2
The Jazz Age: professional musicians and
the cultivated vernacular

The fact that jazz is our current mode of expression, has reference to our time and the way we think and talk, is interesting; but if jazz music weren't itself good the subject would be more suitable for a sociologist than for an admirer of the gay arts. Fortunately the music and the way it is played are both of great interest, both have qualities that cannot be despised; and the cry that jazz is the enthusiastic disorganization of music is as extravagant as the prophecy that if we do not stop “jazzing” we will go down, as a nation, into ruin… Jazz for us, isn't the last feverish excitement, a spasm of energy before death. It is the normal development of our resources, the expected, and wonderful, arrival of America at a point of creative intensity.

Gilbert Seldes, “Toujours Jazz, Dial August 1923: 151

As an advocate of popular culture, the famous journalist Gilbert Seldes was an early defender of jazz music. In defending jazz, he pointed in particular to the symphonic jazz made famous during the 1920s by the highly successful jazz orchestras of Paul Whiteman and Vincent Lopez. Seldes was not alone in defending jazz against its numerous critics, or in posing professional jazz orchestras as testament to the legitimate, national, and artistic character of jazz music. Critics of jazz in the 1920s retained the old nineteenth century ideal of “good” music and viewed jazz as undermining moral values and behavior, or at a bare minimum corrupting musical values and techniques. For many of its defenders, however, jazz represented a true modern American music. Jazz represented a new ideal of “good” music that rejected the Euro-centric and highbrow ideals of the cultivated tradition in America it was a lively art that was an expression of the times and the American people.

The “jazz craze” in music during the 1920s so reflected a general spirit of the times for many commentators like Seldes that this decade became known as the Jazz Age. Following World War I, jazz music certainly captured the popular imagination. The rapid popularity of jazz music led to its equally rapid spread among musicians. No other style up to this time in American popular music so quickly came to dominate popular

-46-

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