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Jazz in TimeThe Great Depression
The Great Depression, History in the key of jazz Family on porch
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The Great Depression

Primarily excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio Feature Jerry Jerome, musician
"Where do people get the money to come hear us?"
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Bread line, 1937
Bread line, 1937
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1929, the Stock Market crashed. The Great Depression that followed was the worst crisis in America since the Civil War. As the 1930s began, one out of every four wage-earners — more than 15 million men and women — was without work. In Mississippi, on a single day in 1932, one quarter of the entire state was auctioned off. Thousands of jobless men wandered the landscape. Dust storms born in Texas and the Dakotas darkened skies all the way East to Washington. Prices of wheat and corn and cotton fell so low, the crops were left to rot in the fields. In Boston, children with cardboard soles in their shoes walked to school past silent shoe factories with padlocks on the doors. In New York, a jobless couple moved into a cave in Central Park and stayed there for a year. They could find nowhere else to live.

Hard times hit black America hardest. In some northern cities, six out of 10 African-American workers lost their jobs. Poor southern migrants continued to come north, crowding into neighborhoods already packed with people, competing for the fast-dwindling number of jobs. Black businesses failed, crushing the entrepreneurial spirit that had been an essential element of the Negro Renaissance. But the people of Harlem endured.

The music business came close to collapsing. In Chicago, shivering jobless men burned old phonograph records to keep warm. American record companies, which had sold more than 100 million copies a year in the mid-20s, were soon selling just six million. Most of them went out of business. The Victor Company stopped making record players altogether for a time and sold radios — and radio programs — instead.

Nevertheless, the Depression meant that millions of people all over America would now be able to hear music — all kinds of music — played by all kinds of people for free. And jazz, which had always thrived in adversity and come to symbolize a certain kind of American freedom, would be called upon to lift the spirits and raise the morale of a frightened country. And in the process, it would begin to break down the barriers that had separated Americans from each other for centuries.

Hard Times

The Brown Family
The Brown Family
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Great Depression took a terrible toll on millions, jazz musicians among them. On November 4, 1931, Buddy Bolden died at the Louisiana State Hospital for the Insane. A quarter of a century earlier, he had been the most celebrated cornet-player in New Orleans — King Bolden — among the first men ever to play the music that had come to be called jazz. But when the time came to escort his coffin to potters' field in New Orleans, there was no money to pay a marching band to play him home as he had played so many home in the old days. Most of the New Orleans musicians who had once marched and played with him had passed on, or moved elsewhere and were encountering hard times, along with the rest of the country.

Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz all by himself, moved to New York, where he bossed his men around so badly his band fell apart. He lost his bus, his clothes, his diamonds, and began calling New York "that cruel city." He blamed his bad luck on a West Indian voodoo curse. Sidney Bechet, the turbulent New Orleans master of the clarinet and soprano saxophone, exiled from France after a Paris shooting, came to New York as well and formed a group called the New Orleans Feetwarmers to play the kind of music he had always loved. But when he opened at the Savoy, few turned out to hear him. The Lindy Hoppers couldn't dance to his music. To get by, Bechet and the trumpet player Tommy Ladnier abandoned music for a while and opened a tailor shop at 128th Street and St. Nicholas. Ladnier shined shoes and Sidney Bechet did the pressing. Musicians everywhere were struggling. There was some work for whites playing commercial music on the radio, but the studios were completely closed to blacks.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Sing, Sing, Sing"
Many say that swing music arrived on January 16, 1938, when Benny Goodman performed his "killer diller," at New York's Carnegie Hall. The song is a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.


In the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression stubbornly refused to lift, jazz came as close as it has ever come to being America's popular music. It had a new name now — Swing — and its impact was revolutionary. Swing rescued the recording industry. In 1932, just 10 million records had been sold in the United States. By 1939, that number would grow to 50 million. Swing — which had grown up in the dancehalls of Harlem — would become the defining music for an entire generation of Americans.

Swing provided Hollywood with its theme music and offered entertainment, elegance and escape for a people down on their luck. Radios and jukeboxes could be heard playing swing along every Main Street in America, providing the accompaniment for a host of exhilarating new dances — the Big Apple and Little Peach, the Shag and Susy Q, and the dance that had started it all — the Lindy Hop — now called jitterbugging. Hundreds of bands were on the road — and young people followed the careers of the musicians who played in them just as they followed their favorite baseball players.

