Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1920s - The Document Records Store

Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1920s


A new age sprung to life during the decade following the First World War – The Jazz Age. It was a new exciting era for freedom in attitudes, fashion and music. This article will look at some of the most famous Jazz musicians of the 1920s.

Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1920s

The hotbed for the new found freedom of expression in music was New Orleans. Band leaders like Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, Buddy Bolden and Joe ‘King’ Oliver vied for the public’s hard earned cash at dances and on record. Louis Armstrong revolutionised the way musicians treated their instruments.

In the latter half of the 1910s, the epicenter shifted North to Chicago. Then the top bands headed to New York City, home of the major record companies, prestige dance halls and of course Broadway.

In this article we look at eight musicians who were inspirational during those halcyon days.

Edward ‘Kid’ Ory

Born in Laplace, Louisiana on Christmas Day 1886, Edward ‘Kid’ Ory was one of the pioneers of   New Orleans Jazz. Ory was one of the earliest Jazz trombonists, playing in a ‘tailgate’ style behind the trumpet and clarinet.

As a ten year old, Ory started playing banjo, which later influenced the way he would play trombone. His first trombone was of the valve variety before graduating to the slide instrument. It is rumoured that at the age of thirteen ‘Kid’ was visiting his sister in New Orleans, practising on his valve trombone in the parlour.  There was a knock on the door and when his sister answered, there stood bandleader Buddy Bolden who offered Ory a place in his band.

Ory’s sister would not let him join because he was too young, so Ory returned to his family home.

Kid Ory went on to lead one of the greatest bands in New Orleans, featuring many who would go on to greater things, such as Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, King Oliver, Jimmy Noone and Sidney Bechet.  

Ory’s health deteriorated and he was advised to move to a drier climate. In 1919 he headed to Los Angeles where he formed his second great band. Variously known as Kid Ory’s Brown Skinned Babies, The Sunshine Band, The Original Creole Jazz Band and Spike’s Seven Pods Of Pepper Orchestra, Ory’s band became the first African American artists to make a record.

In 1922 Ory’s band accompanied Ruth Lee and Roberta Dudley on two songs each, They also recorded two instrumentals: “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Society Blues” (DOCD-1002).

1922 also marked what is believed to be the first live radio broadcast by an African American band when Kid Ory’s band performed on KWH Radio in Los Angeles.

Shortly afterwards, Louis Armstrong followed King Oliver to Chicago. In 1925, when Armstrong had started his own band he called for Kid Ory to join him. Ory ended up also recording with Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans on 14th May 1897, was a pioneer of Jazz. A child prodigy with the clarinet, playing with some of the best bands around, Bechet later adopted the soprano saxophone, bringing it to prominence in the New Orleans Jazz scene in the 1920s.

Although a later band mate of Louis Armstrong, their upbringings were worlds apart. While Armstrong lived with his grandmother, sometimes with his mother and various men, leaving school early to get work, Bechet was from a middle class family of Creole origin.

Bechet’s father, Omar, was a shoemaker. All the family were musical and at eight years old, Sidney was given his first clarinet by his brother Leonard.

Bechet joined Bill Johnson’s New Olympia Band, playing with renowned cornet player, Joseph ‘King’ Oliver.

Bechet moved to Chicago with pianist Clarence Wiliams in 1915. Within three years he was playing with Lawrence Duhe’s Band, alongside the future Mrs Louis Armstrong, Lilian Harding and King Oliver.

Bechet’s career really took off when he accompanied Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra on a tour of Europe in 1919. While overseas Bechet found a soprano sax in a music store, making it his instrument of choice from then on.

Returning to the United States Bechet recorded with Clarence Williams in 1923. Within two years Bechet had made several records accompanying various Blues singers with  Louis Armstrong  He joined Duke Ellington’s Band for a while and toured Europe again for the latter half of the decade.

Bechet’s work, accompanying Trixie Smith is available from The Document Records Store on DOCD 5333.

Joseph ‘King’ Oliver

King Oliver was one of the earliest New Orleans’ legends, leading one of the city’s premier Jazz bands. Louis Armstrong, who played second cornet, went on to revolutionise Jazz.

Joseph Oliver is widely believed to have been born in or around New Orleans in 1885. This is disputed by Jazz researcher Peter Hanley who claims Oliver was born about fifty miles away, near Aben, Louisiana on December 19, 1884.

As a youngster Joseph Oliver took trombone lessons but switched to the cornet in his teens. He played in a number of marching and cabaret bands around New  Orleans, including those led by Edward ‘Kid’ Ory and Richard M. Jones.

Oliver moved to Chicago in February 1919 to join Bill Johnson’s band. Within a year he was leading his own band. Following a year in California Oliver returned to Chicago; his Creole Jazz Band found themselves playing regularly at the Lincoln Gardens Cafe. At this point the band consisted of bassist Bill Johnson, trombonist Honore Dutrey, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, his brother, drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, and pianist Lillian Hardin (later to marry Louis Armstrong, who joined the band very soon after the Lincoln Gardens Cafe engagement).

