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Jazz In The 1920s Essay


This paper’s purpose is to examine the social effects of jazz music. It focuses on the exploitation of black jazz musicians by whites in the industry and looks at whether black musicians benefited at all from their innovations. Many of today’s African American musicians are faced with similar social circumstances as those of past jazz musicians and as a result, the importance of the African American culture is still being ignored. Despite the negative social conditions that blacks faced, some blacks were still able to benefit and gained respect, stardom, and recognition for being the inventors of jazz music.

Where words fail, music speaks,” says the poet Hans Christian Andersen. This message is profoundly expressed in jazz music. In the 1920s, jazz experienced a rise in popularity when the music began to spread through recordings. Some black jazz musicians believe that they were ripped off financially and that they did not get full recognition and compensation for being the inventors of jazz as African American culture. Furthermore, some people oppose the idea that jazz was invented by blacks. Jazz music as such became more of a commodity than an art and the highest achievers were white.

Music is essential to the African American experience in the United States. Faced with racism, discrimination, and segregation, blacks have always found comfort and a sense of peace in their music. Music continues to be a means by which the anger, grief, compassion and desire for change is transformed into positive energy for blacks (Dawson, 2001). Today, the social conditions facing American popular music, especially rap, are analogous to those faced by jazz music, and many musicians have similar experiences. Despite the fact that jazz music has created some positive social effects, it has created more negative ones for black jazz musicians, such as exploitation and jazz appropriation, some of which are still occurring today.

In order to understand the social effects of jazz music, there must be an understanding of how this music came into existence. I will then discuss the positive and the negative effects jazz had on black jazz musicians. Jazz developed from Afro-American music which included: Work songs, spiritual music, minstrelsy (a stage entertainment usually performed by whites with blackened faces who performed songs, dances and comedy ostensibly of black American origin), and other forms (Wheaton, 1994). Dorsey (2001) believes that black music and black musical accomplishments have been rooted in the continent of Africa. Jazz’s relationship to African music can be demonstrated in “the dominance of percussion in African American music…and bending the notes expressed in improvisation” (p. 36). The same way Africans were able to spontaneously invent a piece of music or beat, sometimes without any instruments, black jazz musicians are able to incorporate some of these features in their music. The improvisational style of the latter is very much influenced by the former, and is a unique feature of jazz music.

Furthermore, jazz is considered an integral part of African American culture. Though there has been great debate about a standard definition of jazz, Wheaton (1994) believes it “can be defined as a combination of improvisatory styles with western European form and harmony” (p. 90). In other words, despite jazz’s African roots, it also has many European features such as composition, internal structure, and harmony. Peretti (1992) too states that jazz obtained its musical identity from the African and European traditions. Jazz music emerged out of “hot music” from New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century and some of the structures were inherited from Africa and passed down to blacks from slavery to freedom (Dorsey, 2001). Jazz categories include Dixieland, swing, bop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, Third Stream, jazz-rock, and fusion (Wheaton, 1994). The first jazz-style to receive recognition as a fine art was bebop, which is mainly instrumental and was formed by serious black jazz musicians who experimented with new ideas in the late night jam sessions (Wheaton, 1994). Bebop evolved in the 1940s and was said to have been created by blacks in a way that whites could not copy (Gerard, 1998).

The history of jazz proves that black musicians are the inventors and innovators of jazz, and that has been a major accomplishment of blacks. According to Wheaton (1994), an innovator’s “job is not to entertain, but rather, to make the listener aware and to force the audience to confront often disturbing realities and hidden truths about themselves, their society and their world” (p. 143). Jazz is often referred to as “Black classical music.” Gerard (1998) cites Amiri Baraka, who first argued that jazz is an African American music in his book Blues People (1963), and also called jazz “Black music” in books he wrote later. In fact, one of the first musicians to label his music “Negro music” was Duke Ellington, who made it a priority to express the African American culture profoundly in it (Gerard, 1998). Mackey (1992) believes that blacks were cheated out of their invention of jazz music. In other words, commercial success was only obtained by whites. Blacks were basically locked out of it. Yet most white jazz musicians did not have the improvisational skills or originality that the black musicians displayed in their music. Malcolm X says that whites simply replicate what they heard in the past, whereas blacks “could spontaneously invent.” He states:

