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Jazz History: The Standards (Early Period)

The Trends, People, and Events that Shaped the Jazz Standards Canon

Jazz History Contents
Early Period
Jazz Standards from the Early Period
Year Rank Title
1914 20 St Louis Blues
1918 34 After You've Gone
1917 41 Indiana (Back Home Again in Indiana)

Click here to see the full list for this period
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By Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

The first twenty years of the twentieth century were marked by great advances. There were many new technological marvels: the first airplane flight; the radio and the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. The landscape of America became more urbanized with fewer wilderness areas.

Although at the start of the twentieth century live music was still the primary form of entertainment (and in the home, the piano in the parlor), the phonograph began to encroach upon sheet music sales as phonograph prices began to drop, due in part to the predominance of the flat 10-inch 78 rpm record over the cylinder record.

There would be tragic events during the two decades, such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the sinking of the “unsinkable” behemoth ocean liner Titanic, and the horrible devastation of the First World War.

Then America would feel the effects of a prohibition upon alcoholic beverages, a unique experiment that did little to quell American’s taste for liquor but helped to bolster live music.

The Early Period in Jazz

Most historians agree that jazz began close to or just prior to the turn of the twentieth century, and the most likely birthplace was the city of New Orleans. A cultural melting pot, the “Big Easy” had a reputation for its free-spirited ambiance with “everything in the line of hilarity,” as jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton so aptly put it. The fact that the city is on the Mississippi River, the major waterway from the southern to northern United States, made it a conduit for music of all types, especially ragtime from Missouri and the blues from Mississippi. In 1900s New Orleans, for example, a person could hear a brass band playing ragtime, marches and polkas; string trios playing popular ballads; street musicians singing the blues; and early jazz bands playing all of these things.

Just prior to and during the period of World War I, The Creole Band, a group made up of black New Orleans musicians, was part of a touring vaudeville company that brought jazz music to many parts of the country. Although they were given the opportunity to make the first jazz records in 1916, it wasn’t until 1917 that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white musicians from New Orleans, would actually lay down the first example of the New Orleans style jazz.

The Early Period in Song

Popular song was divided into a number of different genres, all of which would be represented by recordings during the period. They were:

  • Male Quartets, represented by “Barbershop” four-part harmonies with tunes like “In the Good Old Summertime” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

  • Parlor ballads, such as “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” and “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

  • Minstrel Songs, many of which came from the 1800s (such as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”), but others written during the period such as “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.”

  • Ragtime and syncopated songs, which included true ragtime-form numbers like Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” but also ragtime songs such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

  • Broadway songs, especially those by George M. Cohan, composer of “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

  • Topical songs, written for special events like the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”) and also world events such as the Wright Brothers first flight (“Come Take Me in My Air Ship”) and the sinking of the Titanic (“My Sweetheart Went Down with the Ship”).

  • Brass Band music, encompassing marches, polkas and one-steps (which were also dances).

The first blues number, written as a popular song, was “Dallas Blues” of 1912. Tunes with the word “blues” in the title would become very popular during the period from 1918 into the 1920s. Some tunes, mostly written by African-American composers, were actually in the 12-bar blues form, such as “Dallas Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Weary Blues,” while others such as “Home Again Blues,” “Dangerous Blues,” and “Laughing Blues” were merely capitalizing on the popularity of the word “blues.” As the popularity in ragtime waned and jazz became part of the public awareness, so did the popularity of the blues, to the point that by 1920 the word “ragtime” would be considered pass?.

Some hit tunes from the decade include the following:

Underlined tunes are in the JazzStandards.com top 1000 list.

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