Jazz & Blues

Featured here are three of America's preeminent blues and jazz musicians: Bessie Smith, W.C. Handy, and Duke Ellington. These artists reached backward to their African American roots for inspiration, even as their music touched nearly every aspect of the twentieth-centry culture.

Learn more about these musical traditions from the exhibit America's Jazz Heritage or by visiting to the Smithsonian Jazz website. Recordings of these and many other artists are available from Smithsonian Folkways recordings. The National Museum of American History houses the Duke Ellington collection, an archive of Ellington's music, notes, and memorabilia. Take a look at Le Tumulte Noir: Paul Colin's Jazz Age Portfolio exhibition at the National Portrait Gallergy.

William Christopher Handy (1873-1958)

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)
Photogravure, 1983 from a 1932 negative, NPG.83.188.18
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Even though William Christopher "W. C." Handy is called the "Father of the Blues," the real origin of the blues is shrouded in mystery. Most scholars think that it represents a synthesis of field hollers, which were rhythmic working songs, and ballads of the rural Deep South (see the From Field to Factory exhibit that discusses the migration and evolution of African American culture in the United States during this time period). As early as the 1860s, African Americans were using the term "blues" to describe a state of mind, later applying it to a song form that powerfully expressed the yearnings of love and the bleak realities of poverty and racism. Traveling musicians assimilated various regional styles of blues singing, which both standardized and popularized the form around the turn of the century.

The young Handy came in frequent contact with itinerant blues artists when he began playing the cornet with minstrel troupes in his home state of Alabama at age fifteen. In 1896 Handy joined the widely known W. A. Mahara's Minstrels, and a year later, as bandmaster, he began to arrange and compose songs for the group. The blues provided rich source material for Handy's compositions, and ultimately his greatest achievement was the synthesis of traditional blues melodies with the style and instrumentation of popular ragtime and jazz. In 1912 his first published piece, "Memphis Blues," was a hit. Two years later, the ever-popular "St. Louis Blues" secured Handy a place in the annals of popular music.

Thereafter, Handy enjoyed a long and often ground-breaking career as a bandleader, composer, and publisher. His band's 1917 recordings for Columbia Phonograph Company were among the first made by African American artists. In 1928 he produced a landmark program of all-black music at Carnegie Hall in New York. And in 1940, NBC's all-Handy radio show was the first network program devoted solely to the work of a black composer. In 1941 Handy published his appropriately-named autobiography Father of the Blues. Handy's more than 150 songs, most of them arrangements of blues or spirituals, became standard fare for both black and white jazz artists and helped launch African American music into the realm of mainstream popular culture.


Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)
Photogravure, 1983 from a 1936 negative, NPG.83.188.42
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Bessie Smith, dubbed the "Empress of the Blues," was one of America's most popular blues singers early in the century. She made her first stage appearance at age nine, beginning her career as a leading performer in black minstrel shows. Early on, Smith came in contact with blues pioneer and fellow minstrel performer Gertrude "Ma" Pridgett Rainey, who had a major influence on her style.

Before recordings became available, minstrel shows provided the best way for musicians to gain widespread popularity. The shows originated as short skits between theater or circus acts and usually featured white parodies of black music and behavior, with the actors often performing in blackface makeup. As the form developed, it increasingly stood alone, and the parodies were replaced by musical acts of higher quality. After the Civil War, black minstrel troupes appeared, which incorporated and popularized various forms of African American music.

By Smith's day, minstrel shows had evolved into revues, burlesques, and early Broadway musicals, but stars like Rainey and Smith kept a few traditional traveling shows alive. From 1923 to 1933, Smith made a series of best-selling recordings with the era's foremost jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman. In 1929 she appeared in the movie St. Louis Blues. However, the Great Depression, alcoholism, and changing musical tastes hampered her later career. In 1937, she was killed in an automobile accident, the subject of which became a 1960 play Death of Bessie Smith. Smith is remembered for her tall figure, bold countenance, and especially her powerful, deeply felt, and expressive blues singing. In the words of music critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten, "This was no actress, no imitator of women's woes; there was no pretense. It was the real thing."


Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington (1899-1974)

William P. Gottlieb (born 1917)
Photograph, gelatin silver print , circa 1946, NPG.92.58
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Duke Ellington is often considered the most important composer in the history of jazz, with an estimated two thousand compositions, arrangements, and collaborations to his credit. Early in the century, jazz bands became increasingly popular accompaniments for a new, faster style of social dancing. Ellington's career mirrored, and greatly influenced, the rise of the jazz band. In particular, his unique status owed itself to his combined talents of orchestration and bandleading.

Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., where he studied piano from age six. He wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," when he was fourteen. In 1919 he and a few friends formed a small band, Duke's Serenaders, which expanded and moved to New York City in 1923 as The Washingtonians. A year later, when Ellington took charge of the quintet, his career as a bandleader was firmly established. Harlem in the 1920s was a scene of unprecedented creativity for the country's best jazz musicians. Jazz was not only a style of music and dance, but also a mood craved by young patrons who packed the clubs of Harlem in search of innovation, excitement, and illicit alcohol. New artistic possibilities emerged as jazz bands grew in size during the decade of the twenties. Traditionally, small New Orleans-style groups had relied on the spontaneous improvisation of a simple theme. However, with more musicians to coordinate, Ellington and others began to pay careful attention to structure and balance as they composed jazz arrangements, while still allowing for solo improvisations.

Ellington first gained widespread recognition in the late 1920s. Many of his of his compositions, such as "Take the A-Train," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Satin Doll," have become jazz standards. Ellington also wrote for the Broadway stage, ballet, and film. He once said, "My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people."


Benny Goodman (1909-1986)

René Bouché (1906-1963)
Oil on canvas, 1960, NPG.89.1
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Benji Goodman Lasseau and Rachel Goodman Edelson

Benny Goodman was one of the most influential bandleaders of the swing era, as well as an accomplished clarinetist. He received early training on the clarinet in Chicago, where he played in the Hull House community band. During and after high school, he joined various small jazz groups, and made his first recording in 1926. Goodman then moved to New York City, where he worked as a successful freelance musician in radio, recordings, and on Broadway. In 1934 he organized his first band, whose popularity soared after its first nationwide radio broadcast a year later. Many cite that event as the beginning of the swing era. Goodman, aided by arranger Fletcher Henderson, set the standard for big-band innovation and musicianship, becoming the first white bandleader to master an uncompromising jazz style. He was also a pioneer in integrating black and white musicians in his band. In 1935 Goodman formed trios and quartets that inspired a resurgence of interest in smaller jazz combos and had a big impact on the development of jazz even into the 1950s and 1960s. After Goodman's group disbanded in 1940, Goodman continued to tour, lead, record, and perform both jazz and classical clarinet into the 1980s.



Early Blues, blues awareness site
The Blue Highway
Blues Link
That Blues Map
Delta Blues Museum
Jazz Roots
World Wide Jazz Web
Jazz World
The Contemporary List of Jazz Links
Jazz Corner
Jazz Photography Link

William Christoper Handy

Biography of W. C. Handy
Tribute by Tom Morgan
Inductee, Alabama Music Hall of Fame
Blues Foundation, Host of the annual W. C. Handy Award for blues artists
W.C Handy Fest, presented by the W. C. Handy Festival Music Preservation Society, Inc.
Broadcasting in Chicago: 1921-1989: With Special Emphasis on the NBC Studios. An On-line Museum of Broadcast History

Bessie Smith

Biography of Smith, from The Blue Flame Cafe
Biography of Smith, from Red Hot Jazz Archive
Inductee, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
St. Louis Blues (1929) from Red Hot Jazz Archive
St. Louis Blues (1929) from Internet Movie Database

Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington

The Edward Kennedy Ellington Pages, a reference of Ellington material on the web.
A tribute to Ellington
The Duke Ellington Society
Duke Ellington Panorama
Ellington biography, from Red Hot Jazz Archive

Benny Goodman

Biography of Benny Goodman from the Big Bands database
Brief biography and audio clips by Benny Goodman
Jazz Clarinet Home Page
Hull House