I’ve seen black musicians when they’d be jamming at a jam session with white musicians—a whole lot of difference. The white musician can jam if he’s got some sheet music in front of him…But that black musician, he picks up his horn and starts blowing some sounds that he never thought of before. He improvises, he creates. (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p. 78)

However, there are opposing points of view when it comes to who invented jazz. Textbook writer Frank Tirro writes: “contrary to popular belief, jazz does not owe its existence to any one race” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p.88). Because of the western influences and American band traditions in jazz, some people believe that it does not simply belong to African Americans. In addition, in response to the statement that whites stole the music, Jim Hall says, “I’ve always felt that the music started out as black but that it’s as much mine now as anyone else’s. I haven’t stolen the music from anybody—I just bring something different to it” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p. 90). Hall is indeed acknowledging that blacks invented jazz, but he does not feel that whites have stolen it, even if whites imitated the various jazz styles created by blacks and became wealthy as a result.

Upward social mobility among black jazz musicians is a very significant factor, though it was not common. Opportunities were given to black musicians by the radio and recording industry and popular black bands were promoted as long as there was a demand for jazz music by white Americans (Gerard, 1998). However, Mackey (1992) believes that there was a containment of black mobility on the political level and that the social and economic progress blacks might have accumulated because of their artistic innovation was blocked by whites. Black jazz musicians were primarily from the lower class. As Means (1968) points out, despite their social background, “some of these jazzmen received recognition as serious composers and several conducted well-known symphony orchestras and were invited to give concerts in Carnegie Hall (p. 18). Benny Goodman, a white jazz bandleader, brought to stardom Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian, but still encountered criticism for benefiting from their talents; a few other black jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, made a lot of money (Gerard, 1998).

Jazz music has created a sense of integration between blacks and whites in the industry. Buster Bailey, a black jazz musician said, “One thing I’m happy to see is the integration that’s happening among musicians” (qtd. in Means, 1968, p. 22). Discrimination still existed, but in the jazz community, musicians were somehow considered as equals. Whites were hired to perform in several black bands and the white trombonist Roswell Rudd was introduced to jazz audiences by Archie Shepp (Gerard, 1998). Means (1968) cites Monroe Berger who notes that jazz music created black-white contact where a black musician received full acceptance as an equal and was “(often admired as superior) without condescension” (Means, 1998, p. 17). Jazz music has not only integrated people in the United States, but also brought them together internationally. It has been influenced by third world countries such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and India (Wheaton, 1994). Great jazz musicians integrated international ideas into their music; for instance, Duke Ellington has an album named Far East Suite, and two of Coltrane’s albums are named Africa and India (Wheaton, 1994).

Today, jazz music is progressing in many ways. Despite its economic decline and struggle to survive because of the developed wealth of rock and pop, there have been many opportunities for the survival of jazz. Jazz began to penetrate the music programs of high schools, colleges and universities right after World War II, and in 1968, the International Association of Jazz Education was formed (Wheaton, 1994). Ron Dewey Wynn, co-founder and executive director of the Mill Street Jazz and Culture Society in Philadelphia, teaches inner city kids to appreciate the history and training in jazz music and calls jazz “African American Classical Improvisational Music” (Dawson, 2001). He contends that African American children won’t experience jazz culture as music programs decrease in schools around the country (Dawson, 2001). Jazz has also gotten much recognition in the United States and around the world through jazz festivals. Overseas festivals have been more successful than festivals in the United States; in places like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy, jazz festivals have all broken records for attendance (Wheaten, 1994).

