Jazz Age New York – History of New York City (2023)

The jazz age in New York is one of the most infamous times throughout the history of New York. From the booming music scene, to the changing social and sexual norms, New York became the hub for enjoying the newly emerging American culture. New York City is one of the entertainment capitals of the world, and much of that entertainment is from music. Music is not new to the city, and came to a peak during the jazz age. The jazz age was at its peak in the 1920s, when jazz was becoming more and more popular. Many of the most famous jazz musicians were African Americans such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The jazz age was not only a pivotal time for music, but also for fashion, mass culture, prohibition, the automobile, and the lives of women. This time is also called “The Roaring Twenties,” since it was a time known for its opulence and over the top parties. New Yorkers travelled to Carnegie Hall to get their fix of jazz music at one of the many concerts put on there. People looking to party and drink illegal alcohol would visit speakeasies such as The Back Room, where the entrance to the bar was hidden behind a bookcase. The Cotton Club was another major jazz club, known for its “#1 Beer” and a memorable house band led by Duke Ellington. New York is full of landmarks that will transport visitors back to the Jazz Age with just one step inside.

The Jazz Age was an age marked by the uprising of jazz music, and the drastic change in American culture. Women called “flappers” were wearing shorter dresses and cutting their hair into bobs, dancing to the popular music in speakeasies and dance clubs. With prohibition in effect during this time period, alcohol had to be illegally made and served at places called speakeasies. One of the most popular speakeasies could be found at 102 Norfolk Ave, and was called The Back Room. While many speakeasies had fake fronts, this speakeasy had an actual business operating in conjunction with the speakeasy, Ratner’s Restaurant. This particular speakeasy was known for serving illegal alcohol and the criminals of the city as well. Many gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel used this space for “business meetings.”[1] The gangsters preferred this speakeasy due to its multiple exits onto different streets. If there was a hit going on, or a raid, it was very easy for the gangsters to make a quick getaway through one of the many entrances.[2] Today, the Back Room is accessed the same way it was during the 1920s. A secret staircase behind a bookshelf brings customers down to the speakeasy and transports them to the 1920s. With vintage décor and cocktails served in teacups, just like they were during prohibition to secretly drink, one trip to this hidden bar will make you feel like you are partying at the peak of the jazz age.

Aside from parties and illegal alcohol, the jazz age was known quite obviously for its music. Jazz was making its way into the limelight and became the music of the 1920s and 30s. Jazz music was not new in America, but was becoming more and more popular at this time than it had ever been before. In the article “If Jazz Isn’t Music, Why Isn’t It,” from the June 13th, 1926 edition of the New York Times, Paul Whiteman claims that “jazz came to America 300 years ago in chains.”[3] There is an undeniable truth that jazz is a major part of the African American culture and many of its roots lie within the slaves that came to America hundreds of years ago. As the years went on, jazz began to spread to mainstream American culture and gave African Americans the opportunity to be in the spotlight. Jazz music was mainly performed by African Americans during this age at the listening pleasure of wealthier white citizens. One place where this jazz music was heard was at the Cotton Club, one of the most famous jazz clubs in NYC during this era. It was located in Harlem and owned by the infamous gangster Owney Madden. This club was the go-to spot for illegal alcohol and entertainment from jazz musicians and dancers.[4] The acts that performed at the Cotton Club became world famous musicians, such as Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington led the Orchestra at the Cotton Club from 1927-1930, and sporadically after that for 8 years. Ellington and his orchestra gained national attention and praise through weekly radio broadcasts that were sometimes recorded and released on albums.[5]

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Although the jazz music was played mostly by African Americans, the clubs they were performing in were not so racially friendly to customers and other workers. The club was created with the idea to make “a stylish plantation environment for its entirely white clientele.”[6] The Cotton Club originally excluded all but white customers, although the majority of the performers and staff were African American. The dancers were held to a very strict standard and were required to be under 21 years old, light skinned, and at least 5’6” tall. The music here was instructed to be played to give a jungle like atmosphere to portray the African American employees as plantation residents or exotic savages. Although the majority of the population in the Cotton Club was African American and the music would not be possible without them, the club was extremely segregated and oppressive. Jazz music was bringing together the races, only to segregate them when they got together. Carnegie Hall was another music hall that was popular for jazz music during this period. It was home to hundreds of jazz concerts by famous artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Early jazz was first heard here in 1912, becoming one of the first places in the city to go and listen to the newly emerging genre.[7] Carnegie Hall is still in use today and has withstood the test of time as a prestigious music venue.

