3 Prohibition Era Jazz Artists to Know

There was a 13-year window in the United States around the turn of the 20th century during which alcohol was made illegal. That time period, known as prohibition, lasted from 1920 to 1933. The era, of course, also had a major impact on the music of the time.

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While alcohol wasn’t legal, it was bootlegged and provided in speakeasies. While jazz was bubbling up in certain areas of the South, those leaving that area and looking for work during the Great Depression brought jazz with them, ostensibly pollinating various areas in the U.S. with the sound. This led to new jazz styles as well as some integration.

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But who were some of the artists of the time? Below are three prohibition-era artists to know.

1. Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, who remains one of the biggest names in jazz, was born in 1901 in New Orleans. His career got started about 18 years later in 1919. It’s believed that his first gigs were on riverboats around the Crescent City. In 1922, he moved to Chicago to play his trumpet. Armstrong’s first recordings came while playing with King Oliver and his band in 1923. Armstrong was also a major figure in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. He moved around after that, including to California during the 1930s, when times were especially tough. Later, Armstrong even performed in movies. Today, he is recognized as a seminal figure in American music thanks to his contributions to jazz.

2. Fats Waller

Born in 1904 in New York City, Fats Waller died at just 39 years old in Kansas City, Missouri. In between, though, he had an illustrious career in jazz music. With more than 400 songs credited to his name, Fats Waller was a professional musician in his teenage years. He was also responsible for writing music for several Broadway performances, including the 1928 offering Keep Shufflin’ and the 1929 number Hot Chocolates.

3. Duke Ellington

Born in 1899, Duke Ellington lived to be 75 years old, passing away in New York City in 1974. Harlem in the 1920s was especially important in the careers of many burgeoning jazz artists around the prohibition era, thanks largely to the popular Cotton Club, which was around from 1923 until 1940. The former speakeasy had connections to the mob and to former heavyweight champ Jack Johnson. But as for Ellington, one of the biggest names in jazz, he got started in his teens, playing around his hometown of Washington D.C. Later, he moved to New York and became a mainstay at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s. His career has grown in major ways ever since.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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