Music of the 20s, 30s, 40s 

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Books to get you started

The books listed here are intended to get you started: some key reference books, a few items on key topics to help you understand the music and its background. The links will take you further. Most of the books unfortunately are out of print but one can always hope for reprints; meanwhile, you'll have to check out used book stores or go to a library.


Clayton, Peter, 1927- The Guinness Jazz Companion, Middlesex UK, Guinness Books, 1989. 262p. Out of print. A readers guide in dictionary format. Bix? You go to this book not for biography, but to find out what a "bix" is. It does cover some modern jazz, but deals mainly with traditional jazz and dixieland, explaining a great variety of terms and concepts in American jazz to Martians and Britishers, and will be most useful to those other aliens, modern Americans. It has wonderful pictures from the early days, and maps of cities showing key points in history such as key clubs and ballrooms. Much on the British trad scene.

Chilton, John. Who's Who of Jazz. new, revised ed. Da Capo Press, 1985. 375 p. Paperback. Answers the question "Whozzat?" re life and career of jazz musicians born before 1920. Chilton has written many books on old jazz, and a Who's who in British jazz.

Clarke, Donald. Penguin encyclopedia of popular music. 1378 pages. Available in paperback. Mainly biographies. Although it is quite comprehensive, it is very good on our music.

Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara Naomi. Popular music 1900-1919. Detroit, Gale Publishing Co. 656p. Straight alphabetical arrangement. Companion to Shapiro (below).

Kinkle, Roger D., 1916- Complete encyclopedia of popular music and jazz, 1900-1950. New Rochelle, NY, Arlington House, 1974. 4 vols. 2 vols. consist of biographies, one treats the music year by year, v. 4 has indexes. Includes lists of main tunes, key performances including shows, jazz records, etc. The biographies have been reissued in 3 volumes, the third being revisions and additions: Leading musical performers (Popular music and jazz), 1900-1950: 2150 biographies updated to 1996. Roger D. Kinkle, 1422 Brookside Drive, Evansville IN 47714.

Shapiro, Nat. Popular Music, 1920-1979. Detroit, Gale Research, 1985. 3 vols. (earlier edition is 6-8 vols, the title of which is more descriptive: Popular music, an annotated index of American popular song, 1964-1973.) Arranged by decade and within each by year, subarranged by tune title. Lists composers, etc., has a line or two about shows or famous recordings. Various indexes.

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Clarke, Donald. The rise and fall of popular music. Penguin Books, 1995. 620p. A history of popular music, mostly American, emphasizing the latter 19th century through 1960s. Packed with information, it neatly puts the various musics into perspective.

Jason, David A., and Gene Jones. Spreadin' rhythm around: Black popular songwriters, 1880-1930. NY, Schirmer Books, 1998. 435p. History and biographies of key Black pop and show tune composers and lyricists, and their efforts to make a living getting their songs heard, published, and into shows. Includes a wealth of information on the entertainment, publishing, theater, and social contexts of their times. Subjects of particular interest include Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks, James Reese Europe, Spencer Williams, Andy Razaf, W.C. Handy, Clarence Williams, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller.
Jason, David A. Tin Pan Alley, the composers, the songs, the performers and their times: the golden age of American popular music from 1886 to 1956. NY, Donald J. Fine, 1988. 312p. An important work on the tunes and their publishers. The author presents the history in several ways. Sometimes he selects key tunes from each era, then discusses the composer(s). At other times, he starts with a publisher, or an artist, and traces their careers. Rather than being a systematic narrative, this is a book you can dip into.

McCarthy, Albert. Big band jazz. NY, Berkley, 1977. 368p. 1920s-mid 1940s. Gives general background, then presents the history of the individual bands, including much discussion of their jazz recordings. Includes material on the European scene. Many illustrations.

McCarthy, Albert. The dance band era: the dancing decades from ragtime to swing, 1910-1950. Radnor, PA, Chilton Book Co., 1982. 176p. The focus in this volume is the dance orchestras that played mainly "sweet" and commercial music in the hotels and similar venues. It includes much on the British bands, which had their own classic sound. Many illustrations. Foxtrot lovers should explore the records of the 1929-1934 era, many of which have been issued on CD during the mid-1990s. This was a distinctive orchestral sound, with violins, somewhat florid trumpets, smooth fluid saxophones, rippling pianos, often with a rhythm guitar pumping away in the foreground. (Benny Goodman recorded a dozen sides in 1930-1931 that must be considered classics of the genre, for their excellant sound, which was provided by the likes of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, and Gene Krupa...)

Morath, Max. The NPR curious listener's guide to popular standards. NY, Perigee Books, 2002. 235p. $13.95
Brief history, discussion of tune characteristics; the Songwriters 45p; the Performers 45p; 100 standards; discography, glossary, annotated bibliography. Mostly 20s-30s-40s tunes.

Morgan, Thomas L, and William Barlow. From cakewalks to concert halls: an illustrated history of African American popular music from 1895-1930. Washington DC, Elliott & Clark, 1992. 132p. Wonderfully illustrated in color, this book sheds much light on the music of the era because African Americans were an essential element in many aspects of popular music, and, of course, jazz, which was one of the popular musics of the day.

