Jazz by Decade: 1930 - 1940

How Jazz Gave Rise to Swing in the 1930s

Benny Goodman And Band
Benny Goodman And Band, 1935. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

By 1930, the Great Depression had befallen the nation. 25 percent of the workforce was jobless, and up to 60 percent of African American men had no work. Cities became crowded with people searching for work after farms began to wither and rot. Black musicians were not allowed to do studio or radio work.

The Rise of Swing

However, jazz music was resilient. While businesses, including the record industry, were failing, dance halls were packed with people dancing the jitterbug to the music of big bands, which would come to be called swing music.

Swing bands attracted throngs with their intensity, playing fast and loud blues riffs and featuring virtuosic soloists. All of a sudden, thanks to musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, the tenor saxophone became the instrument most strongly identified with jazz.

In Kansas City, pianist Count Basie began building an all-star big band after Benny Moten, a well-known bandleader, died in 1935. Basie featured Lester Young, giving rise to the saxophonist’ career as an innovator, and also bringing exposure to an aggressive and bluesy vein of jazz that filled the clubs of the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the stars of earlier jazz styles were being forgotten. Bix Beiderbecke died of pneumonia in 1931 after a fierce battle with alcoholism. That same year, cornetist Buddy Bolden died at the Louisiana State Hospital for the Insane. He had never been recorded. Saxophonist Sidney Bechet was forced to open a tailor shop and abandon music. Louis Armstrong sustained an increasingly lucrative career, but at the expense of a faltering reputation for having become too commercial.

In 1933, the prohibition of alcohol was repealed, and speakeasies were legitimized. The sounds of swing were spreading, as exposure to its defiant jubilance reached audiences through radio waves.

Benny Goodman, who had a large radio following, purchased 36 arrangements by Fletcher Henderson in 1934, providing the American Public with a real taste of Black music. Goodman hired Henderson as a staff arranger, and also featured him in small groups. By performing with Black musicians, Goodman helped legitimize true jazz and made a case for racial tolerance.

By the end of the 1930s, swing had completely taken over, although its emphasis on soloists began a separate movement as well. Virtuosic musicians began to perform in smaller ensembles, using the rhythms of swing but highlighting their improvisation. Lester Young—who often backed Billie Holiday—as well as trumpeter Roy Eldridge and pianist Art Tatum, gave rise to the music that would later be called bebop.

In 1938, a young Charlie Parker was working as a dishwasher in a nightclub where Art Tatum was performing. Tatum’s technical ferocity, as well as his command of harmony, would prove to be very influential to the aspiring saxophonist.

As the 1930s drew to a close, swing was pumping through jukeboxes and radios around the country. However, after Hitler’s Germany brutally invaded Poland in 1939, the United States was soon drawn into war, with effects extending into the evolution of jazz.

Important Births:

  • Clifford Brown – 1930
  • Sonny Rollins – 1930
  • Cecil Taylor – 1933
  • Lee Morgan – 1938