Audio sample Hotter Than 'Ell by Fletcher Henderson
Recorded September 25, 1934
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

Millions of white Americans who had never listened to jazz before suddenly filled ballrooms and theaters all over the country — the Aragon in Chicago, the Alcazar in Baltimore, and the Ali Baba in Oakland; the Twilight in Fort Dodge, Iowa and the Moonlight in Canton, Ohio; the Arcadia Ballroom in Detroit, the Paramount Theater in New York and the Palomar Ball Room in Los Angeles, where Benny Goodman had thrilled audiences with his version of the music first played by Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, and Duke Ellington. As critic Gary Giddins explained,
Swing music was an electrifying development in American popular culture. It... unleashed forces that, I think, people didn't know existed. There had been dance bands, sweet bands, sentimental bands. But when Benny Goodman reached those kids at the Palomar ballroom in California, it was like 20 years later with rock and roll... he was playing a swinging rough music that had been played in black communities for years. Ellington, you know, wrote It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing three years earlier and Chick Webb's band was doing it and Fletcher Henderson's... it swept the country. It was, it unleashed some kind of pent up...excitement and, and, and physicality that I think nobody was quite prepared for... And, also, this was the Depression. It was not an easy period. And this was a music that was just pure pleasure. Pure physical pleasure.
NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "In The Mood"
Alice Winkler has the surprising story behind Glenn Miller's swing classic, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.

Forgetting the Trouble

Drought refugees from Texas in California camp, 1936
Drought refugees from Texas in California camp, 1936
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1937, the Great Depression, which had begun to show signs of lifting, suddenly deepened. The stock market collapsed again. In less than six months, four million more men and women lost their jobs. They called it the "Roosevelt Recession," the steepest economic decline in American history. Black Americans continued to suffer most — and white southerners wielded such power on Capitol Hill that even Franklin Roosevelt lacked the political will to support a federal law against the savagery of lynching.

Nevertheless, people still found ways to see jazz. It provided them with a welcome respite from their daily hardships. As saxophonist Jerry Jerome described:
I traveled with Harry Reser and his Cliquot Club Eskimos back in l936 through the mid-West on a series of one nighters only, the whole summer literally. And it was very hot and destructive, it was just terrible ... and people were poor, they had no money, the Depression was on.... I turned around to Harry one time, I said, "Harry, why do, where do people get the money to come hear us?" 'Cause we, you know we had people come hear us. He says, "You know, Jer, they save their pennies for the weekend so they can get ... some beer and go out and pay whatever it costs to go to a dance with their wives or girlfriends, have a ball, forget about their trouble and then ... after it's all over, start all over again, get that money back.
And there were more worries: A new war in Europe seemed just a matter of time — and the United States was utterly unprepared.

A Glimpse of Things to Come

In March of 1939, Duke Ellington and his orchestra set sail for Europe for an extended concert tour. Even he could not have foreseen the sort of impact it would have. In the United States, Ellington was often overshadowed by more commercial bands, but in Europe, he reigned supreme. Crowds met their ship at Le Havre with "such adoration and genuine joy," his trumpeter Rex Stewart remembered, "that for the first time in my life I had the feeling of being accepted as an artist, a gentleman, and a member of the human race."

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On the pure physical pleasure of swing music
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Duke Ellington on his way to Europe, 1939
Duke Ellington on his way to Europe, 1939
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

Thousands turned out in Brussels, Antwerp, The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, where fans filled Ellington's hotel room with flowers for his 40th birthday. A Paris critic proclaimed that Ellington's music revealed "the very secret of the cosmos" and the French poet Blaise Cendrars pronounced his music "not only a new art form but a new reason for living." But that same spring, when the train carrying Ellington's band across northern Germany was delayed at Hamburg, uniformed soldiers patrolled the platform and his men could not get off even to stretch their legs. The Nazis had barred both black foreigners and jazz — which they called "Nigger-Jew Music."

As their train crossed Holland, the clarinetist Barney Bigard remembered, "we could see out of the ... windows that they were putting machine-gun posts in all the haystacks and in the ditches." And in Paris, the band played in a new underground theater, built to withstand the German bombs the French were sure would soon be falling. Ellington and his band returned to America in May. Europe was only months away from war.