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Class Of '29 This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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This week on Riverwalk Jazz, we follow the year 1929 in music, from Harlem cabarets to Broadway shows, to Hollywood movies and jazz recordings.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

In 1929, jazz was making its way into mainstream America, moving from Chicago to New York, blossoming in Harlem nightclubs, on the Broadway stage and in New York studio sessions. Everyone remembers 1929 for the Wall Street crash that launched the Great Depression, yet for most of the year the economy wasn’t what people were talking about.

The brutal New York mobster Dutch Schultz—the city’s “beer baron”—had a stake in the Harlem nightclub, Connie’s Inn. Rubbing shoulders with mobsters was just a part of life for songwriters like Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.

Razaf was a prince from Madagascar. But upon arrival in America, he was just another Negro, and treated accordingly. He was working on a new show called Hot Chocolates. The money had been put up by Schultz. During the previews, Schulz told Andy Razaf to write a funny song for a colored girl, about how difficult it is being colored. After Razaf refused him, Dutch Schulz slammed him up against the wall, cocked pistol pressed to his skull and said, “You will write the song, boy.”

The result was a brilliant subterfuge. Razaf’s lyric to “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” was later adopted as a racial protest song.

The Gershwin musical Show Girl turned out to be a flop of the 1929 Broadway season; even though it had a strong cast and score—plus the added notoriety of Duke Ellington conducting his Cotton Club Orchestra as part of the production. But the Gershwins often managed to revive songs from the ashes of shows that didn’t make it. Their tune “Liza,” composed for leading lady Ruby Keeler, got a jump start the night Show Girl opened. Keeler’s newlywed husband, Al Jolson, flew in from Hollywood for the opening and surprised everyone when he hopped up on stage from the audience—and sang a chorus of “Liza” to his bride.

Jolson’s stunt caused a sensation—and “Liza” became a favorite with jazz musicians, including Benny Goodman, Chick Webb and Art Tatum. Today, the tune ranks among the top 200 most-frequently-recorded jazz standards of all time. The Jim Cullum Big Band offers their rendition.

By 1929, Jerome Kern was the patriarch of American musical theater—and he had another hit on his hands that year with Sweet Adeline and a song from that show, “Why was I Born?” performed on our broadcast by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.

MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 delivered a lavish production to the screen with everything from comedy stars like Jack Benny and Buster Keaton to a scene from Romeo and Juliet. The enduring hit to come out of the Hollywood Revue would be re-introduced by Gene Kelly a couple decades later. On our show, Joe Williams sings “Singin’ in the Rain” in his unique, bluesy style.

The 1920s had been a decade of skyscrapers, skywriting and “the sky’s the limit.” It saw the birth of broadcasting, the recording industry and advertising. More people had more money—and more fun—than ever before, until it all came tumbling down.

Billions of dollars of wealth were wiped out in a single day—Black Tuesday, October 29th, 1929. Panic set off a worldwide run on the dollar, and led to the failure of some 4,000 banks. The nation, stunned and in mourning, would not fully recover from the Great Depression that followed until the coming of the Second World War once again filled the factories, mines and fields of America.

Topsy Chapman sets the tone with her rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” in tribute to Bessie Smith, who made her movie debut (and only film appearance) in 1929, in the two-reeler, St. Louis Blues. Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong made their first recording in 1929, a bluesy number called “Knockin’ a Jug.”

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