The early 1950s were a hangover of sorts. The world was still recovering from the destruction of the Second World War, with a dark cloud hanging over Europe as the US and USSR faced off over Europe. Cultural identity and awakenings were also happening, with the stiff conservatism common across Western civilisation in the 1940s beginning to wane as the next generation began to explore their new surroundings, driven by improved finances, less autocratic control and of course music.
A new counter-culture emerged in the US in the late 1940s, with non-conformist authors driving a liberalised approach to publishing in America. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were some of the names that would become synonymous with non-conformism, creating what would be known as the Beat Generation. Beat poetry and writing influenced music heavily and drove liberal views that certainly weren’t in line with existing American morals and culture. This relaxation added fuel to the already existing revolutionary fire that was shaping how post-war music and culture would look.
Music for many eras
Jazz wasn’t a new concept and certainly wasn’t invented in the 1950s, but the decade became a pivotal moment. Born in America’s South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jazz was a fusion of ragtime, blues and African music traditions, played by and for black people living in New Orleans. Thanks to the fact that is was incredibly easy to dance to this style of music, jazz was soon brought out of the New Orleans clubs and speakeasies and spread across the US, a product of middle classes who were now looking for the next big thing in music.
The eclectic mix of European big band look and feel mixed with the creativity afforded by a loose approach to things like key, structure and syncopation allowed jazz to develop through several styles with multiple offshoots. Free jazz was possibly the loosest iteration of the genre, with the most basic of music standards like tempo, form and even harmony sometimes abandoned in favour of free-flowing creativity. It is this flat-out, flexible style of music that was one of the key drivers for the rock and pop of the 1950s and 60s, with the new liberal classes throwing the rulebook out of the window and realising that this music was the future. Jazz began to symbolise cultural freedom, giving birth to a soundtrack that dictated how American music would sound for the next 50 years.
The late 1940s became a game-changing era for jazz musicians. From tiny regional clubs to packed out ballrooms on the East and West coasts of America, a new generation of bandleaders and musicians were riding the wave of new found liberalism, playing to both black and white audiences (an incredible outcome in a country that still segregated people by race).
Back in the 1920s, jazz was a different animal altogether. Bands would play high-tempo music designed for dancing (after all, crowds would either be drunk on illicit booze or simply excited to be out of the house), with blended notes and major chord structures creating an atmosphere that defined eras like the Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age.
By the time the war had ended, jazz was becoming a lot less mainstream. Swing had a big influence on rock and roll in the 1950s and white acts like Bill Haley and the Comets and of course Elvis Presley were making traditionally black blues and jazz standards their own, dropping brass, double bass and woodwind in favour of guitars, pianos and of course striking vocals. By the 1950s, Jazz was transforming completely into a form of music that would probably be labelled ‘purist’ by today’s standards. Things were either simple, with orchestras working their way through a pre-written standard with pre-defined timings and a true attention to detail, or their counterparts would be soloing, breaking off from 3 and 4 piece bands and most importantly improvising. This fork in the road changed jazz completely.
The big players
Duke Ellington was one of the most famous bandleaders of all time and a pivotal figure in the history of jazz. Beginning life as a pianist in Washington DC, Ellington created jazz that focused less on the piece, but more on the talent of his band members. Individual instruments would cut through pieces and Spanish-tinged standards like Caravan and Perdido featured sections that focused on only a handful of instruments, building up to a full orchestra to create depth. Ellington defined ‘American’ jazz, packing out venues like New York’s Hurricane Club and even the Carnegie Hall. This drove the instrumentalist nature of jazz into the 50s, giving rise to musicians like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
The influence and zeitgeist of jazz certainly has appeal, allowing the genre to outlast trend and time, becoming a music genre that isn’t strictly tied to decade or era. The 50s certainly has a pre-defined ‘image’, driven by Presley, Berry and later Eddie Cochran, all of whom begged, borrowed and stole from jazz and swing. Ask anyone to describe the features of the 1950s today and the response will be pretty standard; from the squeaky drop tops and diners popularised in Grease to brilliant throwbacks filled with nostalgia like the Glorious 50s Slot at 888casino. You’ll also find Jeep’s Blues on the American Hustle soundtrack and Caravan played a huge role in the movie Whiplash.
Whether it’s the emergence of rock and roll to the backdrop of the cold war, the birth of civil rights in the US or the emergence of liberal fashion, there are many drivers for this popularity. The common link is that all of these have jazz at their very core, even though jazz wasn’t on the path to capitalism that turned musicians into megastars in the 60s (the only jazz record from the 50s to make any top ten best-selling lists of the decade was Kind of Blue by Miles Davis). Jazz was becoming more refined at this point, turning into ‘music for musicians’ and retreating slowly back to its roots on the club scene. Granted, musicians like John Coltrane would go on to become highly successful, but jazz would never be as popular again.
The final word
Jazz has gone from strength to strength since the 1950s. Although purists may disagree, jazz has the ability to transform. By the time the Beatles were changing music forever, jazz was already on the path of change. Afro-Cuban forms created a more adventurous sound, before free jazz took expressionism to a new form. Since the 60s, we’ve been through acid jazz, jazz fusion, psychedelic jazz and M-Base. Jazz has become less a style or genre, but a vehicle that lays the foundations for pure creativity. Unlike a pre-defined genre which has rules and requirements, jazz can become literally anything as long as the essence is maintained.