A Brief History of Jazz in New York City

At Alex Levin Music, we represent the best Jazz Bands NYC has to offer.  When it comes time to hire a jazz band for your wedding, corporate event or party; keep in mind that we have a large roster of bands from which you can choose.  Before you inquire about one of our lively and talented jazz bands, take the time to read about the History of Jazz in New York City. This will give you a great sense of how our bands became inspired and why they perform today.

The History of Jazz in America began during slavery within the African-American culture. As a result, the music is infected with African rhythms, melodies, and spirit. After a period of gestation in New Orleans and other southern cities, the music soon traveled across the country. While the musical genre has thrived in America for hundreds of years, it became an even more prevalent part of history during the “Roaring Twenties”.  The “Roaring Twenties”, also known as the 1920s, brought forth a one-of-a-kind culture that would forever change America. It thrived in the entertainment capital of the world known as New York City.

Let’s take a time machine back to the beginning of the 1920s in New York City.  Women began cutting their hair into bobs while beginning to wear shorter dresses, horse and buggies were quickly shifting over to the age of automobiles, and most importantly the prohibition era reigned havoc on those who enjoyed their alcohol.  Yes, prohibition was in full effect and it was illegal to make or drink any form of alcohol. Well, what happens when something becomes illegal? An underground black market opens up. In NYC, this was known as the era of speakeasies.


Speakeasies were hidden and unadvertised underground bars where patrons could drink their favorite alcoholic beverages at peace.  These secret destinations became homes to some of the liveliest parties in New York City. Complemented with the support of the Mob who were known for bootlegging and making the alcohol provided at the speakeasies, these bars drew in both youthful crowds and those who got a high from messing with the law.

When you have such eccentric parties, you need one additional element…that element was known as Jazz.  Musicians known for playing their brass instruments brought their music to these speakeasies. The music quickly began to reflect this new cultural wave.  There was new music, cultural, and sexual norms that were hitting the streets of New York City rapidly.


If you’ve walked down 7th Avenue near 57th Street as a tourist in New York City, it’s probable that you’ve laid eyes on what is known as Carnegie Hall.  This hub for the most legendary concerts in New York City opened up in 1896 (originally opened up in 1891 at Zankel Hall, but after renovations five years later, it was named Carnegie Hall).  Early Jazz began to play here in 1912 and many notable musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington headlined the hall. This was the first place in NYC that showcased emerging and new jazz music.

Funded by Andrew Carnegie himself, the millionaire tried selling it in 1925 to the New York Philharmonic.  After this organization declined the offer due to favoring Lincoln Center, Carnegie thought his hall was doomed.  This feeling seized when the State of New York agreed to purchase Carnegie Hall. In 1962, the hall became a National Landmark.


Located in Harlem, the Cotton Club was easily one of the most famous and lively Jazz Clubs in NYC.  Owned by the infamous gangster, Owney Madden, people traveled from all over to lay eyes and ears on what was behind the doors of this exciting destination.  This bar was known for their underground alcohol sales, upcoming jazz musicians, and talented dancers. Every night was a party at the Cotton Club, especially with the fact that the club could easily seat 400 patrons.

Duke Ellington was a popular performer that headlined many nights at this location.  It has been said that Ellington’s fame came about because of his many performances at the club.  He led the entire orchestra at the Cotton Club from 1927 to 1930. After 1930, he continued to spontaneously lead the orchestra for the next eight years.

While all of this sounds fun and exciting, the Cotton Club was among the many bars that proved segregation still existed.  Most of the popular jazz clubs in NYC were known to cater to the wealthy white crowds. In fact, The Cotton Club only allowed white customers inside their doors.  The irony of the matter was that a majority of the musicians were African-American.


The new wave in the 1920s brought forth not only a new culture but also a new trend amongst younger, more modern women.  They were known as “Flappers”. These women cut their hair into bobs, wore shorter dresses, showcased confidence, partied until the sun rose, drank with all the men, and began to live exciting lives.  This was a massive change in the perception of gender roles because women at this time were typically submissive to men. This new cultural wave boosted the confidence of women and what they could achieve.  Keep in mind women’s suffrage became legal in 1919, which gave women the right to vote. This boost of power fueled women into living more exciting and independent lives.


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