In his four Music box revues (1921–24), Irving Berlin introduced a series of songs that were widely construed as jazz. That view has not prevailed, but the jazz label becomes more intelligible through efforts to restore its original milieu, including the songs’ distinctive musical and linguistic elements, their theatrical context, and the cultural commentary surrounding Berlin and his work in that period.
At a time when the term jazz had only recently entered public discourse, and when its meaning, content, and value remained in flux, Berlin deployed a variety of ragtime and blues figures and combined them in such a way as to produce a jazz trope, a musical construct created by juxtaposing disparate or even contradictory topics. When repeatedly set to lyrics that celebrate illicit behavior, the music gained further associations with things that jazz was thought to abet.
Theatrical setting further reinforced the songs’ links to jazz. Berlin wrote many of the numbers for a flapper-style sister act, often placed them in a climactic program position, and juxtaposed them with sentimental and nostalgic songs that lacked jazz flavor and whose lyrics, in some cases, pointedly denied jazz’s attractions.
Beyond the stage, the songs and their theatrical presentation flourished within an emerging perspective that identified Jewish Americans, such as Berlin and George Gershwin, as the key figures in jazz and musical theater. Berlin’s Broadway jazz stands as an influential and revealing intersection of musical, linguistic, theatrical, and social elements in the early 1920s.
This according to “Everybody step: Irving Berlin, jazz, and Broadway in the 1920s” by Jeffrey Magee (Journal of the American Musicological Society LIX/3 [fall 2006] pp. 697–732).
Today is Berlin’s 130th birthday! Below, Alice Faye sings his Everybody step, an example from the article.