Jazz is a musical genre that has been around for almost 100 years. The early 1920s saw the birth of the early jazz age, both among listeners and musicians. But who are some of the famous jazz musicians of the 1920s?
The most notable jazz musician of the 1920s is Louis Armstrong. He quickly became recognized as the best artist of his time due to his unique style of playing incorporated elements from ragtime music, blues, spirituals, and jazz.
The 1920s were a time of transition in American music.
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The Jazz Age began at the end of World War I and ended with the Great Depression. This decade also saw many talented musicians who revolutionized the way we hear music today.
Here are some of my favorite artists from this era.
1. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential musicians of all time.
Born in New Orleans in 1901, he began playing the cornet at a young age and became a professional musician at 14. With his signature sound (a mix of blues, ragtime, and Dixieland jazz), he influenced everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis.
He was one of the most sought-after musicians in famous nightclubs such as the Cotton Club in New York City.
Armstrong’s earliest recordings were made for Okeh Records and Columbia Records; these songs include “What a Wonderful World”, “Blue Turning Grey Over You”, and “You Can Depend on Me”.
Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington "In A Mellow Tone" on The Ed Sullivan Show
2. Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton was born in New Orleans. He is considered the “Father of Jazz” and was also one of its greatest pianists and bandleaders.
He was one of the first musicians in the jazz world to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In his early years, he worked as a ragtime pianist in Storyville, an area where prostitution and gambling were legal at that time. He later started recording with Race Records.
He also played with many musicians, including Buddy Bolden and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with a notable act in Los Angeles before forming his own band called Red Hot Peppers in Chicago in 1917.
Who Was Jelly Roll Morton?
3. Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith was an African-American singer born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She began her career in the 1920s and went on to become one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Known as the Empress of the Blues, Smith was known for her powerful voice and emotional delivery that often led to tears among her audience members.
Her songs were often based on personal experiences such as heartbreak or domestic abuse.
She died at age 44 after being involved in an automobile accident.
If you’re particularly drawn to the blues, a recent article I wrote talks about the best blues musicians of all time. Check it out to learn more about this beautiful genre!
Bessie Smith - St.Louis Blues (1929)
4. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer and songwriter who not only enjoyed a long career but also had one of the most popular careers in the history of jazz.
During her 70-year career, she recorded over 130 albums and became known as “The First Lady of Song,” thanks to her vocal style and performance repertoire.
She performed with many different musicians throughout her long life—including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra—and will always be remembered for her incredible talent.
Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"
5. Art Tatum
Art Tatum was one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time. During the 1920s, he was known as the “Ivory Wizard”, and his unique style combined classical and jazz music.
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. He started playing piano at age two and performed professionally by age eleven.
By 1921 he had moved to New York City, where he performed in jazz clubs during what is often called “The Harlem Renaissance”.
In 1925 Tatum joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra as their pianist; he also worked with Benny Goodman from 1935-1936 before becoming a solo artist again from 1937-1941.
To top that off, he was legally blind, which makes his success even more impressive. Feel free to take a look at a recent article I published regarding the famous blind musicians in the history of music.
ART TATUM LIVE [EXTREMELY RARE FOOTAGE]
6. Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman was a clarinetist, band leader, and composer in the jazz scene. He is one of the most successful jazz artists ever to perform, with his brilliance reflecting on every sheet of music he created.
He began playing the clarinet when he was nine years old, and by his late teens, he was considered to be one of the best jazz players in Chicago.
In 1935, Benny Goodman formed his big band with Teddy Wilson as the pianist, Gene Krupa on drums, and Charlie Christian on guitar, who later joined Benny’s band as lead guitarist after leaving Andy Kirk’s Kansas City Seven group.
Benny Goodman Orchestra - Sing, Sing, Sing (Hollywood Hotel) 1937
7. Coleman Hawkins
One of the most famous saxophonists from the 1920s is Coleman Hawkins. He was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1904 and began playing with bands at age 14.
After traveling around with several bands, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s group for a year before forming his own group with Don Redman and Louis Armstrong.