Now that the positive social effects of jazz have been clarified, I will present the negative effects. The recording industry has played a major role in the commercialization of jazz music, which has led to uniformity. Jazz music would not have been widely distributed to the general public without the recording industry, and it provided a perfect opportunity for making the music more marketable. As a result, blacks were socially affected, and according to Means (1968), they had limited opportunities to showcase their originality and were forced to create music that appealed only to whites. However, white bands had a sense of sameness that was more marketable. According to Mackey (1992), swing music lacked improvisation, and the soloist’s creativity was not relied upon as much because of the commercialization of the music. Jazz became so commercialized that the industry was less dependent on black innovation, but rather produced a music that was lacking the essence of jazz—its improvisation. Baraka quotes Hsio wen Shih’s “comments regarding the anthology album The Great Swing Bands, a record Shih refers to as ‘terrifying’ due to the indistinguishability of one band from another” (qtd. in Mackey, 1992, p. 60). Swing music basically lacked creativity and distinction and as a result, swing bands sounded alike.

Black jazz musicians were less credited for their invention and innovation of jazz music. Jazz music created a sense of identity, originality, and social cohesion among black musicians, but they were seldom credited with inventing it. Kofsky (1998) believes that this refusal of whites to credit blacks is because they refused to equate anything valuable with African Americans. According to Miles Davis, this is the case because “the white man likes to win everything. White people like to see other white people win…and they can’t win when it comes to jazz…because black people created this” (qtd. in Gerard, 1998, p.16). In addition, whites became more famous than blacks because of their unwillingness to give blacks credit for their talents. Means (1968) too believes that black jazz musicians experienced a lot of resentment because they felt that they did not always receive acknowledgement for their accomplishments, while whites were granted titles such as “King of Swing” and “King of Jazz” (p.18). Again this social effect of jazz was a result of greed by whites, and it created anger, fear and resentment among black jazz musicians.

While whites in the jazz music industry got rich, black musicians did not reap equal benefits. The industry caused a great deal of exploitation and discrimination by whites against blacks. Rex Stewart says, “Where the control is, the money is. Do you see any of us running any record companies, booking agencies, radio stations, music magazines?” (qtd. in Kofsky, 1998, p. 19). In other words, the recording/distribution industry was in complete control, not black musicians. Because of this power and contempt for black art, blacks were likely to suffer and the recording industry basically determined the economic success or failure of an artist. White musicians who benefited from the talent of black musicians were labeled exploiters and for the financial gain they drew from the music, they were called thieves (Gerard, 1998, p. 14). For instance, arrangements were purchased from black musicians by Benny Goodman, a white jazz musician known as “King of Swing.” However, the majority of black musicians, despite their invention of the music, experienced very little success (Mackey, 1992). Mackey (1992) further states that “the most popular and best-paid bands were white” and with the development of radio, which was an excellent form for publicizing the music, the best paid studio jobs were predominantly secured by whites (p. 52). In other words, because of race, black jazz musicians have experienced great disadvantages throughout the history of jazz music (Means, 1968).

Furthermore, the jazz music industry contributed a great deal to the continuous victimization of blacks. Whites continued to exploit black jazz musicians for financial gain, even in death. For instance, a month after Bessie Smith died, John Hammond, an employee of Columbia Records, wrote an article in Down Beat magazine saying that “a special Bessie Smith memorial album will be released…and this will be the best buy of the year in music” (qtd. in Kofsky, 1998, p. 33). Evidently he was more interested in promoting his fame and fortune than paying respect to the dead. However, Hammond frequently referred to himself as being the protector of black artists to increase his reputation (Kofsky).

Another social effect that was pivotal in jazz was the social stigma associated with the music, not only by whites, but also by blacks. This stigma created an environment for black exploitation because jazz was considered black folk music. The stigma consisted of a belief held by whites that the tradition of African American music was not art, but was rather artistically worthless, trivial and only tolerated for profitability (Levine, 1989). For instance, “Jazz Must Go,” was the title of an article published in 1921 in the Ladies Home Journal (Means, 1968). Peretti (1992) also states that the exploitation of that era was typical and was only for the purpose of profitability. However, in the twentieth century, while jazz was being rejected in the United States, African American jazz musicians received many opportunities overseas. Their artistic ability was acknowledged and encouraged and they discovered that segregation was not widespread (Ross, 2001). Ross further states that though the music had originated in the United States, because of its carrier, “the so-called negros,” the dominant group (whites) quickly condemned it.

