The 1940s were a tumultuous time and, by extension, an exciting time in America. World War II loomed and eventually took hold of the globe. Soldiers fought the Nazis abroad, eventually victorious. But at home in the United States, music was diverse and booming. Hope was still alive and well in the arts.
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There was the swing era with Lawrence Welk and Duke Ellington. There was big band stuff with a young Frank Sinatra. Bing Crosby was crooning his way to becoming the best-selling artist of the decade thanks, in part, to “White Christmas.” In country music, singing cowboys became a thing, with vocalists like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers. Heck, in 1941, Les Paul invented the first hard-body electric guitar.
All this was going on and, at the same time, the genre of jazz was growing, evolving, and splitting into new and diverse sounds. Below, we are diving into four seminal figures that changed and shaped the genre.
1. Billie Holiday
Born April 7, 1915, Holiday signed her first record contract in 1935. She was one of the most skilled vocalists of the 20th century but, sadly, she fell under legal and drug problems. The 2021 biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring singer Andra Day, excellently portrays her talent and her demise. “Lady Day” recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, “God Bless the Child” in 1941, and “Don’t Explain” in 1944. Today, her piercing voice is immediately recognizable.
2. Ella Fitzgerald
Born on April 25, 1917, Ella Fitzgerald collaborated with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. From 1935 to 1942, Fitzgerald reared over 150 songs with the orchestra founded by Chick Webb. When Chick died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the orchestra, which became known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. In 1938, her song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was a hit. In the 1940s, Fitzgerald enjoyed well-known songs with Louis Jordan, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Bill Kenny & the Ink Spots. She began working with producer Norman Granz and sang in the concert series Jazz at the Philharmonic, founded by Granz. Today, Fitzgerald’s name is synonymous with the genre, and her career, following strong beginnings, flourished in later decades.
3. Charlie Parker
In 1939, Charlie Parker, born August 29, 1920, moved to New York City. That’s when the spark of new music and a new life began for Parker and the world of jazz. Playing the song “Cherokee,” he realized he could take a tune in a whole new direction. The new way to play came to be known as bebop, characterized by a fast pace, intricate chord progression, and changes and improvisations. With the new direction in tow, Parker began to play with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk. The result was mind-melting and, at first, condemned by many traditionalists. But Parker and Co. soldiered on. See: “Koko” below.
4. Nat King Cole
March 17, 1919, Nat King Cole recorded a number of popular songs in the 1940s that were considered pop hits (though, today, they are far from Ariana Grande and *NSYNC). Backed by swelling strings that accentuated his virtuosic voice, Cole sang popular renditions of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” “Frosty The Snowman,” “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy.” A talented piano player, Cole’s voice is considered one of the greatest ever. Nimble, rich, and fluttering.
Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns