Jazz Age Economics and Media: The Post WWI Economy and the Great Migration’s Influence on the Rise of Jazz 

Author: Spencer J. Louie 

Part 1: Introduction

The migration of Southern Black Americans to the North began during WWI and peaked around the 1920s. From 1917 to 1921, a wave of racial violence surged in the places to which they migrated. The outbreak of white supremacist terrosism and racial riots that occured in over three dozen cities across the United States in mid-1919 became known as the Red Summer of 1919: one of the most violent periods of racial conflict in American history.

Why and how, then, was the hostility towards Black Americans during this period swiftly followed by two decades of a flourishing art form that is deeply rooted in Black cultural tradition Moreover, how did Jazz become the first primary Black art form that took on major credibility in America and the first Black musical tradition to experience commercial and popular success in the country in the few years after 1919? Jazz was even co-opted by white musicians and had Black and White musicians playing side by side. Moreover, Jazz influenced the spirit of the Roaring Twenties—a decades-long period that Fitzgerald coined the “Jazz Age”—in cities that were so hostile to Black migrants at the turn of the 1920s. According to music historians Mintz and McNeil, Jazz’s “earthy rhythms, fast beat, and improvisational style symbolized the decade’s spirit of liberation.”1 But beyond Jazz per se, the relationship between racial violence and the dynamic Post-WWI economy suggests an important correlation worth delving into.

Part 2: Economic & Migrational Context

1. Racial Violence during the Post-WWI Recession (1918-1921)

The peak of the Great Migration and racial violence occurred during the two recessions that took over the American economy following WWI between August 1918 and July 1921. The KKK, consisting of many poor whites, and European immigrants, mainly Irish and Poles, participated in the wave of racial violence against Black Americans in events such as the Omaha and Chicago Race riots in 1919 and the Tulsa Race Massacre. Each of these events were either directly or indirectly rooted in their perception that Black Americans’ migration to the north was a threat to their status in the racial hierarchy, overall social rank, and job opportunities.2 

The KKK targeted African Americans who were “politically active and those who sought economic independence from whites.”3 White Americans virtually could not stand the proximity of Black people who were achieving social mobility and economic independence from White Americans. (This sentiment would intensify late on when Black Americans achieved greater social mobility—namely, in the trials of Ossian Sweet in 1925 and 1926.)4 Meanwhile, ambiguous social ranking and threatened job opportunities bred animosity within the European immigrant community towards Black Americans. 

Historian Christopher Muller describes that, “the arrival of masses of African-Americans in the North enabled European immigrants to put aside their internal differences and direct their efforts instead toward deflecting the residential, economic, and status competition of the southern newcomers [Black migrants].”5 For European immigrants, securing a racial hierarchy over Black Americans was just as critical a motive as their financial wellbeing. And in Gould’s terms, there was a “sufficient ambiguity in the relative rank of European and African-Americans to breed severe conflict as the migration [of Black Americans] intensified.”6 

2. Booming Roaring Twenties Economy (1921-1929)

Following post-war recession, the US economy boomed. From 1921 to 1929 the US experienced significant technological advances in utilities such as transportation, communication, and home appliances. As the technology available in America became more advanced, and more low-income earning jobs became automated or streamlined, the focus shifted towards human capital. And through human capital, more jobs were created from preexisting jobs, which gave more people more ways to become employed. For instance, the rise of the car manufacturing industry not only created more jobs within the industry itself, but also, it multiplied the workforce of road construction, oil, steel, and rubber industries. The latent effect of which was, Americans began to drive huge cars, use more gasoline, use public transport less, commute longer distances, exacerbate urban sprawl, and spend more tax money on more roads and highways. 

Another characteristic of the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties was the deregulation of the financial industry. This allowed financiers to invest heavily and daringly—often using borrowed money from depositors—in pursuit of making a quick fortune, laying the foundation for the stock market to boom and the subsequent economic bubble. Moreover, the relaxed policies on savings and loans gave consumers the opportunity to feasibly make purchases on borrowed money. The result was an intensified scale of consumer spending and debt—a catalyst of the Great Depression.

