James Saltzman is on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music. In conjunction with the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, Saltzman paired thirty exhibition objects with musical selections from that landmark period in American music. Read about his creative reasoning, and scroll down for the full playlist of object and musical pairings.

Image of George Gershwin at piano

Painting, George Gershwin at Piano, 1926; Painted by William Auerbach-Levy (American, born Belarus, Imperial Russia, 1889–1964); oil on canvas; H x W x D (framed): 114 × 139.7 × 3.8 cm (44 7/8 in. × 55 in. × 1 1/2 in.) H x W (unframed): 101 × 126.4 cm (39 3/4 × 49 3/4 in.); Lent by Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Max D. Levy, 1967, 67.109; 76.2016.3

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is a monumental, multi-media exhibit. With more than 400 examples of interior and industrial design, decorative art, jewelry, fashion, architecture, and film, the challenge of pairing thirty of these objects with music from 1918 to 1934 was an invigorating project. The first task was to limit the magnitude of the project, and to ultimately decide which objects could be paired with classic jazz recordings. One issue was that there is not always an obvious, direct connection between design from the Jazz Age and the music of the same time period. In many instances, the connections would be coincidental or abstract. More often, pairing the objects with music that was evocative of the time period would ultimately create some fascinating parallels. In a few cases, however, specific recordings were obvious, such as the sheet music for “Black and Tan Fantasy,” the painting George Gershwin at Piano, or the drawing of Josephine Baker by Paul Colin. In those instances, the musical pairings were straightforward. Black and Tan Fantasy would need to be paired with Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s programmatic work. The Gershwin painting worked well with “Rhapsody In Blue,” as it might be his most iconic work. The Josephine Baker drawing was paired with her recording of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is a shining example of her music from the 1920s. The Savoy Cocktail Book was yet another effortless pairing, so I chose to use “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a 1934 recording by Chick Webb and His Orchestra.

Selecting many of the other objects was not so straightforward. Responding to the objects using the history of the 1920s and the evocative nature of the music helped to illuminate their creative synergies. For the Mural Panels for the Ziegfeld Theatre, The Joy of Life: Duke Ellington’s composition, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Ellington’s composition was recorded in 1927, and the Ziegfeld Theatre opened in that same year. That connection seemed exemplary!

Picture of the Jazz Age Incoming Loan

Two Mural Panels For The Ziegfeld Theatre, The Joy of Life, 1927; Designed by Joseph Urban (American, 1872–1933); oil on canvas; H x W (overall): 518.5 × 729 × 1.6 cm (17 ft. 1/8 in. × 23 ft. 11 in. × 5/8 in.) The Collection of Richard H. Driehaus, Chicago; 49.2016.1

The Orchestra Bracelet needed to be matched with an important jazz orchestra from the 1920s, but which one? After careful consideration, Fletcher Henderson was chosen. His group first began performing at the Club Alabam on West 44th Street in New York in 1922. Later, the group moved to the Roseland Ballroom, which was becoming one of the most prominent ballrooms, not only in New York City, but the entire country. “The Stampede” was one of his more influential recordings, and it features a young Coleman Hawkins soloing.

New World Radio is one of my favorite pieces in the exhibit. The radio had a profound impact on jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. Duke Ellington was very fortunate to not only perform at The Cotton Club six nights a week, but also broadcast nationwide via the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). “Harlem River Quiver” features the Ellington Orchestra during their tenure at The Cotton Club from 1927–1931.

Joseph Stella’s oil painting Brooklyn Bridge just begged to be paired with music from the Jazz Age! The painting is absolutely engaging, powerful, and abstract. Stella’s painting immediately brought to mind “Weather Bird” by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. This duet performance showcases a masterful conversation between two master musicians that were redefining jazz vocabulary in Chicago during the tail end of the Jazz Age. While this piece is certainly not from Brooklyn, to my mind it was the quintessential choice to be paired with the Stella painting. The painting is abstract and somewhat avant-garde for the time period. “Weather Bird” was also deemed to be too avant-garde by record executives, and they subsequently delayed the release of the recording for until 1930 for that reason!

In some cases, a sense of humor directed some of the musical pairings. In the case of Donald Deskey’s painted wooden Wastebasket, the piece matched up well with Jack Teagarden and His Orchestra’s 1934 recording of “Junk Man.” Coupling Deskey’s Wastebasket with this recording from 1934 frankly had me laughing out loud! The recording is a fabulous example from the time period, showcasing Teagarden with Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, and other influential jazz musicians.

Image of the Wastebasket, 1928; Designed by Donald Deskey

Wastebasket, 1928; Designed by Donald Deskey (American, 1894–1989); wood, paint, silver leaf; H x W x D: 34.9 × 34.9 × 22.5 cm (13 3/4 × 13 3/4 × 8 7/8 in.); Jacqueline Loewe Fowler; 71.2016.2

There are strong examples of French influence throughout the exhibit, and, during the Jazz Age, musicians such as Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker, and additional members of La Revue Nègre were performing at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and other locations. This led to a relationship between Paris and leading jazz musicians from the United States. Using this historical information, I was able to match up objects from the exhibit such as Clarinval’s Le Feu with Sidney Bechet’s recording of “Maple Leaf Rag,” Poiret’s Juin textile with Bechet’s “I’ve Found A New Baby,” or Lalique’s vase Tourbillons with “Dinah” by the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.

Another interesting object was the Scarab belt buckle owned by Linda (Mrs. Cole) Porter. Cole Porter was a prolific composer from New York in the 1920s. Knowing that Mrs. Cole Porter owned this belt buckle fascinated me! The piece was coupled with James P. Johnson’s recording of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Cole Porter wrote this piece in 1929, and Johnson’s recording was done in 1930. Being able to extend the object pairing with a historic recording of Porter’s composition by James P. Johnson was too exciting to pass up!