Likewise, in the 1920s, jazz was thought of as “a backward, low form of expression” by reputable blacks from Oklahoma City, said the black novelist Ralph Ellison (qtd. in Means, 1968, p. 334). For instance, C.J. Handy’s father told him “he would rather see him dead than become a jazz musician” (Means, 1968, p. 334). One must wonder what brought on this negative view of jazz among blacks. Was it the race factor? Yes, it was. Means relates the views of E. Franklin Frazier and LeRoi Jones, who believed the main reason was that middle class blacks wanted to fit into white society. They repudiated jazz because they thought it was too much a part of black slave heritage (Means). Individual blacks have tried to assimilate into the American mainstream by achieving high levels of education; however, assuming the mainstream culture meant abandoning or destroying their own culture (Baskerville, 2003). Gerard (1998) adds that black musicians and the black middle class ceased to be ashamed of their culture with the civil rights movement and became proud of jazz music.

Jazz music has not only created negative social conditions, but has also been a force for racial integration, respect, and social mobility. Social mobility proves to be a very significant factor because it showcases a similarity between black jazz musicians and black rap artists in terms of their accomplishments in obtaining wealth and stardom because of the invention of their music. Jazz should be given more recognition and should be studied in more high schools and colleges in the United States so that students, particularly black students, can be educated about its origins.

The origins of jazz music have been in much dispute and have caused many controversies. Though people may argue that jazz music was not exclusively invented by blacks, the fact remains that the great innovators of the music are indeed blacks. Gerard (1998) notes that African-American ideologists become offended “that each style of jazz—and each variety of blues, rhythms-and-blues, and rap, for that matter—have been appropriated from the African-American community almost the day after it was first heard there” (p. 14). As classical music is clearly European, jazz music should undoubtedly be considered African-American music.


Baskerville, J. D. (2003). The impact of black nationalist ideology on American jazz music of the 1960s and 1970s. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Dawson, N. J. (2001). Can you sing jazz? Perception and appreciation of jazz music among African American young adults. In J. L. Conyers, Jr. (Ed.), African American jazz and rap: Social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior (pp. 201-210). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Dorsey, L. (2001). “And all that jazz” has African roots! In J. L. Conyers, Jr. (Ed.), African American jazz and rap: Social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior (pp. 35-54). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Gerard, C. (1998). Jazz in black and white: Race, culture, and identity in the jazz community. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Kofsky, F. (1998). Black music, white music: Illuminating the history and political economy of jazz. New York: Pathfinder.

Levine, L. W. (1989). Jazz and American culture. The Journal of American Folklore, 102(403), 6-22. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from JSTOR database.

Mackey, N. (1992). Other: From noun to verb. Representations 39, 51-70. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from JSTOR database.

Means, R. L. (1968). Notes on Negro jazz: 1920-1950: The use of biographical materials in sociology. The Sociological Quarterly 9(3), 332-342. Retrieved November 5, 2008, from JSTOR database.

Peretti, B. W. (1992). The creation of jazz: Music, race, and culture in urban America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ross, L. (2001). Jazz musicians in postwar Europe and Japan. In J. L. Conyers, Jr. (Ed.), African American jazz and rap: Social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior (pp. 90-116). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Thomas, R. (2001). The rhythm of rhyme: A look at rap music as an art form from a jazz perspective. In J. L. Conyers, Jr. (Ed.), African American jazz and rap: Social and philosophical examinations of black expressive behavior (pp. 163-169). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Wheaton, J. (1994). All that jazz! New York: Ardsley House.

