12 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Musicians Of The 1920s

Written by Dan Farrant

Many people equate the 1920s to the jazz age in America, and for good reason. It was the era of great luxury and light spirits.

Part of that plush life were the jazz musicians of the time. From Louis Armstrong to Eddie Lang, these 1920s musicians paved the way for future generations of jazz players.

In this list, we have combed through the many amazing jazz musicians of the decade to bring you 12 of the greatest and most famous jazz musicians of the 1920s. Let’s get started.

1. Louis Armstrong

When talking about early 20th-century jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong is a very common name to hear. With an over five-decade career, he is considered one of the most influential trumpeters of all time.

Armstrong gained fame when King Oliver, a famed cornetist, invited him to join his Creole Jazz Band. He would also meet his future second wife, Lil Harden, while in the band.

Following his departure from Oliver’s band around the mid-1920s, Armstrong founded Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven, where he would earn the reputation as a great jazz soloist. Some of his masterworks include “Hotter than That” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”

2. King Oliver

Having mentioned Louis Armstrong, we cannot not mention his teacher and mentor, King Oliver. Born Joseph Nathan Oliver in Aben, Louisiana, in 1881. He played the cornet and was a notable bandleader in the jazz age.

Oliver was one of the first people to speed up the tempo of the music of the time, creating an entirely new sound. One example of this is the creation of the “wah-wah” sound.

A master cornetist, Oliver began playing in New Orleans but later took his talents to Chicago and the West Coast with his band. Unfortunately, he could not keep his band together when the Great Depression hit.

Oliver’s memory lives in Jazz music still today. One of his notable works with his band is “Dippermouth Blues,” recorded in 1923.

3. Jelly Roll Morton

Born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, Jelly Roll Morton is one of the more iconic names of the 1920s jazz scene, well-known for his skills as a pianist. Morton also composed songs and was a bandleader.

During the 1920s, he was leading the band Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and had composed classic songs like “Wolverine Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Black Bottom Stomp,” which exhibit his piano talents.

For his accomplishments, he has been posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was awarded a Grammy for his 1935 work on the Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.

4. Kid Ory

Jazz trombonist and composer Kid Ory was born in LaPlace, Louisiana, but later moved to New Orleans, then Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Ory is credited with reviving interest in jazz music in New Orleans due to his radio appearances for the Orson Welles Almanac Program with the Ory Band.

In 1922, while in Los Angeles, Ory recorded “Society Blues” and “Ory’s Creole Trombone.” With this, he and his group became the first New Orleans jazz act to record on the West Coast.

Another of Ory’s most significant contributions to jazz is the use of the glissando technique. This is where the musician glides seamlessly from one pitch to another.

5. Sidney Bechet

Soprano saxophone king Sidney Bechet was a composer and multi-instrument jazz player, capable of playing the saxophone and clarinet, among others. The swing style of jazz music was made popular by this musician.

Bechet was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and he resided there until 1925. During his time in New Orleans, he played with Louis Armstrong and other big-name musicians of the day.

During the 1920s, he moved to Paris and toured with many different jazz bands. Among his works during this decade are “Texas Moaner Blues” and “Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home.”

In the 1940s, Bechet transitioned out of being a professional musician and moved to France, where he signed his last recording contract as an independent artist.

6. Bix Beiderbecke

Born Leon Bismarck Beiderbecke, Bix Beiderbecke was most known for being a soloist in the 1920s. He composed music and played the piano and cornet. While growing up in Iowa, he taught himself how to play the cornet, largely with informal finger placements, contributing to his unique jazz style.

In 1923, Beiderbecke joined Wolverine Orchestra. They soon made their first recordings with “Fidgety Feet” and “Jazz Me Blues,” the latter of which Beiderbecke played a solo.

Before the decade was over, Beiderbecke ventured into solo performances and recorded “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Singin’ the Blues.” These cemented his reputation for improvisation in his jazz style.

7. Duke Ellington

When you think of jazz, Duke Ellington is one of the top names that come to mind. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, this musician is considered the most significant composer of the genre by jazz historians.

Though he was born in Washington, DC, he set up shop in New York City in the mid-1920s and throughout his career. Ellington’s jazz band, the Washingtonians, played at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1931, and he recorded jazz classics like “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Creole Love Call.”

An accomplished pianist, Ellington is most known for being a bandleader from the 1920s until he died in the 1970s. Numerous memorials have been established for Ellington over the years to mark his impact on culture and jazz music, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

8. Fats Waller

Thomas Wright Waller, best known as Fats Waller, was a jazz multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer. He played the organ, piano, and violin and was an influential piece of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s, particularly in innovating the stride style.

The 1920s were quite eventful for Waller. Aside from recording piano compositions like “Handful of Keys” and “Valentine Stomp,” he was actually kidnapped by Al Capone’s men and forced to play the piano at the mafia boss’s party.

Waller’s fame would take him to the UK and eventually on to feature in films before his untimely death of pneumonia in 1943. His recordings “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

9. Johnny Dodds

Clarinetist and alto saxophonist Johnny Dodds was born in Mississippi but relocated to New Orleans to pursue jazz. He spent a lot of time playing in bands with other names on this list, like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver.

Dodd found his biggest successes while living in Chicago in the 1920s. During this time, he played as bandleader and clarinetist at Kelly’s Stable, a jazz venue popular at the time. He also did solo recordings like “After You’re Gone.”

Sadly, with the onset of the Great Depression, Dodd’s career began to dwindle. Despite this, his blues-laden jazz style inspired many clarinetists to come, earning him a spot in the Jazz Hall of Fame.

10. Jimmie Noone

Another Jazz clarinetist, Jimmie Noone was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, and like many of the musicians on this list, he relocated to New Orleans for the music scene.

Noone was most known for being a bandleader for a small group of players rather than a big band style. During the 1920s, he played in the Apex Club in Chicago.

Noone and his band signed recording labels and successfully put out music with their unique sound, particularly “Every Evening (I Miss You)” (1928). Following this, he would travel on tour all around the globe to showcase his band’s music.

11. Lil Hardin Armstrong

Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin, was a prolific jazz vocalist, composer, and musician of the 1920s. She collaborated with her husband and his band on many occasions.

Hardin was a classically trained pianist attending Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She later attended the New York College of Music, earning a postgraduate diploma.

In the 1920s, her focus was on Louis’s image and their livelihood. She would also contribute to the jazz movement itself with compositions that include “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and cowriting “Two Deuces” with her husband.

Hardin’s style and education made her one of the most intelligent composers and bandleaders of the 1920s. In 2014, she was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

12. Eddie Lang

Born Salvatore Massaro in Pennsylvania to instrument makers, Eddie Lang was around instruments his entire life. Unlike most musicians on this list, Lang was a famed guitarist of his time and was regarded as the father of jazz guitar.

Lang’s first instrument was actually a violin, followed by the banjo before settling on the guitar. In 2014, he recorded his first solo, “Deep 2nd Street Blues.” His other notable works of the decade are “Perfect” and “April Kisses.”

By the end of the 1920s, Lang was a part of many duets and bands. Sadly, he did not have a long career. In 1933, he passed away from complications after a tonsillectomy. He was only 30 at the time.

Summing Up Our List Of 1920s Jazz Musicians

When thinking of 1920s jazz music, some may cringe and think “old-timer,” but in truth, music from this time is classic.

And had it not been for the musicians who forged through and created their own sound using their skills on various instruments, today’s music would have been very different.

For jazz music, we have these men and women we’ve listed to thank for. Their contributions are timeless and have set the standard for the jazz genre as we know it.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.