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Jazz History in Standard Time (1930s)

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

Introduction  Early Period  1920s  1930s  1940s  1950s  1960s  1970s-2000

Overview

By Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

The dawn of the 1930s found America (and the world) caught in the grip of the Great Depression. Unemployment was rampant and all industries suffered huge losses, including the music industry. By 1932 total record sales in the US hit an all-time low of 6 million, contrasting with the high of 140 million in 1927.

With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1933, the country began a long economic upturn. Record sales slowly started to increase as Americans began frequenting establishments with juke boxes. Radio continued to be an important source of entertainment, but motion pictures were no doubt the favorite escapist entertainment. By mid-decade, Hollywood musicals would gain great popularity which continued unabated into the 1940s.

The 1930s in Jazz

Jazz took a hard blow, as the rest of the country did, during the first-half of the 1930s. Although there was still work to be had, especially for the best musicians in New York, those in other areas of the country “scuffled,” eking out a meager existence.

Bandleaders, whose orchestras were filled with great jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, would continue to find employment, although their repertoire would include a liberal amount of popular songs. Ellington was an especially talented songwriter, however, and 15 of his compositions from the 1930s became jazz standards and popular favorites.

Things would begin to change by 1935, the year that marked the beginning of the “Swing Era.” Benny Goodman, who had established a stellar reputation with studio and radio work, assembled a band of top musicians with the intent of concentrating on jazz arrangements rather than pop tunes. Securing a record contract with Victor Records, Goodman then proceeded to grab a spot on the “Let’s Dance” radio program. Goodman would soon realize the power of radio when, on a less-than-successful transcontinental tour, the band was a smash hit at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, where Goodman’s slot on the “Let’s Dance” show was during prime time. Soon Goodman’s band would garner a national following, culminating with a first-ever jazz concert at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

Following Goodman’s success, other bandleaders began featuring more jazz arrangements and jazz solos. Soon the country was swing crazy. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey had a million-seller record with Irving Berlin’s tune “Marie.” Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman’s clarinet rival, had a million-seller with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”

The 1930s in Song

Perhaps as a result of the depression, or just the high quality of song writing during the decade, the 1930s produced more standards, and jazz standards, than any other decade of the twentieth century. Such great songwriters as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin were writing for Broadway shows, many of which would be adapted for the silver screen. Great Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Walter Donaldson, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Sam Coslow and others turned out memorable popular songs.

The popularity of “crooner” Bing Crosby helped put many songs into the standards repertoire, especially “Stardust,” “Out of Nowhere,” “Ghost of a Chance,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Fred Astaire, from his movie appearances and records, made standards out of tunes like “Night and Day,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Foggy Day,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

As with the 1920s, lyricists focused on upbeat topics, with the tune “Happy Days Are Here Again” perhaps being the best example. But just as popular was the tune that more accurately described the dire aspects of the decade---“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”

Here’s a brief cross-section of popular tunes of the decade:

The underlined tunes are on the list of 1000 jazz standards.

As with the 1920s, the majority of popular material was from Tin Pan Alley, but the percentage of Broadway material is higher than in the 1920s, no doubt in part due to the popularity of film adaptations of Broadway shows.

In the 1930s there were more popular songs written by jazz musicians than in the 1920s, some of which became big sellers and standards, such as:

Jazz Standards from the 1930s
Year Rank Title
1930 1 Body and Soul
1939 2 All the Things You Are
1935 3 Summertime
1935 5 I Can't Get Started (with You)
1937 6 My Funny Valentine

Click here to see the full list for this period
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