The brochure, New York American: The Way to Reach the Moderns, practically screamed at me as I began deciding which objects to work with. Naturally, James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” felt perfect! Along with his recording of “Carolina Shout,” Johnson’s recording of “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” showcases why he is the father of Harlem Stride piano. Harlem Stride piano playing evolved out of ragtime, with the left hand playing an alternation of a bass note on beats one and three and a chord on beats two and four. The right hand typically performed inventive melodies that were often virtuosic.

Picture of Blues, 1929 painting by Archibald J. Motley Jr.

Blues, 1929; Archibald J. Motley Jr. (American, 1891–1981); oil on canvas; 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm); Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne; 57.2016.1

Blues, the painting by Archibald Motley Jr., captures the essence of not only the blues, but also the excitement of a black-and-tan club from the 1920s. Since Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” had to go with the sheet music for the work, I opted to use “Lost Your Head Blues” by Bessie Smith. Smith was known as the “Empress of the Blues,” and she is heard on this recording with Fletcher Henderson on piano and Joseph Smith (who was also Henderson’s first choice instead of Louis Armstrong) on cornet.

Picture of The New Yorker (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931; Designed by Viktor Schreckengost

The New Yorker (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931; Designed by Viktor Schreckengost (American, 1906–2008); USA; glazed, molded earthenware with sgraffito design; H x Diam: 29.9 x 42.2 cm (11 3/4 x 16 5/8 in.) Diam (foot): 17.5 cm (6 7/8 in.); Gift of Mrs. Homer Kripke; 1980-21-7

There are numerous other pairings between the objects in The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, such as Edgar Brandt’s Firescreen with Mary Lou Williams’sNight Life.” Both pieces draw you in hypnotically. The New Yorker (Jazz) punch bowl was paired with another Ellington composition, “The Mooche.” This piece was the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s theme song for many years, and it was recorded around the time that his band was performing at the Cotton Club. Additionally, considering how often the color blue appears in Ellington’s writing, the parallel between the blue and black colors of the punch bowl and his writing revealed a common thread.

Curating Fascinating Rhythms: Music of the Jazz Age to coincide with The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s proved to be a stimulating venture. It is my sincere hope that you will be able to explore the exhibition and the plethora of music from 1918–34, and delight in the combinations!


Explore the musical pairings:

Textile, Le Feu (Fire), 1925 / “Maple Leaf Rag,” Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers (1932)

The New Yorker (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931 / “The Mooche,” Duke Ellington (1928)

Sheet Music, Black and Tan Fantasy, 1927 / “Black and Tan Fantasy,” Duke Ellington (1927)

Cigarette Holder, 1932 / “Jazznocracy,” Jimmie Lunceford (1934) 

Evening Dress and Underslip, 1926 / “Back Water Blues,” Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson (1927)

Orchestra Bracelet, ca. 1930 / “The Stampede,” Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra (1926)

New World Radio, 1933 / “Harlem River Quiver,” Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (1928)

Door with Handle (France). 1925–26 / “Moten Swing,” Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (1932)

Brochure, New York American: The Way to Reach the Moderns, 1920s / “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic,” James P. Johnson (1930)

Drawing, Textile Design: The Enchanted Isle of Beautiful Sounds, ca. 1923 / “The Creeper,” Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra (1926)

Muse With Violin Screen, 1930 / “Beale Street Blues,” Lang-Venuti Orchestra (1931)

Drawing, Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4, 1922 / “Sugar Foot Stomp,” Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra (1925) 

Wastebasket, 1928 / “Junk Man,” Jack Teagarden and His Orchestra (1934)

Three-paneled Screen, ca. 1928 / “West End Blues,” Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five (1928)

Coverlet, “Electric” Pattern, 1930 / “Handful of Keys,” Fats Waller (1929)

Brooklyn Bridge, 1919–20 / “Weather Bird,” Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (1928)

Drawing, Carpet Design: Still Life with Musical Instruments, Radio City Music Hall, New York, NY, 1932 / “From Monday On,” Bix Beiderbecke & Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1928)

Painting, George Gershwin at Piano, 1926 / “Rhapsody In Blue,” Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra, featuring George Gershwin (1924)

Textile, Juin, 1930 / “I’ve Found A New Baby,” Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers (1932)

Textile, Americana Print: Rhapsody, 1925 / “Rhapsody In Blue,” Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra, featuring George Gershwin (1924)

Book, The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930 / “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Chick Webb and His Orchestra (1934)

Scarab Belt Buckle, 1926 / “What Is This Thing Called Love?” James P. Johnson (1930)

Firescreen, ca. 1925 / “Nightlife,” Mary Lou Williams (1930)

Tourbillons [Whirlwinds] Vase, 1926 / “Dinah,” Quintette of the Hot Club of France (1934)

Vase, Rhythm, 1929 / “Hotter Than That,” Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five (1927)

Two Mural Panels For The Ziegfeld Theatre, The Joy of Life, 1927 / “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” Duke Ellington (1927)

Blues, 1929 / “Lost Your Head Blues,” Bessie Smith (1926)

Ten-Panel Screen, Renards (Foxes), ca. 1921–22 / “Cakewalking Babies From Home,” Red Onion Jazz Babies (1924)

Drawing, Josephine Baker / Columbia, 1930 / “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Josephine Baker (1927)

Poster, Freddy Johnson and His Harlemites, 1934 / “Harlem Bound,” Freddy Johnson (1933)


These objects can been seen in the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, now on view through August 20, 2017.

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