Shine
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Cotton Tail
  • Bewitched, Bothered, And Bewildered
  • The Lady Is A Tramp
  • Route 66 (1946)
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo (1941)
  • Black Coffee (1948)
  • It’s A Good Day by Peggy Lee
  • Moonlight in Vermont

My Favourite Jazz Standards and Recordings

Here are some of my favourite recordings, of some of my favourite standards:

Ella Fitzgerald: Puttin’ On The Ritz, April in Paris

Maxine Sullivan:Sky Lark, It Ain’t Necessarily So

Carmen MacRae: The Very Though of You, Just a Little Lovin

Peggy Lee: Why Don’t You Do Right, It’s A Good Day, Black Coffee, It’s A Good Day

There is even one with my name (sort of) – Ruby My Dear (1945), and one composed by a Ruby Braff – Russian Lullaby recorded in 1953.

Most of these artists sang the same songs and would interpret them differently. Even the same song by the same artists would be different from one event to the next.

I enjoy listening to these songs and picturing the people of the time listening to these in their historical context.

Some of these were soldiers heading into World War 2 or just after the war, some were African Americans facing discrimination but putting their heart and soul into their music as their escape, creating beauty through adversity.

I like to imagine as I listen how people perceived jazz – especially when you compare the other types of music at the time and how different jazz was. It’s certainly easy to see why it stirred such a buzz.

I had vinyl’s of all of these, (my favourites being live recordings of Ella) that I would play on weekends, but sadly they were stolen in a house break-in.

“I never knew how good our songs were, until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

Ira Gershwin

Jazz Clubs: Speakeasies and hidden fun

Speakeasies proliferated during the Prohibition. They had to disguise themselves in creative ways, often requiring a password, secret handshake, or special knock to enter.

To give an idea of how extensive speakeasies were:

“At one time, there were thought to be over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone; New Jersey claimed there were ten times as many as before the amendment, and Rochester, New York, twice the number. The same became true all over the nation.”


Singers would perform holding their trumpet in one hand and their cigarette in another while alcohol flowed liberally.

1938, Café Society was New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub.

Some of the clubs had strange names such as Bimbo’s 365 Club of 1931, The Blind Pig (which was sort of a catch all phrase for speakeasies) and Slapsy Maxie’s (Los Angeles), named after the boxer Maxie Rosenbloom, and known for its combination of boxing themes and Hollywood glamour. It was a popular spot for celebrities and movie stars.

The Cotton Club one was one of the most famous joints in town. Despite hosting some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era, black people initially were not able to be patrons.

It is strange that music that was as Paul Whiteman put it: “jazz came to America 300 years ago in chains” was performed for white people when it was always an African inspired art. Something about jazz was enough for whites to pay to watch it and enjoy it, but not enough to abolish the racial discrimination around it.

52nd Street, New York 1948

Jazz and Gin

Cocktails were the most popular drink of the time and were the most popular type of beverage in these jazz.

After immigrating to a very hot and very humid tropical island in the Indian Ocean, I didn’t feel like dry red wines as much, so I started drinking refreshing gins.

I have a weekend routine of listening to jazz and drinking gin. Sometimes I’ll play instrumental jazz like Charlie Parker – while I read some yellow-paged second hand books. I am a vintage soul at heart.

In jazz you frequently have both singers singing over each other – using a technique known as polyphony. It’s strange to write out, but it feels like it sends tingles in my brains. Musically this can be two separate melodies sung over each other or two separate singers but in a way that produce harmony.

The Legacy Continues

Jazz arose out of a time of depression and uncertainly. It dealt with everyday life, issues of poverty and depression, as well as love. It was performed in clubs that had a strong social element in a time of uncertainly and depression. The tunes were infused with life and feeling.

At a time when people were depressed and hopeless, Jazz helped uplift people and gave them an exciting new art to express themselves as well as being cathartic to express loss or depression against a backdrop of racial discrimination and social unrest.

There are a lot of passionate people preserving the legacy of jazz to ensure it lives on. I think that is quite special.

The New Orleans Polyphony, keeping the legacy of jazz alive.

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