History of the Jazz Age

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  • 0:04 Background on the Jazz Age
  • 1:41 The Jazz Age &…
  • 3:18 Jazz Music & the…
  • 4:04 The End of the Jazz Age
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the Jazz Age. We will identify the central characteristics of this time period, and we will examine key developments that took place during this exciting time in American history.

Background on the Jazz Age

It's a Saturday night. You pick up your date in a Ford Model T and drive a few miles into town. The two of you walk up to an ordinary, insignificant-looking building. You knock on the door three times, and when someone peeks out, you recite a password. Suddenly the door opens, and you walk into an extravagant jazz club. People are dancing, and not just white people, but black people too. Everyone is happy. People are drinking. You tell your date this joint is the 'bee's knees' (a popular slang term of the time used to describe something that was fantastic).

This was a common scene in urban areas during the Jazz Age. When was the Jazz Age, you may ask? The term is basically synonymous with the 1920s in America. Some historians would say the Jazz Age extended into the 1930s as well, but by and large the decade of the 1920s was the Jazz Age, also called the Age of Jazz. And of course, you may also know the other nickname for this exciting decade: the 'Roaring Twenties.'

The 1920s is considered the Jazz Age because this was the time when jazz music blossomed and became tremendously popular. It was a 'golden age' for the genre. Jazz music was the music of the younger generation. It was fast, heavily syncopated, and often made up on the spot through improvisation. Many older and conservative adults considered it reckless and immoral. In the context of its time, jazz music was nothing short of wild; and the decade was wild too, as we shall see. Let's take a look at the Jazz Age and its characteristics and developments.

A 1920s African-American jazz band.
jazz

The Jazz Age & Prohibition Culture

One thing that is very important to remember about the Jazz Age is that it coincided with Prohibition. Prohibition, or 'National Prohibition,' refers to the period between 1919 and 1933 when alcohol was prohibited (with a few minor exceptions). During this time, the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol was illegal throughout the entire U.S. This led to the growth of secret, illegal bars called speakeasies. Speakeasies popped up throughout the country, particularly in urban areas. In order to enter the illegal establishment, patrons typically had to recite a password. Once in, they would drink and dance the night away, sometimes accompanied by a live jazz band.

New dance fads were always coming and going, and one of the most remembered is the Charleston. The Jazz Age was a unique time because strong feminist sentiments were running through society. Feminism was a key element of the era. Flappers have become an icon of the Jazz Age. Flappers is a term that refers to young, independent women who defied traditional norms by engaging in activities like smoking, drinking, dancing, and other shenanigans. Before the 1920s, these activities were acceptable only among men. Flappers often wore gaudy jewelry and short hair. Feminism was not only confined to the dance floor of speakeasies. After all, it was in 1920 that women gained the right to vote under the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; though, somewhat ironically, these were the same women who advocated strongest for the prohibition that led to the development of flapper culture.

This work of art depicts a typical 1920s flapper.
jazz

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