The jazz age was also a time for new fashion, especially for women. The flapper style became very popular starting in the 1920s. Women began cutting their hair short into bobs, wearing shorter skirts that showed their legs, wearing more makeup, and high-heeled shoes. Being a flapper was not all about the clothes, but also their state of mind. In the April 16th, 1922 issue of the New York Times, a flapper “dresses simply and sensibly, and looks life right straight in the eye; she knows just what she wants and goes after it, whether it is a man, a career, a job, or a new hat.”[8] This new type of woman pushed the boundaries and challenged the sexual standards of the times. Women were no longer submissive to the men in their lives and were not afraid to have fun. Flappers would go to dance clubs and dance until the wee hours of the morning. They would spend their time with men drinking and socializing in speakeasies while listening to jazz. The changing times came with changing standards for women and gave them more freedom. If it wasn’t for the brave flappers who changed the rules, women would not be where they are today.

Overall, the Jazz Age in New York City was a time of change and advancement. The music scene was changing with the emergence of jazz into popular culture. This music was played by African American musicians in places such as the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. While the African American musicians were in the spotlight, their business was not welcomed as patrons. These jazz clubs were segregated and only white clientele were welcome to see the show. Besides the jazz clubs, New Yorkers also passed their time by going to speakeasies to drink illegal alcohol. Prohibition was in place during this time period, so the only way to get alcohol was to go to a secret club. These secret clubs were also hot beds of mob activity. The mob was very active during the jazz era and gangsters used prohibition to their advantage. For example, famous gangster Owney Madden was the owner of the Cotton Club and used the club to sell his “#1 Beer.” The Back Room was also used by many gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel used this space for “business meetings.”[9] The gangsters preferred this speakeasy due to its multiple exits onto different streets. If there was a hit going on, or a raid, it was very easy for the gangsters to make a quick getaway through one of the many entrances. From flappers, to gangsters, to jazz musicians, the jazz age in New York City has a colorful history. A tour around New York City with visits to the Backroom, The Cotton Club, and Carnegie Hall, will instantly transport you back to the opulent 1920s and early 1930s.

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[1] “The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation.” The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2014. Accessed October 05, 2016. https://savingplaces.org/stories/historic-bars-backroom-bar-new-york-city#.V_XJFOLMicE.

[2] Savingplaces.org

[3] “If Jazz Isn’t Music, Why Isn’t it?” 1926.New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 13, 1. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/103913320?accountid=13793.

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[4] Elmayan, Lara. “Vintage Photos: Inside the Cotton Club, One of NYC’s Leading Jazz Venues of the 1920s and ’30s.” Untapped Cities RSS. N.p., 05 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.

[5] “The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed,” accessed December 14, 2016, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/cotton-club-harlem-1923.

[6] Ibid

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[7] “Press Center,” carnegiehall.org, 2016, accessed December 10, 2016, https://www.carnegiehall.org/Press/People-and-History/.

[8] By, MARGARET O. “More Ado about the Flapper.” New York Times (1857-1922), Apr 16, 1922. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/98854065?accountid=13793.

[9] “The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation.” The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2014. Accessed October 05, 2016. https://savingplaces.org/stories/historic-bars-backroom-bar-new-york-city#.V_XJFOLMicE.

(Video) The History of Jazz in NYC


What were the main points of the Jazz Age? ›

The era saw the rise of ready-made clothing in standard sizes, the automobile, commercial radio, electric appliances, and the telephone, as well as the spread of music through home phonograph records.

What is the history of the Jazz Age? ›

The Jazz Age was a cultural period and movement that took place in America during the 1920s from which both new styles of music and dance emerged. Largely credited to African-Americans employing new musical techniques with traditional African traditions, Jazz soon expanded to America's white middle class.