3. The Boom Economy’s Impact on Jazz

The increased availability of highly desirable new consumer goods led consumerism and excess to become the new culture of American society. The cultural trends coupled with technological advancements during the decade before the Great Depression created the conditions for the substantial growth in America’s entertainment and media industry. People had more time and disposable income to spend on entertainment. Meanwhile, the invention of commercial radio broadcasts and the widespread distribution of silent and then sound films served as a new medium that gave Americans access to entertainment on a previously unimaginable scale. Thus, the economic story of the The Jazz Age played a determining role in the cultural receptions of diverse art forms such as Jazz.

Jazz attracted a multiracial and niche demographic of sophisticated urbanites and elites: those who were the least insecure about their financial freedom and place in the racial hierarchy. The dichotomy of the Black American experience in America before and after 1921 was most likely influenced by the contrasting economic contexts in which non-Black Americans experienced diversity and reception towards Black migrants. In other words, when the US economy began to boom in 1921 and throughout the Roaring Twenties, it set the stage for a different experience for Black Americans migrating to the North. Thus, the contrast between the racial violence towards Black Americans during the post-WWI recession and the rise of Jazz as a popular and beloved high art form among many white elites during the following economic boom reflected a changing, more nuanced racial dynamic between Black and non-Black Americans.

4. Moving to the North

The shifting demographic landscape among Black Americans during the Roaring Twenties allowed Jazz to spread nationally and influence American society’s cultural development throughout the 1920s Jazz Age Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance. In the decades after emancipation, millions of Black Americans left segregated, impoverished, hostile communities in the rural South in favor of Northern cities like Chicago and New York, where “Jazz found a more receptive audience where Jazz musicians could develop profitable solo careers while enjoying a more hospitable racial climate than in the South.”7 Thus, a predominantly Southern art form—that rose out of the racial strife and prejudice that Black Americans faced there—suddenly had exposure to large metropolitan economies, broader media networks, and financial industries in these integrated northern cities of flourishing economic societies.8 Jazz and other Black-centered cultural expressions, such as literature and art, gained awareness, became profitable, and flourished. 

Part 3: The rise of Jazz through American media

At first, Jazz was regarded mainly as a “primitive” and “lowbrow” art form to White audiences because of its deep roots in African musical tradition, which—aside from their perceived racial hierarchy—they perceived to be, as Baraka writes, a “seeming neglect of harmony and melody” that prompted Westerners to regard the music as “primitive.”9 Baraka adds, “It did not occur to them [Westerners] that Africans might have looked askance at a music as vapid rhythmically as the West’s.”10 Not to mention, Jazz’s initial reputation was supported by the fact that many of the early Jazz musicians first performed in Storyville, New Orleans’ brothels, gambling houses, and saloons.11

In a 1925 article in the widely popular illustrated magazine Liberty, titled “Ragtime and Jazz,” the author refers to Jazz as “primitive,” “barbaric,” and music with a rhythm that “strikes deep into the primitive nature which existed ages before civilization or even human life.”12 At the same time, the author acknowledges—

In ragtime and jazz, we have a popular music which has sprung out of the life of our own people and is enjoyed and received as the older music has never been. Of course we have had popular music before—our patriotic hymns and many sentimental songs dear to our parents—but they were like the hymns and songs of the old world and contributed nothing novel, nothing which could be called specifically and peculiarly American… It will be liked and understood by all the people—the lowbrow and even the highbrow when he allows himself to enjoy it.13

Such expressions simultaneously reflect the tension in American multiculturalism and the contradiction of white society’s appreciation for Jazz and disassociation from its roots. The rise of Jazz reflected changing racial dynamics between the upper class of White Americans and Black Americans. Specifically, it reflected America’s hypocritical cultural atmosphere surrounding race during the Jazz Age: an art form that was widespread and beloved among a white society that was largely unwilling to accept that it was a Black art form rooted in Black cultural tradition. These racial dynamics within the world of Jazz “[have] continued to mirror and exemplify the complexities and ironies of the changing status of African Americans within the broader culture and polity of the United States.” 14

Besides illustrated magazines, other forms of popular culture during the Jazz Age also featured this dichotomy. Jazz had more opportunities to appear due to a new wealthy class of individuals with the time and money for entertainment. For instance, the term “the Jazz Age” was first used in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age” (1922), a collection of eleven short stories about white society during the Jazz Age, the cover of which depicts white people dancing, a white saxophonist, and white people in bubbly moods socializing with other white people—all in the context of fundamentally Black culture, yet entirely without the depiction or inclusion of Black Americans.15

Another example was director Alan Crosland’s film “The Jazz Singer”: a major hit, one of the biggest earners in Warner Brothers’ history. It regarded Jazz as a fundamentally Black art form but did not include any Black cast members and was essentially mainstream minstrelsy, with the main character performing in blackface.16 Both Fitzgerald and Crosland’s forms of Jazz Age popular culture represent the tension between white and Black culture: Jazz was a music and cultural movement beloved in white society, but white society was unwilling to embrace its foundation as a culturally Black art form, and therefore whitewashed it for commercial acceptance.

In addition to Jazz Age literature and film, live performances had their share of incongruences. Early performances of Jazz had a predominately white audience and Jazz integrated into the contemporary popular music of America. This form of entertainment brought White and Black Americans into a close relationship that caused “uneasiness of some on both sides of the racial divide.”17 For example, in 1927, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was the highlight of the Cotton Club: a revered nightspot on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue that “provided [lavish] entertainment for white New Yorkers who wanted to go to Harlem but were afraid of its more dangerous aspects… It was Harlem’s most outrageous club … [and] presented the best in black entertainment to an exclusively white audience.”18 The Cotton Club attracted a wealthy, celebrity-filled clientele. It made Ellington’s music accessible to white society and reached an audience not limited by race or class. Additionally, the orchestra was broadcasted on the radio, augmenting its awareness and reach. Thus, the broadcasts allowed the orchestra to gain legions of fans who experienced music unlike any they had heard.

Although his insistence on the title “orchestra” signified his regard for musical identity and its importance, Ellington was addressing his race consciousness against a backdrop of faux jungles and cotton fields: 

The club's décor juxtaposed images of the plantation South and the African ‘jungle.’ Ellington's recordings were marketed as 'jungle music,’ a rubric that reinforced the fantasies promoted by the club owners. Records like ‘Echoes of the Jungle’ and ‘Jungle Nights in Harlem’ featured ‘pseudo-African’ musical effects, including tom-toms, unusual harmonies, and growling trumpets and trombones, none of which could be traced to Africa but which produced highly danceable music… Some whites fantasized about an encounter with ‘primitives,’ while some Blacks imagined themselves as ‘primitives,’ even though almost all were Americans in twentieth-century New York.19

Whites went to Harlem for the voyeuristic enjoyment, the exciting novelty of interracial encounters, and bootleg alcohol.20 Moreover, “like blackface minstrelsy, early Jazz was popular with whites, in part because it reinforced ‘darkie’ stereotypes of African Americans as happy-go-lucky and irrepressibly rhythmic.” 21

At large, early Black American Jazz musicians faced “racial segregation in virtually every aspect of their lives, from segregated dance halls, cafes, and saloons to exploitative record companies.”22 Nevertheless, the Jazz Age was an era that represented American multiculturalism and the adoption and cultural embracement of Black art forms on a broader scale among White Americans. Blues and Jazz, once dismissed by many New Negro critics, became the foundation for twentieth-century American music. 23 The Jazz Age set a new precedent for future decades of White Americans to shift their perception of Black Americans further, appreciate more Black art forms, and integrate Black culture into mainstream American culture. 

Part 4: Conclusion

Before Jazz, White Americans seemed to have written off Black Americans from contributing anything more than labor to American society, much less so any of their art forms. When Jazz became popular in the 1920s, it was not because it was the first time Black Americans did something artistic or creative. It was merely the first time White Americans took notice: the Great Migration made Jazz more accessible to more people, technological advancements grew the entertainment industry, and the new class of millionaires and individuals who accumulated immense wealth in the post-WWI economy gave Jazz an audience. 

Although Jazz was the first significant art form in America rooted in black cultural tradition, it entranced a mere minority of urban white sophisticates in America. Thus, while Jazz did not eradicate racism and violence towards black Americans, it served as an entry point for black Americans to achieve social mobility in an often hostile environment and to gain a more prominent hold on American culture and influence in American society. 

At large, by studying the rise of Jazz in the 1920s through the perspective of music historians, cultural historians, and economists, a more holistic view of the rise of Jazz as a well-respected art form amid an unlikely historical preface, becomes clearer. 

Indeed, Jazz is a Black musical tradition. But it opens into the world: “The role of music in the history of race relations in America between White brothers and sisters and Black brothers and sisters has done much more to humanize relations than sociologists or philosophers or economists, or politicians,” writes Cornel West, “It’s through music that you get George Gershwin playing Black musical forms in his rhapsodies; Charlie Parker listening to Stravinsky; John Coltrane in a band with Steve Kuhn; Bill Evans and Miles recording some of the most sublime and enduring Jazz ever; Bix Beiderbecke learning from Louis Armstrong, and so on.”24 Music helps one group humanize the other. 

Part 5: Epilogue

History has shown that racial violence tends to targets Black businesses, Black men looking for jobs, and prosperous Black neighborhoods. From the lynchings during the obsolete post-civil war economy of the Jim Crow South to the mass shootings and weakening of Black Businesses during the COVID-19 recession, the extent of an economic depression has had a strong correlation with the intensity and prevalence of racial violence in America since Reconstruction. At large, America’s economic cycle is closely related to the oscillating perception of Black Americans as a threat to the financial opportunity and security of non-Black Americans. As Gould points out, ambiguous social ranking between Black and non-Black Americans has always been a source of racial violence.25

Many other scholars have noted that economic prosperity and growth is conducive to a more positive reception towards diversity and increased multicultural appreciation; and vice versa in the context of an economic recession, instability, or downturn. When the economy is doing well, culturally heterogeneous art forms and cultural expressions can form and serve as a bigger tent under which diversity can flourish. At large, racial and ethnic tensions throughout America tend to become more pronounced during times of economic downturn, and dwindles during boom economies: when more Americans have their basic needs met and a greater sense of financial security. 

Based on the trends of continuity and change in American society’s race relations described in this paper, one could easily assume that the Great Depression—the most severe and catastrophic economic downturn in American history and the modern industrial economy—would correlate with the the greatest era of racial violence. However, racial violence was not nearly at the same intensity as that of the few years during the post-WWI recession and Great Migration. From 1929 to 1941, there was just one significant race riot, the Harlem Race Riot in 1935, that last riot before it occurred in 1923. Violence during the Great Depression may not have peaked as aggressively as there was a sense of solidarity and universality to the economic hardship, a decline in career-oriented migration due to the dampened economic opportunities nationwide, and the New Deal which helped alleviate some of the dire economic conditions that could have sparked racial violence. Moreover, although the Great Depression in 1929 ended the Roaring Twenties, Jazz remained a popular art form that was an uplifting and vibrant form of live entertainment. Although the circumstances for the rise of Jazz had dissipated in era of the Great Depression, it had already been established as an art form in the integrated cities of the North among white elites. Thus, it had already become a part of people’s lives and a part of American culture. Once Jazz existed, it was hard to remove. 

However, these explanations do not address the heightened racial violence in the 1940s. Between 1941 to 1951, there were five major race riots—and between 1951 to 1963, there were no major race riots. This phenomenon could be further explored in subsequent research to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between racial violence and the economic context, and that relationship’s influence on the continuity and change of race relations in America. 

Additionally, historical patterns suggest that racial violence catalyzes Black Americans’ organized efforts for civil rights, equality, social mobility, and ethnocentric cultural expressions. Perhaps a subsequent research of historical patterns could focus more on the impact of intra-racial solidarity in the rise of Jazz, and other periods of in addition to favorable economic conditions.


Baraka, Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: W. Morrow, 1963.

Carney, Courtney Patterson. “Jazz and the Cultural Transformation of America in the 1920s.” Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 2003. Accessed March 7, 2023. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1175&context=gradschool_dissertations.

Muller, Christopher. Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950. American Journal of Sociology, 2012, 118:2, 281-326.  

College of Charleston. “The Ku Klux Klan Attacks a White Man Assisting Blacks.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI). Accessed June 15, 2023. https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/after_slavery_educator/unit_eight_documentsii/document_4.

Crosland, Alan. 1927. The Jazz Singer. United States: Warner Bros.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Jackson R. Bryer. Tales of the Jazz Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Goines, Leonard. “Jazz.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History: Supplement, by Jack Salzman, David L. Smith, and Cornel West, 1429–38. Vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 2001.

Gould, Roger V. 2003. Collision of Wills: How Ambiguity about Social Rank Breeds Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

“Hot Society.” Time 29 (May 17, 1937): 50. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rgr&AN=522373938&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Mintz, S., and S. McNeil. “1920s: Music.” Digital History. https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=13&smtID=6.

“Ragtime and Jazz.” Liberty, June 13, 1925, 4. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/FA4200009285/LBRT?u=s1532&sid=bookmark-LBRT&xid=9fffdd5e.

Smiley, Gene, and Robert Whaples, eds. “US Economy in the 1920s.” EH.Net Encyclopedia. Last modified June 29, 2004. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-u-s-economy-in-the-1920s/.

“The Cotton Club.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cotton-club

Tipton, Carrie Allen. “Who’s Afraid of the Jazz Monsters? For Many Americans, Jazz Was the Music of Demons, Devils and Things That Go Bump in the Night.” History Today 69, no. 10 (October 2019): 12–15. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=138487956&site=ehost-live.

Wall, Cheryl A. The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Cornel West spoke during his keynote presentation and Q&A session at Taft.


  1. S. Mintz and S. McNeil, “1920s: Music,” Digital History, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=13&smtID=6. 
  2.  Muller, Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950.  
  3.  College of Charleston, “The Ku Klux Klan Attacks a White Man Assisting Blacks,” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI), accessed June 15, 2023, https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/after_slavery_educator/unit_eight_documentsii/document_4. 
  4.  When Black American physician Ossian Sweet—the son of parents who were born enslaved—bought one of the nicest houses in a low/middle income white neighborhood, he became the highest income household on that street. This event bred community-wide contempt to the extent that he had to defend his house from KKK rioters that crowded his property. The court case was regarding the death of a white male by a bullet shot from the Sweet’s home.
  5.  Christopher Muller, Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950 (American Journal of Sociology 2012 118:2, 281-326).  
  6.  Gould, Roger V. 2003. Collision of Wills: How Ambiguity about Social Rank Breeds Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7.  Leonard Goines, “Jazz,” in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History: Supplement, by Jack Salzman, David L. Smith, and Cornel West (New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 2001), 3:1438. 
  8.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  9.  Baraka, Blues People, 26.
  10.  See note 9 above.
  11.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  12.  “Ragtime and Jazz,” Liberty, June 13, 1925, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/FA4200009285/LBRT?u=s1532&sid=bookmark-LBRT&xid=9fffdd5e.
  13.  “Ragtime and Jazz,”
  14.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  15.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jackson R. Bryer, Tales of the Jazz Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), book cover. 
  16.  Crosland, Alan. 1927. The Jazz Singer. United States: Warner Bros.
  17.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  18.  “The Cotton Club.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cotton-club
  19.  Cheryl A. Wall, The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (n.p.: Oxford University Press, 2016), 80.
  20.  Wall, The Harlem, 80.
  21.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  22.  Goines, “Jazz,” 3:1438. 
  23.  Wall, The Harlem, 80.
  24.  Words spoken by Cornel West during his keynote presentation and Q&A session at Taft.
  25.  Gould, Collision of Wills.

About the author

Spencer J. Louie