Jazz begins in New Orleans, 19th century America's most cosmopolitan city, where the sound of marching bands, Italian opera, Caribbean rhythms, and minstrel shows fills the streets with a richly diverse musical culture. In the 1890s, African-American musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and Sydney Bichet create a new music out of these ingredients. Soon after the start of the new century, people are calling it jazz.
Speakeasies, flappers, and easy money - it's the Jazz Age, when the story of jazz becomes a tale of two great cities, Chicago and New York, and of two extraordinary artists whose lives and music will span almost three-quarters of a century - Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Armstrong grew up on the mean streets of New Orleans and moved to Chicago in 1922, inspiring a new generation of musicians. Meanwhile, Ellington outgrows the society music he learned to play in Washington D.C., and heads to Harlem.
In the 1920s, jazz is everywhere, and for the first time soloists and singers take center stage. We meet Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues; Bix Beiderbecke, the first great white jazz star; and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, for whom jazz offers a chance to escape the ghetto and achieve their dreams. Duke Ellington appears at the Cotton Club and Louis Armstrong performs his masterpiece, "West End Blues."
In 1929 as the Great Depression begins, New York is now America's jazz capital. On Broadway, Louis Armstrong revolutionizes the art of American popular song. In Harlem, Chick Webb pioneers his own big-band sound and in the city's clubs, pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum dazzle audiences. But it is Duke Ellington who takes jazz "beyond category," composing hit tunes that has critics comparing him to Stravinsky.
As the Great Depression drags on, jazz comes as close as it has ever come to being America's popular music. It has a new name, Swing, and for millions of young fans, it will be the defining music of their generation. Benny Goodman is hailed as the "King of Swing" and Billie Holiday begins her career as the greatest of all female jazz singers.
As the 1930's come to a close, Swing-mania is still going strong, but some fans are saying success has made the music too predictable. Count Basie and the Kansas City sound reignite the spirit of swing. By the decade's end, Duke Ellington has been hailed as a hero in Europe, amid anxious preparations for war. And weeks after that war begins, Coleman Hawkins startles the world with a glimpse of what jazz will become, improvising a new music on the old standard, "Body and Soul."
© 2001 THE JAZZ FILM PROJECT, INC.
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