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The Arts in the 1920s

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Arts

The nickname “the Jazz Age” perfectly sums up the tone of life during the 1920s. To many people, the decade was one long party. The economy was booming, and wealthy and middle-class Americans had plenty of money to spend. A great variety of consumer goods were available, and a flood of advertisements tempted the money out of people’s pockets.

The name “Jazz Age” comes, of course, from jazz—the popular music of the era. Jazz is a combination of spirituals, work songs, the blues, and ragtime. It comprises a variety of African musical elements, such as syncopation, call-and- response, and the famous “blue note”— a note that literally does not belong in the key of the song, and thus sounds “blue” or haunting. These elements, blended with European musical elements of harmony and melody, combined to create a new, genuinely American musical idiom.

Jazz bands usually featured trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets, piano, and drums. All members of a jazz band were talented improvisers and soloists. They worked on a basic tune, changing it around in almost every conceivable way. Jazz was upbeat even while recognizing the sorrows that lay beneath the African-American experience. The new sound was more than just popular—it was a craze. The new technologies of recorded music and radio broadcasting helped to spread the popularity of jazz far beyond the big cities where the musicians performed. Jazz became especially popular in France, where it influenced an entire generation of important composers, including Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Erik Satie.

After they recovered from the shock of the “Black Sox” scandal, people went back to the ballpark to cheer for George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Born in Baltimore, Ruth was a star pitcher, but proved to have such power and accuracy as a hitter that he was soon made an outfielder so that he could play every day. In 1927, Ruth hit 60 home runs—his nearest competitor that year hit only 19. Along with his talent, Ruth had an expansive personality that was perfectly suited to the Jazz Age. He smoked big cigars, wore ankle-length fur coats in winter, dressed snappily, ate heartily, and spent money lavishly.

Architecture began changing the look of American cities during the 1920s. New York City’s Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, soared to a height of 77 stories; farther downtown, the Empire State Building topped it a few months later at 102 stories. With their steel-girder construction, their escalators and fast elevators, their sparkling rows of glass windows and chrome trim, and the breathtaking views from their rooftop observatories, buildings like these epitomized modern times.

Two major artistic movements peaked during the 1920s: the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation. The Harlem Renaissance was a direct result of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North. Many African Americans settled in Harlem, a neighborhood in northern New York City. They formed a community of creative artists—musicians, writers, photographers, painters, and poets. Poet Langston Hughes, novelist Nella Larsen, writer James Weldon Johnson, and jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were key figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Ironically, Harlem was a segregated neighborhood. The Cotton Club, perhaps the most famous nightclub of the era, featured the best-known black musicians of the day. However, African Americans could enter the Cotton Club only through the stage door; they were not permitted to be part of the all-white audience. Some African Americans fought such discrimination by their actions. For example, Harold and Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers dance act often performed at the Cotton Club and frequently accepted invitations to join audience members at their tables. Young boys at the time, the Nicholas Brothers struck their own quiet blow for integration: polite, well-dressed, and charming, they proved that African Americans were in no way unfit to sit with whites in any audience.

In 1924, Paul Robeson attracted enormous attention when he became the first African-American actor to play the Shakespearean role of Othello (a character Shakespeare clearly describes as a black man) opposite a white actress playing Desdemona. (In previous U.S. productions, the role had always been played by a white actor in blackface.) Robeson was universally acknowledged as a splendid talent, but this did not protect him from being the target of ugly racial slurs in hotel elevators or other public places.

Expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein named her artistic friends of the 1920s “the Lost Generation.” Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, and many others had been disillusioned by the failure of world leaders to resolve their differences peacefully or speedily, and by the horrors of trench warfare. Their writing took on a cynical edge that was new to American literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) perfectly captured the Jazz Age—its gaiety, its cynicism, and its essential hollowness. The story of Gatsby showed that there was no place for romanticism anymore. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, (1926) depicted the generation that had survived the war, but at the price of permanent psychological and physical damage.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Jazz Age Practice Test

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