Schoenberg, Loren. The NPR curious listener's guide to Jazz . NY, Perigee Books, 2002. 285p  $13.95.
Comprehensive. Brief history; 25pp on the various kinds of jazz. 80pp on key musicians; 50 exceptional performances 38p; 50 top jazz CDs; glossary; annotated bibliography.

Shaw, Arnold. The Jazz Age: Popular music in the 1920's. Oxford University Press, 1987. Out of Print. This goody describes American popular and show music during the period; Jazz was one of this forms and interacted in a number of ways with the other music. Essential to show the proper place of jazz in the American music scene but is more a basic introduction for anyone interested in the period.

Simon, George T. The Big bands. NY, Collier Books, 1974. 584p. Paperback, probably reprinted regularly. Chatty anecdotal presentations of individual big bands, arranged alphabetically and including the main "sweet" or "pop" as well as the "swing" bands, with discussion of the industry, and chapters on the lesser bands.

Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost chords: White musicians and their contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945. Oxford University Press, 1999. 890p. A monumental history of the period, emphasizing the activities and music of white musicians, whom some think have been neglected because of the importance of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and other Black giants in jazz. This book is basic for anyone interested in the music, simply because it is packed with information of all kinds. Sudhalter is a well-known cornet player.

Walker, Leo. The wonderful era of the great dance bands. NY, Da Capo Press, 1990. 315p. Chatty history of the American dancebands through the 1950s. Many Illustrations.

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Music books

To date the music publishers have only partially met our need for music to play. Any good music store will have or be able to order books of music from general collections to selections from individual decades. There are collections of swing/big band era tunes, a couple of Dixieland collections. The problem is that these are all essentially sheet music, potentially useful as resources, but not at all useful for band playing, especially since they rarely reflect the music as it is commonly played.

Increasingly, the publishers have been issuing "fake books", that have the melody line, lyrics, and chord symbols for use by rhythm players, and there are enough of these to fill a shelf. There are many general collections, and theme collections--Broadway, Jazz, Country and Western, the Beatles, Christmas. So there ample sources for the pop tunes from any era. The reservations here are that they often provide more modern chords than are in the original music, they are big and unwieldy, the print is small, and they almost never include the verses. The Irving Berlin Fake Book, George & Ira Gershwin Fake Book, and Just Standards Real Book
usually have the verses.

However, with regard to early jazz and Dixieland music, they have not given us what we need: fake books with the complete tunes--eg. "Tiger Rag" and "That's a plenty", usually omit the first two or three strains and standard interludes, leaving only the theme strain--or full standard routines, or in the case of Swing/Big Band, the classic arrangements--the books don't even include the essential intro to "In the mood". In the Traditional Jazz/Dixieland fields, this has spawned a number of handwritten, increasingly computer produced, fake books compiled by musicians; but these are illegal because they don't pay copyright royalties, hence to obtain them, you have to know someone...

Record guides

All-Music guide to jazz. 4th ed. Miller Freeman Books, 200?. 0000pp. Paperback. The book is revised and expanded regularly, and is available in larger book stores. See the Links page for the online version. It consists mainly of biographies that include selected discographies, mainly of CDs, with critical annotations of most items. Length of treatment varies with importance of the figure. Be aware that book when published is a couple of years behind in its CD listings, so you'll need to use the discographies to determine what you want, then go to the Worlds Records database to find out what reissues are available. The book covers all jazz, but covers out music very well. There are similar volumes for blues, and popular music.

Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton. Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. Penguin Books. 5rd edition. 1725p. Covers all jazz, but serves our music very well. Literally thousands of CDs are reviewed. Arranged by artist, key albums are critically reviewed as to contents and significance of the musicians, with extensive notes on the quality of the restoration and sound, and ranked for purchase with a 1-5 star code.

Harrison, Max, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker. The Essential jazz records. Volume 1: Ragtime to Swing. Da Capo Press, 1988. A critically selective list of LP reissues of key 78s. Title, album and artist indexes. Each listing provides the album catalog number, the titles, personnel and session date of each track, followed by extensive critical annotations that discuss the nature and place in history of most tracks, and give the authors' personal reflections on the quality of the music. It will help the beginner know what to look for on used LPs. Also, much basic research done for the LPs is used by the various labels for their CD versions, which often include newly found masters and other sources.

Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley. Jazz: The Rough Guide. London, The Rough Guides, 1995. 754p. Paperback. It has gone through at least one revision. 1600 biographical sketches with 2-3 record recommendations, more depending on the importance of the subject. Very good. Of course the modern stuff is dominant, but has goodies like Firehouse 5+2, Paul Whiteman, a full column each on Clarence Williams and Bob Wilber. Clearly the writers know their stuff, the biographies and discographies are critical and the info is definitely not just the usual thing. Has a glossary at the back.

Whitburn, Joel. Pop memories, 1890-1954: the history of American popular music. Menomonee, WI, 1986. 657p. 2 main sections: By artist or band, subarranged by the date the record hit the charts, with the label and catalog number; by tune title, subarranged by artist or band. To maintain the format of his other invaluable works, Whitburn reconstructed what might have been the top-40 charts and lists the most popular records by each artist. So this is a randomly selective list of each artist's best sellers, provided the artist recorded something that became a hit. Whitburn has provided thumbnail biographical information on many artists. The "top-40" info must be taken with a barrel of salt, because there were no such lists kept until relatively recently in the period covered, so much of it is guesswork. But there is enough hard info to make it invaluable.

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Revised 3/12/04