In 1926, Hawkins started playing with Fletcher Henderson again—this time on the alto saxophone instead of the tenor.
It was during this time period that he really hit his stride as a musician; his tone and technique were widely praised by other musicians. He toured Europe several times throughout this decade as well.
Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins - Live in New York 1965 At the Village Vanguard
8. Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke was a jazz cornet player. He played with the Wolverines, Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, and Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra. He was known as the “Wolverine”.
He’s often called “the Father of Jazz Rhythm Section” because of his unique sound of playing at fast tempos that made him a standout during his time period.
When Bix started out, he became part of Paul Whiteman’s band in 1926 when it started recording its early hits like “Whispering” and “Singin’ The Blues”.
Within three years though, Beiderbecke left this group because he wanted to pursue other musical interests, including making records with other popular artists.
Bix Beiderbecke - I'm Coming Virginia - 1927
9. Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman was an American bandleader, composer, violinist, and pioneer in the development of the swing music scene.
Known as “The King of Jazz”, his big band performances helped bridge the gap between the classical music genres and jazz.
His mother had been a concert singer who worked with her sisters as vaudeville performers; their father played violin in traveling music groups back then.
Due to his mother’s influence on him at an early age, Paul learned how to play the piano at five years old before moving on to other instruments such as violin and cello later on during his childhood years.
Paul whiteman Orchestra - At Sundown
10. Benny Carter
Benny Carter was a jazz musician and bandleader. He was also a saxophonist, clarinetist and flautist.
His career spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s, during which time he performed with many of the top names in 20th-century music, including Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington.
His father played the trombone professionally and encouraged Carter to pursue music at an early age. Carter learned how to play the alto saxophone by age 13.
In 1932, he formed what would become one of his most successful bands called The Benny Carter Orchestra.
Benny Carter, in "I Cant Get Started", Live Concert, London, 1966.
11. Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet is one of the most influential black musicians in all of jazz music.
His soprano saxophone playing was a major force in developing the style and sound of jazz, and he helped shape what became known as Dixieland Jazz.
He grew up in a musical family; his grandfather played violin in Congo Square and throughout New Orleans, where he helped to form the first black orchestra in 1879.
His father also played violin, while Sidney took up the banjo at age 7 or 8 before switching to clarinet later on (hence how he got his nickname “The Hawk”).
Sidney Bechet, in "Once in a while", Live Concert, Cannes Jazz Festival, 1958.
12. Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson was a jazz pianist and bandleader who led one of the most popular bands in New York City during the 1920s.
His innovative arrangements helped to define the sound of big band jazz, and his compositions were standards for many years.
The career of Fletcher Henderson began in Chicago, where he played with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band before moving to New York City around 1917.
In 1918 he joined Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which became known as “the Dreamland Orchestra.” In 1919, they recorded several songs that can still be heard today: “Joe Turner Blues”, “Riverboat Shuffle”, and “Copenhagen”.
FLETCHER HENDERSON / Jazz History #11
13. Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington was a composer and pianist who formed the first jazz band to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1926. Born in Washington, D.C., he later moved to New York.
He is known for his contributions to American music, as well as his numerous compositions that have been performed by many well-known artists such as Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and Ella Fitzgerald.
In addition to being considered one of the greatest composers in history, he was also known for being able to transcribe music into various forms, including symphonic works or even an opera called “Afro-American Suite”.
Duke Ellington, "Take the A Train"
14. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was a jazz band led by King Oliver in the early 1920s.
The band was one of the first to record jazz music commercially, and it also helped to popularize New Orleans-style rhythm and blues (or “Dixieland”).
To say that the band helped change the music scene in American culture is an understatement.
The band was notable for its use of horns, including three saxophones, which had not been heard before on recordings of this type.
It also featured two drummers and two banjo players throughout its existence. In addition to these instruments, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band often used the piano as well as brass instruments like trombone or tuba when necessary—all at once!
What Did King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band Sound Like in the Studio? (2017 High School Project)
15. Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti was an American jazz violinist and composer. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he began his career as a violinist in the late 1920s.
In 1928, he performed with singer Adelaide Hall at New York’s Savoy Ballroom, where they introduced their classic “Dancing on the Ceiling” with Louis Armstrong as the trumpet player.
Venuti went on to work with Eddie Lang and Joe Tarto and then teamed up with guitarist Eddie Lang until 1935. During this period, he recorded extensively for Brunswick Records, which helped establish him as one of the leading musicians of his time.
From the mid-1930s until World War II, Venuti worked mostly as a bandleader performing regularly at Nick’s Cafe in New York City.
Joe Venuti Lino Patruno Sweet Georgia Brown
16. Jack Taegarden
Jack Taegarden was a jazz guitarist who was born in New York City. He is best known for his work on the guitar.
Jack learned to play the banjo when he was a child but switched to the guitar when he was 13 years old. In 1915, he formed his first band with pianist Artie Matthews and drummer Phil Napoleon while still in high school.
The band made its debut at Reisenweber’s Restaurant, where they played every week until 1918. Jack joined Al Jolson’s traveling show for two years as lead guitarist and vocalist before returning home, where he continued to perform at various venues throughout Manhattan.
Jack TEAGARDEN & His All Star Group " Basin' Street Blues" !!!
17. Fast Waller
Fats Waller, born Thomas Wright Waller, was an American pianist and composer.
He is known for his popular songs such as “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and “Your Feet’s Too Big”.
Waller was born in Harlem, New York City to Adeline Lassiter Waller and Robert Earl Wright.
His father played cornet in a marching band and led the band at Sunday school for adults in the Apollo Theater. Fats would often sing with his dad’s group when he was older.
Fats Waller - Ain't Misbehavin' - Stormy Weather (1943)
18. Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey was the leader of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, which was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
He was also a talented singer and musician himself. Some of his biggest hits were “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “Opus One”.
He made giant steps in his career when he formed his band with Frank Sinatra in 1935, but he left it after three years because he didn’t like being told what to do by Sinatra.
Tommy Dorsey Orchestra - Song Of India - LIVE!
19. Django Reinhardt
Django was born in Belgium. He became a guitar prodigy at the age of 8 and developed his own unique style of gypsy jazz guitar.
In the late 1930s, he suffered severe burns to his left hand, which led him to have to play with it in an unorthodox way.
Django’s left hand essentially became an extension of his right hand, but it gave him an unusual sound that made him instantly recognizable as one-of-a-kind.
His music is considered some of the most influential in free jazz, modal jazz, and modern jazz history; many artists today pay homage to Django’s style by using similar techniques on their own instruments!
Django Reinhardt CLIP performing live 1945
20. Ma Rainey
If you’re a fan of the blues, chances are you’ve heard of Ma Rainey. She was an early blues singer and one of the most important singers in the genre.
Born Gertrude Pridgett in Georgia, Rainey began her music career as a dancer and actress before switching over to singing when she moved to Chicago in 1905.
In 1917, Ma Rainey became the first woman to record the blues (and one year later, Bessie Smith would become the second).
That same year, she also recorded “Moonshine Blues”, which has been covered by many artists, including Leadbelly and Elvis Presley. One hundred years after it was written, this song remains popular today!
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey & Her Georgia Band-Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
21. Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters was an American blues, jazz, and gospel singer and actress. She was a popular singer from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Her “smokey voice” was her trademark, and her singing style influenced many singers who followed her.
Her birth name was Hattie Ethel Waters, but she later took on the last name of her husband, Charles Davidson. She sang for friends in church choir rehearsals at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where one day, composer James Europe heard her sing.
Ethel Waters - Underneath the Harlem Moon (1933)
22. Edward ‘Kid’ Ory
Edward “Kid” Ory was a jazz cornetist born in New Orleans, Louisiana.
He played with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, one of the most famous New Orleans bands, and later joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
After leaving Oliver, he formed his own band and toured Europe. Ory also recorded with Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, among others, but he is most closely associated with the traditional New Orleans style.
Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band, LIVE 1954 - BILL BAILEY
23. Eddie Lang
Eddie Lang was a jazz guitarist who was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He died in 1933 at the age of 35.
His most famous song is “Dinah”. It was originally written by composer Eubie Blake as a piano ragtime composition, which he first played in 1921 at the Clam House Café on West Coast 52nd Street in New York City.
In 1932, Lang recorded it with singer Scrapper Blackwell and his Blue Five.
The Brilliance of Eddie Lang
24. Earl Hines
Earl Hines was a pianist, composer, and arranger. He was born in 1904 in the United States and died in 1983.
He was considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time by critics and musicians alike. His playing style was marked by a strong sense of rhythm and melody, as well as his use of both hands on the keyboard at once to create counterpoint melodies.
Earl Hines’ early influences included Louis Armstrong (who would later serve as his mentor), Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller.
In 1920, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band as its featured soloist; this period is considered by many historians to be when Hines first developed his signature sound.
Earl Hines - Boogie Woogie on the St Louis Blues (Live France 1965)
25. Bubber Miley
The clarinetist Bubber Miley was the first jazz musician to play the two-valve instrument, which gave him a signature sound.
He was a member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and later joined the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Miley’s bluesy style influenced many other musicians who came after him.
As jazz music evolved into new genres like bebop, his legacy would continue to influence future generations of musicians as well as inspire new musical styles such as ragtime and Dixieland.
Bubber Miley (1903-1932) - Blues With A Feelin'
26. Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in Brooklyn, New York. He was the youngest of nine children and began playing the clarinet at age 14.
In 1930, he established his own band, which recorded their first hit record called “Blue Skies”.
Later that same year, they recorded “Begin the Beguine”, which became one of their biggest hits. This song also had a big influence on pop music because its fast tempo made it easy to dance to as well as listen to.
To take your listening experience to the next level, come and check out this recent article on my site that lists down the best budget tube headphone amplifiers for that incredible music experience!
Artie Shaw & His Orchestra (1939)
27. Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana. During his time at Indiana University, he formed a band with other students that played for dances across the country.
In 1925, Carmichael wrote “Stardust”, which became one of his most popular songs ever written.
The song was originally meant for an orchestra to perform but ended up being recorded by Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and Frankie Trumbauer on violin—two members of the dance band Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Carmichael also composed several other well-known jazz standards, including “Georgia on My Mind,” which is still considered the official state song of Georgia today (and has been since 1930).
If you’ve ever heard this piece before, then you probably recognize how beautiful it sounds—it’s definitely worth listening to again!
The Ford Show: Hoagy Carmichael (6/15/61)
Frequently Asked Questions
What is considered the best jazz song ever?
The best jazz song is Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”. This classic is a swinging tune that’s known for its intricate chord progressions and laidback rhythm.
It was first recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in 1941, but since then, it’s been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to Michael Bublé.
If you’re going to sing a jazz song, this should probably be one of them.
Who was the greatest jazz singer in the 1920s?
You might be surprised to learn that the best male jazz singer of the 1920s was actually a trumpeter.
If you’re familiar with Louis Armstrong’s music, then you know he has an amazing ability to sing while playing his horn at the same time.
This means he can get more notes out than most other singers, which is why he’s considered one of the best vocalists in history.
Who was the greatest jazz guitarist in the 1920s?
The best jazz guitarist of the 1920s was Eddie Lang.
Eddie Lang was an innovative and influential early jazz guitar player.
He played with many notable singers and instrumentalists during this period.
During his career, he toured with bandleader Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, recorded music for Okeh Records and Paramount Records, wrote songs, and led his own bands.
His incredible guitar skills remain to be just as influential today.
We hope you enjoyed our list of 27 famous jazz musicians of the 1920s.
There are many more jazz musicians from the 1920s that we didn’t have time to include here, but this list is a good place to start.
They were all pioneers in their own way, and their music influenced countless artists who came after them.
If you want to delve deeper into the music of this era, we highly recommend checking out some of these artists’ recordings.
In addition to listening for yourself and being transported back in time, these records are also great for studying the history of early jazz music!