The purpose of this edited collection is to answer the question: How did the practice of “slumming” in 1920s jazz clubs in urban centers – particularly Harlem, in New York City -- contribute to a blurring of racial boundaries?  And with that question comes another – how did these jazz clubs, despite their integrated performances, fail to bring together white and black Americans? A number of secondary sources introduce this topic, and that is the direction that this paper will take. Before reading, it might be helpful to take a listen to “I’ve Got a New Baby” by Ethel Waters (a prominent jazz vocalist in the 1920s), which is included in the primary source material – as exemplary of the jazz music that brought people of different races together. This paper will primarily examine social and cultural implications of jazz music, but it is absolutely critical to understand the music that was the linchpin in this shifting cultural zeitgeist.

Slumming blurred racial lines in the 1920s in a very big way. In “Arc of Justice,”  Kevin Boyle writes:

“At first, native-born Americans were almost universally appalled by the world that the black and white migrants were building on the Lower East Side of New York or Chicago’s Back of the Yards. In the early days of the twentieth century, though, a tiny number of sophisticates embraced immigrant working-class life as an antidote to the poisonous constraints of Victorian bourgeois culture. The first wave were artists enthralled by the color, the noise, the sheer vitality of the immigrant wards and determined to weave that life into an art that defined the modern and a politics that fostered liberation. In the 1920s, ‘slumming’ became a mania, as urban elites sought out the exotic, the ‘real,’ wherever they could find it. They packed into the speakeasies that filled the cities after the imposition of Prohibition, where they could rub shoulders with Italian, Irish, or Jewish gangsters. They filled theaters to see ethnic entertainers such as Ragtime Jimmy Durante, late of Coney Island, or the anarchic Marx brothers. And in the most startling turn of them all, they discovered the Negroes living in their midst.

“In the early 1920s, sophisticates scrambled to grab a share of the black life that the southern migration was bringing into the cities. White producers mounted all-black musicals. White couples fumbled with the Charleston. And white patrons poured into Chicago’s South Side jazz joints and Harlem’s nightclubs. If they were lucky, they squeezed into the Vendome, where Louis Armstrong held the floor, or Edmond’s Cellar, where Ethel Waters sang the blues. The frenzy was shot through with condescension. White slummers thought black life exciting because it was “primitive” and vital. Visiting the ghetto’s haunts became the era’s way to snub mainstream society, to be in the avant-garde. ‘Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously,’ novelist Carl Van Vechten wrote H.L. Mencken in the summer of 1924. ‘Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time’” (Boyle 4-5).

This is precisely the sort of blurring of racial lines that this collection seeks to examine. Racial identity – something that was highly organized and divisive in the 1920s – was willingly transgressed in the 1920s in connection with jazz music. The collection will demonstrate and explore this crossing of boundaries that Boyle sets up.

Yet it is important to note that Boyle does not get the whole story straight. He talks about slumming and the blurring of racial lines. He is quick to describe the racism-neutralizing impact of jazz music and lower-class culture seen as avant-garde. He does not, however, address the failings of jazz to really change much. Popular jazz – jazz outside of clubs in Harlem, for example – was often made more “white” sounding. And time had a similar whitening effect on jazz. Much of this, sources indicate, was connected to fears of subversion by African American culture.

Neil Leonard writes about this underlying tension: “Yet for many people, the jazz man still carried with him unsavory associations. In most of the North and in the South, Negro musicians were far less acceptable than their white colleagues” (Leonard 146). Jazz was trendy, and it did bring together groups of people that otherwise might not have been brought together – but it was definitely not an across-the-board equalizer.

So with these two points in mind – that jazz music in the 1920s did facilitate the transgression of racial boundaries, but that the staying-power and real impact of that transgression was sometimes minimal at best – this paper will proceed with the examination of jazz music in the 1920s and the ways in which it did and did not breed integration before its time.

Perception in the 1920s seemed to be that this racial mixing was taking place. A cover of The New Yorker from 1926 portrays a well-dressed black man in a tux and top hat playing jazz music to a beautiful dancing white woman. The implication is that this mixing did occur. The caveat, of course, is that there are still clearly-defined gender roles depicted in the artwork. The musician is black and the dancer is white. The assumption, implicit in the drawing, is that black Americans were confined to the role of the musician, whereas trendy, white, beautiful Americans were left to sit back and enjoy. This sort of division certainly brings together people of different races, but fails to integrate them in the truest sense.  It is important to note the viewpoint of The New Yorker, as the voice of what has traditionally been viewed as an urban elite. The readers of The New Yorker are precisely those who would have been most sensitive to and familiar with the practice of slumming.