Oliver’s band were prolific in the recording studio during 1923; the thirty-plus cuts included Oliver’s highly renowned solo on “Dippermouth Blues”, later to be orchestrated by Fletcher Henderson as “Sugar Foot Stomp”. These sessions also gave Louis Armstrong his first recorded solos. 

Lilian Harding convinced Armstrong to start his own band and the couple moved to New York, the Creole Jazz Band breaking up in 1924. Following recording sessions with Jelly Roll Morton and with his new band, King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, Oliver followed Armstrong to New York in 1927.

With Oliver’s music falling behind the times, his fortunes were on a downward turn, not helped when he famously turned down a regular slot at Harlem’s Cotton Club; Duke Ellington stepped in and launched his own career into national stardom.

Oliver’s association with composer Clarence Williams resulted in a number of recordings, including backing Edna Taylor on Jelly’s Blues (DOCD-5518) and as part of a group also featuring guitar pioneer Eddie Lang  on “In the Bottle Blues” ( DOCD-32-20-20).

Louis Armstrong

Louis Daniel Armstrong, born in New Orleans, Louisiana on 4th August 1901, went on to become the first major Jazz soloist and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century.

Following a difficult childhood, (his father abandoned the family shortly after Louis’ birth, his mother turned to prostitutuon and young Louis was looked after by his maternal grandmother), Louis Armstrong left school in the fifth grade.

Armstrong found work delivering coal and collecting scrap. His employers, a local Jewish family, the Karnofskys, often invited Louis to join them for meals; they also encouraged him to sing.

Following an incident with his stepfather’s gun, Armstrong was incarcerated in the Colored Waif’s Home For Boys at the age of eleven.

His stay at the home was a turning point for the young Armstrong; there he learned to play the cornet. On his release, having fallen in love with music, Louis set his heart on making a career from it.

While still delivering coal to New Orleans’ famous Red Light area, Armstrong began to play in local clubs, building his reputation as a fine blues musician.

Louis Armstrong was fortunate to be taken under the wing of King Oliver, one of the finest cornet players of his generation. In 1918 Armstrong replaced Oliver in Kid Ory’s Band.

Armstrong was soon able to give up his jobs and focus on being a musician. He played his cornet at house parties, funeral processions, dances and the small ‘honky tonk’ bars. He spent his summers playing on the riverboats with Fate Marable’s band.

In 1922 Armstrong joined King Oliver in Chicago. He took the windy city by storm with his cornet playing. In April 1923 Armstrong’s first recorded solo was featured on Oliver’s “Chimes Blues”.

Armstrong married Lillian Harding, Oliver’s pianist, in 1924. Harding convinced Armstrong to further his career by joining Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, the most popular African American band in New York.

After an impressive start with Armstrong bringing swing music to the band. The Northern urban musicians did not take kindly to the Southerner and Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925. Armstrong formed his own band, The Hot Five (later the Hot Seven), and recorded more than sixty records in a three year period, including  “He Likes It Slow” by Butterbeans & Susie accompanied by Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five (DOCD-5545) and a number of songs by Hociel Thomas, accompanied by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Four (DOCD-5448).

The Hot Five and Seven were Armstrong’s recording bands. He played regularly at the Vendome Theatre with Erskine Tate’s orchestra. During this time Armstrong ditched the cornet in favour of the trumpet.

Armstrong’s popularity increased during the 1920s, playing a number of venues, including the Sunset Cafe and the Savoy Ballroom. Earl Hines, a young pianist, absorbed Armstrong’s ideas into his playing. Hines and Armstrong were a formidable team, recording many fine songs, such as “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues” in 1928.

In the summer of 1929 Armstrong found himself back on Broadway in New York, performing “Ain’t Misbehavin” in “Connie’s Hot Chocolates”, a musical featuring the music of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.

That year Armstrong began recording popular songs of that time, including “Body And Soul” and “Stardust”.

Eddie Lang

Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia on 25th October 1902) was one of the first Jazz guitar masters. He was in demand among the early Jazz groups.

Salvatore Massaro learned to play the violin as a boy with his friend and later collaborator Joe Venuti. He first played in public as a fifteen year old with the Chuck Granese Trio. Realising he could get more work by playing banjo Salvatore switched in 1920. When Massaro turned professional he changed his name to the more American sounding Eddie Lang, appearing with Charlie Kerr, Bert Escow, Vic D’Ippito and Billy Lustig’s Scranton Sirens.

By 1924 Lang was also playing guitar, impacting with the Mound City Blue Blowers. Because recording techniques had improved, thereby making the guitar stand out better, by 1926 Lang found himself in demand as a studio musician.

He started making records with his soulmate Joe Venuti. The two worked well together; they were soon highly sought after by orchestras, singers and Jazz combos in the recording studios as well as for radio work and live shows.

In 1926 Venuti and Lang recorded for the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra and Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, including Bix Beiderbecke. In addition, they recorded their own duets, “Black And Blue Bottom” and “Stringing The Blues”.

