2-beat – A rhythm based around a fundamental arrangement of beats in the bar into a ‘strong-weak, strong-weak’ pattern. 2-beat is an easy and attractive rhythm for dancing, and the vast majority of jazz and dance-band music in the early- and mid-20s can be broadly classified as 2-beat music. This structure was inherited from Ragtime, which in turn had inherited it from marching music.
4-beat – In the later years of the decade, several important bands (such as Duke Ellington’s, Ben Pollack’s and Luis Russell’s) began to even out the ‘strong-weak, strong-weak’ pattern of 2-beat music to stress all four beats of the bar more evenly, creating a rhythmic feel which was more subtle and musically versatile. This fundamental shift in rhythmic approach would eventually result in the even time feel underpinning Swing in the 1930s and Bebop in the 1940s. Jazz has never really returned to a 2-beat rhythm since.
Blues Craze – For a few years after 1920, New York record labels such as Black Swan led a nationwide craze for African-American blues music, often featuring Southern female vocalists such as Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams were important piano accompanists, Kaiser Marshall sometimes played drums.
Brushes – Some time in the early ‘twenties, drummers began using the wire fly-swatters found in every home on their drums in particularly quiet musical settings, or for a special effect. Soon drum manufacturers cottoned onto the idea and began to produce and advertise specially-made ‘rhythm brushes’ in their catalogues. Chauncey Morehouse made the first confirmed recording with brushes in 1923 (although we don’t know whether he was using ‘rhythm brushes’ or real fly-swatters!), and in subsequent years brush playing became an accepted and fundamental part of jazz drumming, as it still is today. During the ‘twenties, drummers such as Ben Pollack and Zutty Singleton were identified as particularly fine brush players, but nearly all of our Heroes were thoroughly adept in their use and recorded with them at one point or another.
Chicago style – ‘Chicago style’ has had several distinct meaning at different points in time throughout the history of Jazz. Initially it referred to the vibrant jazz scene created predominantly by black musicians who had migrated north from New Orleans and its environs in the early ‘20s. Their music was built around two-beat time and often featured medium to large bands playing detailed arrangements that contained a strong blues element. A younger generation of predominantly white, Chicago-born musicians that came of age in the middle years of the decade – despite drawing most of their inspiration from their Southern predecessors – came to take ‘Chicago style’ jazz in a different direction, playing a freewheeling, individualistic music that tended towards swing in its rhythmic construction.
Chinese cymbal – A cymbal conforming to the traditional Chinese shape, usually with a squared-off bell and an upwardly-flanged edge. Chinese cymbals produce a raw, exotic wash of sound ideal for cutting through a band at dramatic moments, and were already popular with ragtime drummers in the 1910s as a fearsome noise-making device. In the mid-late 1920s drummers such as Vic Berton, Chauncey Morehouse and Stan King began to fully explore the potential of multi-cymbal setups, combining the sharp and characterful tone of the Chinese type, played with various sticks and mallets, with the more melodious sound of Turkish-style cymbals. Chinese-style cymbals are still extremely common today.
Chinese tom-tom – A standard part of most drummers’ setups during the 1920s, although a less frequently-heard sound on record than might be expected. These drums have a long history in Chinese classical and ritual music and were generally imported direct from China by Western drum manufacturers. They are generally shallow drums of 10” to 14” diameter, with calfskin heads top and bottom nailed directly onto the shell, and thus not adjustable. However, their popularity eventually led to the development of the tunable toms found on all modern drum kits, in the early 1930s. Good examples of Chinese tom-toms on record are Baby Dodds’s recordings with Jelly Roll Morton’s trio and Paul Barbarin’s with Luis Russell’s Orchestra. You can still buy Chinese tom-toms today.
Choked cymbal – A technique in which a vibrating cymbal’s sound is shortened by the drummer grasping its edge firmly with one hand. The choppy, exciting sound of the choked cymbal became common in jazz and dance band music from 1923 (Baby Dodds’s records with King Oliver being among the first to feature it) and rapidly spread to become one of the most immediately recognizable elements in 1920s drumming.
