I have trained a Pandora station to play popular songs from the 1920s and early 1930s. I wrote about the music of that era in an earlier post, “It’s Time to Revive 1920s’ Jazz“. Here’s the post in its entirety (with some updated links), plus an addendum about a long-forgotten singer who will brighten your day.
I often wonder why the popular jazz of the 1920s, which faded in the mid-1930s, isn’t still widely popular. It’s rhythmically inventive, driving, and upbeat — as opposed to the monotonous and often dreary, dissonant, and unmelodic droning of what later became known as jazz. (I’m not writing here about the New Orleans style of jazz, which is a genre of its own, and has never died out. If you’re unsure of the distinction, click on the links at the end of this post.)
The jazz of the ’20s (and early-to-mid-’30s) evolved into the swing of the ’30s and 40s. Swing evolved into the ponderous big-band sound of the ’40s and ’50s.
Rhythmically inventive, driving, and upbeat popular music returned in the mid-’50s, with the birth of rock and roll. The Beatles and their ilk put a twist on rock and roll, and the genre evolved into what is known as classic rock — the sound that dominated the mid-’60s to early ’70s. Its variants — some of them close to the classic sound — survive and thrive to this day.
But nothing — with the possible exception of early swing — has yet to rival the musical sophistication of ’20s jazz. Bands led by the likes of Red Allen, Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds, the early Duke Ellington, Jean Goldkette, Fletcher Henderson, Isham Jones, Vincent Lopez, Jelly Roll Morton, Red Nichols, King Oliver, and Paul Whiteman (to name only a small representation) recorded thousands of foot-stomping tunes (plus innumerable blues, ballads, novelty tunes, other non-jazzy material).
It is de rigeur in some musical circles to deride the offerings of the larger ensembles, such as those led by several of the band leaders mentioned above. But their tight orchestrations delivered as much toe-tapping vitality as anything offered up by smaller groups.
For a feast of ’20s jazz — and much more — go to The Red Hot Jazz Archive, tap your toes, and lighten your spirit. (RealPlayer required.)
One of my favorites, which number in the hundreds, is “Dinah“. Not a jazzy song, you say? Well, dig these variations on a theme:
Cliff Edwards (1925)
Jean Goldkette (1926)
Joe Venuti (1928)
Red Nichols (1929)
Louis Armstrong (1930)
Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers (1932) (After a ballad-y start, Bing rips into it. Bing as you’ve probably never heard him.)
The Boswell Sisters (1934) (The Bozzies followed Bing’s lead.)
Fats Waller (1935)
Now for the long-forgotten singer: Annette Hanshaw. Until I set up my Pandora station, which I call Upbeat, I hadn’t heard of her. The only female singers of that day whose works I was familiar with were Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Smith and Rainey were blues singers. Etting and Morgan were identified (in retrospect, at least) with torch songs: Etting with “Body and Soul“, Morgan with “Bill“. Hanshaw’s renderings of “Body and Soul” and “Bill” are vocally superior to those of Etting and Morgan, though less torchy.
Hanshaw’s sprightly soprano is simply too cheerful to be subdued by songs of longing and regret. It’s not a perfect voice (the lowest notes are weak). But it’s such a happy voice that I must share some links to a few of the dozens of her songs that I’ve heard on my Upbeat station:
“Am I Blue?” (a happy blues song with Hanshaw at the mic)
“I Get the Blues When It Rains” (more happy blues)
“Let’s Fall in Love” (as close to a plaintive sound as she gets)
P.S. After I had added the paragraphs about Annette Hanshaw, I found John Wilson’s article, “The Influence of Jazz on Modern Singing” (The New York Times, August 20, 1990). It’s a review of a book about jazz singing. This is spot-on (except for the part about Hanshaw’s age, as discussed below):
There is a fascinatingly abbreviated saga of Annette Hanshaw, ”the Louise Brooks of jazz,” as Mr. Friedwald calls her. She was born wealthy: ”no two-bit manager ever cracked the whip and tried to Svengali her into sounding like everybody else.” She became a star through her records, starting in 1926, by using the musical idiom of the 20’s in what Mr. Friedwald terms ”a creative modern way.” Although she had virtually no ambition, despised being a celebrity and was terrified of audiences, in her eight years of recording she made ”the period’s most consistently excellent series of female vocal records outside the blues idiom.” She retired permanently at the age of 28 and lived happily for 50 more years without singing.
Actually Hanshaw retired permanently after a 1937 radio appearance when she was 36. She recorded her final disc in 1934 (“Let’s Fall in Love” is on the A side) — her only recording of that year. The mistake about her age is due to an error someone made somewhere along the line (and which seems to have gone uncorrected by Hanshaw), namely, that she was born in 1910, though her real birth year was 1901. The error persisted in the Times’s 1985 obituary for Hanshaw, and wasn’t rectified until many years after her death. In any event, she did live for 50 years after her final recording, but she was almost 84 when she died, not 74, as the Times‘s obituary says, or 78, as Wilson says.