But this together-but-apart facet of slumming is pervasive. It is also seen in the primary source included in this collection, entitled “Darktown Dancin’ School”. The Farber Sisters sing a song about learning to dance to syncopated rhythms at Darktown Dancing School. The implication here is that black Americans made the music and taught the dance steps that were for white Americans to enjoy.  This does constitute interaction – maybe even unprecedented interaction (in type and scope) – between black and white Americans. But it does not constitute racial equality.

Langston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, addresses this same inequality in his 1923 poem The Weary Blues. Hughes writes of a sad black American man who has the blues – he is unhappy and music is his outlet. It is important to note that in this context too, the black man is the performer, and not a happy one. Hughes writes, “And I can’t be satisfied/ Got the Weary Blues/ And can’t be satisfied/ I ain’t happy no mo’/ And I wish that I had died” (Hughes). The reader is left to assume that the black American performer is depressed because he is being downtrodden within the larger context of American society. Hughes does not specify a venue, but presumably this was happening nationally.

Most venues addressed in literature on slumming are in Harlem or Chicago’s south side, but before proceeding any further, it is important to note the widespread effect of slumming. Moreover, it was not new to the 1920s. Chap Heap writes in his book Slumming, “The practice of slumming began some three decades before Prohibition became effective nationwide in 1920, and it persisted beyond well beyond the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 … While the U.S> version of slumming probably started in Manhattan and certainly reached its apogee in that city, in one form or another this cultural phenomenon materialized in every major U.S. urban center and many smaller ones, and its effects on the ways that Americans thought about urban life and the different types of people who resided in U.S. cities resonated even in the most sparsely populated areas of this sprawling nation” (Heap, Introduction).

One of the music venues that recurs again and again in researching the practice of slumming in the 1920s is the Savoy Ballroom. The venue still exists and operates, and its history is rich and storied with a number of legendary performers. The Savoy, as it was affectionately known, is a good place to begin answering the question of how and why racial lines were transgressed when it came to jazz music. Lloyd Scott writes of his experience playing at New York’s Savoy Ballroom in Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff’s work Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya:

“While we were at the Savoy we were at the peak. On one evening there in 1928 we won an extraordinary battle of music against eight bands, including those of Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Johnson, at what they termed a ‘South Sea Island Ball.. Another contest was called the ‘Arabian Nights Ball’; that was in the following year, also at the Savoy. We were placed second to Ellington. These battles were fiercely contested affairs for much prestige was at stake. Bands would have extensive preparation ahead of time for the largest of these battles and would fire their best in the way or arrangements at one another. One particularly brutal one was a victory over three bands – Fess Williams, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson. Our winning was clear cut but only after an all-night struggled which ended at seven o’clock Sunday morning” (Shapiro and Hentoff, 172).

Clearly the Savoy Ballroom was the place to be. Other artists corroborate this sentiment. Mary Lou Williams said in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya:

“The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing. And Webb was acknowledged King of the Savoy. Any visiting band could depend on catching hell from little Chick, for he was a crazy drummer and shrewd to boot. The way I made it out, Chick would wait until the opposition had blown its hottest numbers and then – during a so-so set – would unexpectedly bring his band fresh to the stand and wham into a fine arrangement, like Benny Carter’s Liza, that was hard to beat. Few visiting bands could stand up to this” (Shaprio and Hentoff 194).

And these are far from the only accounts referencing “The Savoy” as a hub of jazz culture in the 1920s. And (in my reading) none of the accounts explicitly reference race – at least not as a divisive factor. Jazz drew in people of various races and allowed them to temporarily transcend social constructs associated with skin color and ethnicity, and instead just enjoy the music.