For the next six years Lang recorded with pretty much every major Jazz artist and band. Lang also recorded a series of Blues numbers with fellow guitarist Lonnie Johnson. On these recordings Lang used the pseudonym  Blind Willie Dunn (DOCD-5066, DOCD-5067).

Lang first met Bing Crosby in 1929 and was to accompany him for many years.

Earl Hines

Born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania on 28th December 1903, Earl Kenneth Hines was regarded as the first Modern Jazz pianist. Hines revolutionised Jazz piano playing by using an unprecedented method, using his left hand to break up the stride rhythms.

 Hines was a major influence on future Jazz pianists like Nat Cole. As a composer he produced many great works such as “You Can Depend On Me”, Rosetta”, “My Monday Date” and many more.

As a youth Earl Hines briefly played trumpet before focusing on the piano. He started his musical career with Lois Deppe, recording in 1922 (DOCD-5655). Hines and Deppe made history as the first African American artists to perform on the radio. A year later Hines moved to Chicago, working with Samy Stewart and Erskine Tate’s Vendome Theatre Orchestra.

Hines joined Louis Armstrong in 1926 and the pair inspired each other. Hines recorded ten piano solos in 1928, including “A Monday’s Date”, Fifty Seven Varieties and Blues In Thirds”. In a very significant year for Hines he also recorded with Jimmy Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra and Louis Armstrongs’ Hot Five including their timeless rendition of “Weather Bird”.

On his 25th Birthday Earl Hines started a twelve year residency at the Chicago Grand Terrace Cafe. The Earl Hines Orchestra broadcast nationally, becoming the most famous Jazz band on the radio.

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, born in Cuthbert, Georgia on 18th December 1897, was the first great Jazz band leader. Although coming from a musical family he had no ambition to become a musician. He had a degree in chemistry and mathematics and moved to New York in 1920 planning to be a chemist. Unable to find a job to follow his vocation, Hines reluctantly joined the Pace – Handy music company as a song demonstrator.

Harry Pace founded the Black Swan record label and Henderson soon became proficient at organising bands and accompanying Blues singers. Henderson had very little contact with the Blues at this point and Ethel Waters suggested he study the piano technique of James P. Johnson. Henderson was a quick learner and went on to back Waters on some of the record company’s biggest hits.

Fletcher Henderson’s work with Blues singers, such as Katie Crippen, Mary Straine, Hannah Sylvester, Ethel Finnie and others can be found on Document Records albums DOCD-5342 and DOCD-5342.

Henderson formed his first big band in 1924. When Louis Armstrong joined and Don Redman produced his swinging arrangements there was no other band that could compare until Duke Ellington rose to the heights in 1927. Following Redman’s departure to become the Musical Director for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fletcher again rose to the occasion and successfully took over the arranging role. At this point the band were resident at the Roseland Ballroom, one of New York’s prestigious nightspots.

A motor accident in 1928 affected Fletcher’s mental wellbeing. His lethargic attitude to business matters caused many of his star performers to leave the band the following year. Fletcher reformed his orchestra, mastered some innovative arrangements and guided his star-studded bands throughout the 1930s. 

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, born in Washington DC on 29th April 1899, was one of the most prolific composers in the history of Jazz music. As a bandleader, Ellington kept his big band together for nearly fifty years.

Duke’s father, James Edward Ellington, was a White House butler, so the young Edward had a comfortable middle class upbringing. He learned to play piano at age seven and was writing music by his teens.

Duke Ellington dropped out of High School during his junior year to pursue a music career, playing in local bands in Washington DC. He formed a five-piece band, The Washingtonians, and moved permanently to New York in 1923.

The band gained a residency at The Hollywood Club (later to become The Kentucky Club) in Times Square. They made their first recordings in 1924 for various record companies, using different band names.  “Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now” and “Jig Walk” are available on DOCD 5655 “Black & White Piano Vol 3 1897 – 1929”.

The band had grown and Ellington became leader. They played in what was known as the ‘jungle’ style, featuring James “Bubber” Miley’s growling trumpet.

Duke Ellington’s first signature tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” was initially recorded in 1926 for Vocalion Records; it became their first chart hit in 1927, having been re-recorded on Columbia Records.

The band moved uptown in December 1927 to Harlem’s Cotton Club. This was a pivotal moment in Duke’s career; during his band’s three-year residency they became known nationally through the live radio broadcasts from the club.

1928 brought two two-sided hits: “Black and Tan Fantasy”/”Creole Love Call” on Victor and “Doin’ the New Low Down”/”Diga Diga Doo” on Okeh  as The Harlem Footwarmers.

At the start of 1929, “The Mooche”, also released on Okeh, hit the charts. In addition to their engagement at the Cotton Club, Ellington’s band also played in the Broadway musical, “Showgirl”, during the summer of 1929. 

Ellington moved West to California in 1930 and appeared in the movie “Check and Double Check”, the song “Three Little Words”, featuring Bing Crosby, became a number one hit.

In 1931 Duke Ellington left The Cotton Club and took his band on tour; a tour that was to continue for 43 years until his death in 1974.

Guest Post Written by Paul Forrest. Copyright: 2020 The Document Records Store