Dance Band (or Dance Orchestra) – By far the most ubiquitous format for live and recorded popular music in the 1920s. Beginning around 1919, the dance band as a musical ensemble evolved out of the Ragtime orchestra of the 1910s and usually comprised three brass (two trumpets, one trombone) three saxophones (usually all doubling on clarinet) and a four-piece rhythm section of piano, banjo/guitar, tuba/bass and drums. Dance bands were found at all levels of the music food-chain, and often held residencies in large hotels and restaurants, playing the hits of the day for social dancing. Generally they played from sheet music, either using published ‘stock’ arrangements, or commissioning bespoke charts from an arranger. The best dance bands made records, which (depending on the quality of the instrumentalists at hand, the imagination of the arranger, and the commercial intentions of the record label) can be fantastically hip and exciting, or tedious in the extreme!
Dixieland – Originally a disparaging term referring to the Southern states of the USA, which has become complicated though time and (mis-)usage. The Original ‘Dixieland’ Jazz Band intended it purely as a marker of their geographical origin; they were all from New Orleans. However, in the 1940s-50s, bands on both sides of the Atlantic attempting to revive the early period of the music chose to rekindle the term in order to define their idiom as something separate from ‘jazz’ (which had subsequently evolved). Hence today, ‘Dixieland’ is not commonly used to refer to jazz from the ‘twenties, but instead to these revival movements of more recent decades – which despite the best intentions often differ markedly from authentic early jazz and should not be considered all part of the same thing.
Fabulous Fives – The name given to the numerous groups that sprang up immediately following the titanic success of the ODJB, in the years 1918-23. These bands, predominantly made up of white Easterners, all followed the ODJB’s winning five-man format, although arguably none of them really imitated their forebears’ idiosyncratic musical style. ‘Fabulous Fives’ include the Louisiana Five, Memphis Five, Indiana Five and Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band.
Gig – Any musical job, but most frequently taken to mean a single, one-night-only performance at a given venue.
Great Migration – Between 1916 and 1970, around six million African-Americans moved from rural communities in the South to start new lives in the cities of the northern and eastern USA. Many of our Heroes took part in this huge social upheaval.
Great War – The First World War, or World War One (1914-1918). This was how it known at the time it was happening, throughout the ‘twenties and right up until 1939, when the Second World War began. Several of our drumming Heroes were involved in the Great War in various ways.
Hand Cymbal – Generic name covering a range of novelty percussion instruments manufactured by several American drum companies in the mid-late 1920s. Models varied from the ‘squash cymbal’ (two small cymbals on a pair of tongs, played with a stick) to the famous ‘bock-a-da-bock’ cymbals (a miniature version featuring two pairs of tiny cymbals, played with a pair in each hand). The craze lasted a few years at most, during which Zutty Singleton, Kaiser Marshall and Tommy Benford amongst others recorded hand cymbals prominently. The brief popularity of hand cymbals, however, may have opened manufacturers’ eyes to the possibilities of mechanical two-cymbal effect instruments, resulting in the advent of the hi-hat in the early 1930s.
Hot music – Music which is syncopated and rhythmically exciting, and compels the listener to want to dance. The terminology was already in use in the ragtime era to denote music which was particularly vital, and became a catch-all for peppy, rhythmic music throughout the ‘twenties. ‘Hot’ music is often loud, and often fast. But it can be neither – and still be ‘hot’ as hell!
Jam session – A gathering of musicians to play jazz spontaneously in an informal setting, often at a bar (or, in ‘twenties America, a Speakeasy). Jam sessions have always provided a valuable function in allowing musicians who rarely work together professionally to mix and share ideas; in the ‘twenties the enormous additional factor at work was the strictly-enforced racial segregation law; private jam sessions were tragically the only musical context in which white and black performers were permitted to mix socially on an equal footing and share music-making together.
Jazz Age – The Jazz Age is broadly defined as having begun with the ODJB’s records in 1917 (the first to use the word ‘jass/jazz’, which sparked a nationwide and later worldwide craze for syncopated popular music – not all of it strictly Jazz. The period saw unprecedented prosperity in America, and the newly-implemented prohibition of alcohol drove drinking underground into illegal speakeasies, which did much to loosen social boundaries, particularly for the young generation. The end date of the Jazz Age is less clear; the 1929 Wall Street crash and the 1939 outbreak of the second World War have been suggested.
