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And All That Jazz

Epic Jazz Heroes from the 20s and 30s

Here are some epic jazz heroes from the 20s and 30s.

1. Take it Satchmo

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans. He started playing in jazz clubs as a teen, then later created his own band, the Hot Five. Utilizing formats and percussive formats common to mainstream Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day, Armstrong helped to popularize jazz music and make it more palatable to those who felt that jazz was "degenerate." One of his many hits was 1936's "A Fine Romance," a collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald.

2. Cab Calloway

Born in 1907 to an upper middle class family in Rochester, his family encouraged Calloway's early musical talent but hoped that he would become an attorney. Soon, however, a young Cab was touring the jazz clubs in Baltimore. He met Louis Armstrong, who taught him to scat. In 1931, he landed a regular gig to New York's Cotton Club. Despite being a mob run institution, (no offense, Scarface), the Cotton Club provided exposure for many young jazz artists of the day. With his trademark zoot suit, Calloway had a personal style that was appealing to both black and white audiences and helped popularize the image of jazz. A fun fact about Calloway is that he was the first African American to publish a dictionary, with his 1939 "Hepster Dictionary." Calloway believed street slang was dynamic and creative, and it was a major source of inspiration for him.

3. Dizzy Gillespie

Born in 1917, Dizzy Gillespie began playing the piano at age four. He won a musical scholarship to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Known for his puffy cheeks and Afro Cuban rhythms, he traveled the world seeking new musical influences, and incorporated Caribbean rhythms into his music.

Gillespie had a rocky relationship with Cab Calloway. Calloway accused him of throwing spit balls, prompting Gillespie to attack him with a knife. However, in later life they appeared to patch up some of their differences and speak highly of each other.

4. Duke Ellington

Born in 1899, both of Duke's parents were pianists, giving him an early musical education. In his teens, he began sneaking into pool rooms to hear good jazz music. His mother preferred that he mix with more conventional types, who began calling him "Duke" because of his smooth manners and dapper wardrobe. Duke was a prolific songwriter, who liked to customize his arrangements for his individual horn players. Although he remained attached to a percussive stride style, he was open to innovations that allowed for more complex chords. Such complex musical shifts are evident in his celebrated "Harlem Airshaft," in which the swift metrical changes are meant to evoke the diversity of people and relationships in a Harlem tenement. "I am the world's greatest listener," Ellington said of himself.

5. Luckey Roberts

Born in 1887, Luckey traveled in minstrel shows in early life. In 1919 he collaborated with James Johnson to develop the stride piano style. His most famous composition is a 1913 rag called "Pork and Beans." Perhaps fittingly, in later life he moved to Washington D.C. and opened a restaurant.

6. Ella Fitzgerald

The first lady of jazz was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Moving to New York City in her childhood, she was an excellent student whose musical talent was influenced by attendance at local Methodist churches. A friend of Louis Armstrong, she shared his scat style. "A-Tisket A-Tasket" was one of her many hits, incorporating a popular nursery rhyme, proving the wide range of influences in the world of jazz.

6. Al Jolsen

As a white man who performed in blackface, many people, naturally, might veer from talking about Al Jolsen and his contributions to early jazz (very understandably). However, accounting for the heavily racially segregated America in which he lived (he was born in 1886), he interested white audiences in the black music he loved. Though it might seem like all he did was perpetuate stereotypes, by popularizing ragtime style, he paved the way for later black artists to increase their financial stability and artistry by performing to white audiences who  came to demand the music. One of Jolsen's hits was the finger-stretching "The Entertainer," which employs the contrasting sections characteristic of jaunty ragtime piano.


Giddins, Gary and Deveaux, Scott. 2009. Jazz. W.W Norton. Chapter 6.

Gugino, Dennys. 1994. "Cab Calloway: Innovative, Flamboyant."

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