Though literature, films, and television depict the 1920s as an age of glitz and glamour, the Roaring Twenties was anything but for the majority of Americans. This inter-generational decade pitted a younger set who wanted to be free against an older generation who desired to maintain social and cultural norms. From the flapper dress and bobbed hair, to the latest dance crazes like the Charleston, the ’20s was a period marked by major cultural shifts.
The music of the period is just an example of the country’s cultural angst. The golden age of jazz began in the 1920s, as African-American gradually moved from Southern cities to the North. Also known as The Great Migration, many carried with them their musical and artistic culture. Harlem became the leading center for the rebirth and publishing of African-American arts. The piano became an integral part of jazz. Formerly seen as an instrument for the affluent, the piano soon became an essential part of brass-dominated bands. James P. Johnson popularized a new technique. The Harlem stride is a rhythmic style played on the piano, consisting of a wide range of tempos, intervals, and improvisation. Johnson’s student, Thomas “Fats” Waller, helped popularize the style to a broader appeal.
Despite jazz gaining traction and popularity among a younger generation of whites, social issues prevailed. Venues remained racially segregated – socially, if not legally enforced. Jazz, like flapper dresses and alcohol, was seen as a vice. Though the iconic flapper was never banned, the Volstead Act of 1919 forced the closures of establishments that sold alcohol. Illegal speakeasies and dance halls became the new norm, where women dressed fashionably, liquor poured freely, and jazz music played throughout the night. In an era of social and cultural tension, music provided freedom.