New Orleans style – Since recording was an extreme rarity in the deep South until the mid-period of the decade, little is known about early New Orleans jazz until its practitioners had reached Chicago, by which time it may well have already evolved considerably. In the context of the 1920s the term ‘New Orleans style’ is typically applied to music such as that of A.J. Piron’s Orchestra or Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, which is characteristically ensemble-based rather than individualistic, measured (even elegant) in mood rather than ‘hot’ and frantic, and often features distinctive Caribbean rhythms such as the 3-over-2 ‘pendulum’. However, such broad tags can be misleading, since the often-frenetic ODJB were also from New Orleans.
New York style – As America’s largest city and principal cultural hub, New York unsurprisingly played host to several major musical evolutions during the 1920s. In the early ‘twenties it was the home of many of the popular Fabulous Fives, then its record labels led the Blues Craze. In the mid-‘20s it was ruled by hot dance bands, epitomized by the clipped, hip-sounding black orchestra led by Fletcher Henderson and the peppy, collegiate California Ramblers. As the decade wore on however, New York as the nation’s recording centre inexorably drew in the majority of the country’s diverse regional talent, and by the later ‘twenties any defined Eastern idiom had been diluted by the multitude of performers arriving in the city from all over America.
NORK – The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, one of two early jazz bands usually referred to by their initials (see ODJB). The NORK were one of most popular white bands in mid-20s Chicago and featured Frank Snyder or Ben Pollack on drums.
Novelty – A slightly vague term, ‘Novelty’ in the context of 1920s music is generally used to refer to compositions, performances or even individual sound effects which are outside of the mainstream and designed to elicit a particular strong reaction from the listener. It covers, however, a very broad spectrum – from the sublime (Jimmy Dorsey’s and Frank Trumbauer’s virtuoso saxophone pieces) to the ridiculous (Vaudeville clarinettist Wilton Crawley’s bizarre chicken impersonations).
ODJB – The Original Dixieland Jass/Jazz Band, one of two early jazz bands usually referred to by their initials (see NORK). The ODJB were the first band to market their music using the word ‘Jazz’ and featured Tony Sbarbaro on drums.
Press rolls – A particular timekeeping texture often wrongly assumed to be in ubiquitous use by all 1920s drummers, ‘press rolls’ in fact came gradually into vogue throughout the decade (though their earliest recorded appearance dates back to 1916). Technically the common ‘press roll’ rhythmic pattern involves bouncing the left stick on beats 2 and 4 to create a buzz whilst the right stick taps out all four beats. Virtually all the Heroes used them, but particular masters of the press roll were Paul Barbarin, Stan King and Baby Dodds.
Prohibition – The Volstead Act of 1920, which prohibited the drinking of alcohol in America. Without this law, the history of jazz would have been utterly different. See Speakeasy.
Ragtime – Popular from the early 1890s to around 1920, the syncopated, march-derived Ragtime style was really the principal parent genre to much of the popular music of the ‘twenties. Today it is thought of as principally a piano-based idiom but at the time, the instrument most commonly associated with Ragtime was probably the banjo, and ragtime recordings by singers, orchestras, soloists, and small instrumental groups (the forerunners of the jazz combo!) abound.
Recording ‘Traps – term I use to describe the sundry pieces of percussion equipment deemed acceptable to recording engineers during the period c.1920-1926 in place of full drum kit. Usually ‘recording traps’ comprised various woodblocks, cowbells and one or more cymbals.
Residency – A regular musical job at the same venue (often daily or weekly). Some bands became synonymous with their more prestigious or lengthy residencies.
Rhythm Section – The backbone of any jazz band, tasked with providing a steady rhythm and sympathetic harmonic accompaniment for the other musicians to play on top of. 1920s rhythm sections usually comprised drums and piano at the very least, often with the addition of a string instrument (banjo or guitar) and a bass instrument (tuba, string bass or bass saxophone). Some bands were fortunate enough to keep a good rhythm section together for several years at a time.
Rimshot – A stroke on a drum in which the tip of the drumstick strikes the drumhead whilst the shaft simultaneously makes contact with the drum’s metal rim. The sharp crack produced can be used for special effect.
Side – a single recorded piece of music, synonymous with ‘track’ today. The term is derived from 78rpm record discs, which would fit one number on each side.