What was the Jazz Age 1920s New York? ›

New York City and the Jazz Age

The 1920s became known as the Jazz Age. Artists such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong helped New York City become the place for music. This time in America was largely about music, with jazz becoming the genre of the decade.

What important events happened in the Jazz Age? ›

The Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C. People sat on flagpoles, danced the Charleston, read a new novel called The Great Gatsby. And a young man named John Scopes went on trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in defiance of a Tennessee law. The Scopes trial was a signature event of the Jazz Age.

What are the 3 main influences that resulted into jazz? ›

Its roots include many Afro-American folk music traditions, such as spirituals, work songs, and blues. It also borrowed from 19th century band music and the ragtime style of piano playing.

What was the biggest impact of the Jazz Age? ›

Not only was there greater recognition of the multicultural elements of America, jazz also allowed women an outlet to express themselves. The mediums of song, dance, and fashion that came with jazz changed the lives of Americans all around the country. It's a change that continues to exist even today.

What was the Jazz Age in simple terms? ›

The Jazz Age was a period in the 1920s and 1930s in which jazz music and dance styles gained worldwide popularity. The Jazz Age's cultural repercussions were primarily felt in the United States, the birthplace of jazz.

Why is jazz important in history? ›

Jazz is recognized around the world for its rich cultural heritage rooted in the African-American experience. Since its inception in the early 20th century, jazz has contributed to and been a reflection of American culture and is widely considered to be the only truly original American art form.

Why was it called the Jazz Age? ›

The Roaring Twenties were years of rapid economic growth, rising prosperity for many people, and far-reaching social changes for the nation. The period is sometimes called the Jazz Age, because of the new style of music and the pleasure-seeking people who made it popular.

How did jazz start in New York? ›

The early New York Jazz music was influenced by ragtime music, which had been popular there in the early 1900s. Scott Joplin had played in New York, and other great musicians followed in his footsteps. After The Original Dixieland Jazz Band played on Broadway, jazz musicians imitated the New Orleans sound.

Why was jazz important to NYC? ›

New York was also the birthplace of bebop, an uptempo form of jazz made famous by musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Big-band jazz music developed a new style called swing, which provided an upbeat rhythm that dominated music in the 1930s and 1940s.

How did jazz become popular in New York? ›

Despite not originating in New York, Jazz and the Big Apple have an exciting history and New York Jazz is now a genre in its own right. Artists including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong helped NYC to gain its reputation for great jazz music throughout prohibition in speakeasys across the city.

What are 3 things about the Jazz Age? ›

The 1920s saw the record player enter American life in full force. Piano sales sagged as phonograph production rose from just 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929. The popularity of jazz, blues, and "hillbilly" music fueled the phonograph boom. The decade was truly jazz's golden age.

What are 3 facts about jazz? ›

Five Fun Facts about Jazz!
  • Jazz dance originated from African folk dances. ...
  • Jazz has influenced the elements of several other dance styles. ...
  • Jazz is one of the youngest styles of dancing. ...
  • Americans lost interest in jazz less than 10 years after its rise in popularity.
Oct 21, 2020

How did jazz impact society? ›

Cultural Importance

Everything from fashion and poetry to the Civil Rights movement was touched by its influence. The style of clothing changed to make it easier to dance along to jazz tunes. Even poetry evolved as a result of jazz, with jazz poetry becoming an emerging genre in the era.

What are the 5 main elements of jazz music? ›

  • improvisation.
  • rhythm and general swing feel.
  • sounds and instruments associated with jazz.
  • harmony.
  • form.

What are the 3 elements of the jazz style? ›

The key elements of Jazz include: blues, syncopation, swing and creative freedom. Improvisation in music is not new, as there are traditions of improvisation in India, Africa, and Asia.

What is the main theme of jazz? ›

Race. With its shape-shifting, omnipresent narrator, Jazz immerses its reader in the psyche and history of its African-American characters. The book attempts to mirror, from an anthropological and fictional standpoint, the concerns of this community and the roots of their collective search for identity.


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