Speakeasy – With the passing of the Volstead Act prohibiting alcohol in 1920, Americans who wanted to continue drinking – in other words, a large majority – had to do so in ‘speakeasies’: illegal saloons often operated by organized-crime syndicates. To attract customers wary of breaking the law extra entertainments were often provided by management, such as the newly-popular Jazz music. The Prohibition law and the speakeasies it engendered allowed Jazz to take hold on the public and flourish in the early ‘20s – a fortuitous combination of circumstances. The fact that several of our Heroes suffered health problems and even untimely deaths due to a habitually excessive intake of low-grade alcohol at all-night jam sessions in speakeasies was an unfortunate but not entirely unforeseeable side-effect.
Standard – A jazz composition which became part of the canon of commonly-performed tunes.
Swing – in the context of the 1920s, ‘swing’ can be used to refer both generally to a performance which has a steady, rolling, propulsive time feel to it, and specifically to a piece in which each beat of the bar is divided into three parts rather than two (‘swing feel’). Musicians are unlikely, however, to have used the word ‘swing’ in this context until the late 20s at the very earliest.
Syncopation – a rhythm which makes use of strong notes placed in between the main pulses of the music (‘off-beats’), often creating a sense of tension and excitement. As a musical device it’s as old as time, but Ragtime and Jazz made such overt use of syncopation that it became widely used as a trendy buzz-word: ‘syncopated music’ became the proclaimed stock-in-trade for many a polite dance-band, and the term was incorporated into the names of jazz groups as diverse as King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, L’Orchestre Syncopated Six and Doc Cook’s 14 Doctors Of Syncopation.
Time – in a musical context, ‘time’ refers to the flow of regular rhythmic pulses in a piece of music, like a heartbeat, which is usually laid down by a rhythm section. Players with a talent for playing very consistent and steady ‘time’ are highly prized!
‘Traps – short for ‘Contraptions’ – An early term for the drum set or drum kit, which partially stuck to describe any instrument in the drummer’s arsenal besides drums. Thus “traps’ covers woodblocks, cymbals, or anything as outlandish as washboard, gongs, rattles, wind machines or various effect whistles. See also Recording ‘Traps.
‘Tricky’ cymbal – A special development of the choked-cymbal technique pioneered by Victor Berton around 1926, in which the hand doing the ‘choking’ also plays on the underside of the cymbal, allowing a range of complex rhythms to be played. See the ‘Hero’ articles on Berton and Kaiser Marshall for excellent examples.
Turkish cymbal – The strict technical term for what we’d think of as a ‘normal-shaped’ cymbal. In the 1920s manufacturers did not brand their cymbals with descriptive names such as ‘crash’ or ‘ride’ since all cymbals were effectively crash cymbals: nobody ‘rode’ on cymbals until the very late 20s and the hi-hat had not yet appeared. Generally the cymbals used by our drummer Heroes were between 12” and 16”, and of light to medium weight. Surprisingly versatile instruments, cymbals were ‘crashed’ and allowed to ring during 1920-24, were often ‘choked’ from 1923, and were played using ‘tricky’ techniques in 1927-30. The best ‘Turkish’-style cymbals in the 1920s were literally that, hand-manufactured in the Bosphorus, although some makers in Germany, Switzerland and Italy also produced excellent instruments and the Zildjian company opened an American offshoot in 1929.
Vaudeville – The most common form of mass entertainment in late-19th– and early-20th-century America (analogous to Music Hall in Britain), Vaudeville theatres presented shows made up of a succession of short acts or ‘turns’, including comedians, conjurors, acrobats, and various types of musicians. Some of our Heroes relied on the Vaudeville circuit for work in the early years of the decade, among them Jasper Taylor, Tony Sbarbaro and Sonny Greer. Vaudeville musicians often quickly gained a strong appreciation of the value of stagecraft, showmanship and crowd-pleasing novelty effects – something occasionally evident even when playing jazz in their later careers.
Washboard Craze – Sparked by Jasper Taylor’s recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmie O’Bryant in 1923 and 1924, the mid-‘twenties saw a sudden spate of records featuring the humble kitchen utensil being struck and scraped in a variety of small-band settings. Washboard band records are usually consciously blues-derived and folksy. Other notable Washboard Craze players include Jimmy Bertrand, W.E. ‘Buddy’ Burton, Ernie Marrero and Baby Dodds.