Interestingly, this trend spread outside of just American urban centers. Boyle writes of Ossian Sweet’s time in Europe in Arc of Justice and notes that Europe was significantly less racially divided than the United States at the time. “Some Parisians went beyond openness to admiration. Immediately after the war, black culture became all the rage in the quarters of the avant-garde” (Boyle 131). He adds, “Intellectuals embraced the ‘primitivism’ of African art, literature, and dance, while the city’s sophisticates fell head over heels for American jazz” (Boyle 131). Listening to characteristically black music put white members of society in a position to appear hip or on the cutting edge of culture.

Author Neil Leonard discusses the practice of slumming in his book Jazz and the White Americans; the Acceptance of a New Art Form when he writes, “The breakdown of traditional values led to an exchange of norms between these classes which tended to blur the line. Many of the well-to-do became dissatisfied with traditional esthetic norms and grew increasingly interested in art and entertainment usually associated with subcultures” (Leonard 49).  He continues, “Art provided the most respectable kind of exposure to subculture” (Leonard 49).  He recounts an anecdote told by Jazz clarinetist Milton Mezzrow who said that when he played in jazz clubs, “It struck me funny how the top and bottom crusts in society were always getting together during the Prohibition era. In this swanky club, which was run by members of the notorious Purple Gang, Detroit’s bluebloods used to congregate – the Grosse Pointe mob on the slumming kick, rubbing elbows with Louis the Wop’s mob” (Leonard 50). However, Leonard said, this rubbing of elbows did not necessarily constitute and understanding of other classes or even a real desire to associate with them outside of the confines of the dance floor. Jazz, he says, became a way for white Americans to rebel against the confines of their own social situation. It provided a means of self-expression.

Leonard also argues that blurring of class and race lines extended beyond just music in the 1920s. He writes, “The twenties were the years of Manhattan’s ‘Black Renaissance’. Whites wrote about, and bought books by, Negroes more frequently than ever before. Wealthy patrons adopted colored artists. Whites invaded the Negro clubs and bars in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side. Shows with all-Negro casts played on Broadway” (Leonard 51).

Jazz was notable not only for its new sound, but also for its roots in the black American community. An example of one successful black jazz composer is Eubie Blake. Barry Ulanov writes in A History of Jazz in America, “Eubie Blake, one of the most talented of the musicians to be influenced by Joplin and Lamb and the other ragtime composers, wrote the score for the enormously successful all-Negro musical of 1921, Shuffle Along” (Ulanov 81), of which one of the most famous songs is “I’m Just Wild About Harry” – for which there is an audio file in the primary source material. This kind of commercial success for a black American was certainly something new in America – a statement corroborated by the struggles of Ossian Sweet to gain respect as a doctor in American society. Jazz brought status and fame unlike any other profession.

But another theatre production that included jazz music was not treated with the same respect and acclaim. Leonard writes in Jazz and the White Americans about controversy surrounding the J. Hartley Manners play The National Anthem. “Manner dramatized the way that jazz stimulated the youth’s downfall, and in his Forward argued that the new music was ‘modern man’s saturnalia.’ Throughout the play jazz not only undermined the morality  of susceptible young people, but also threatened all civilization, which, if the jazz continued unchecked, seemed doomed to barbarism” (Leonard 29).

A key figure in 1920s jazz, as alluded to in the primary material included, is Louis Armstrong. Robert Goffin writes in Jazz: from the Congo to the Metropolitan, “Armstrong is more than the King of Jazz; he is its soul, he is jazz itself, he is the great standard against which all other jazzmen are measured. To my mind he is the one indisputable genius American music has produced, and, as years go on, he appears even more outstanding. No true lover of jazz denies his predominant position” (Goffin 114). With that said, it is important to note that this position was possible despite his race – lending fuel to the argument that jazz rendered race, at least temporarily, irrelevant. If the music was good, it didn’t matter. In order to better demonstrate Louis Armstrong’s musical prowess, the track “Heah Me Talkin’” by Louis Armstrong is included in the primary source material.

That said, Goffin says that Armstrong’s legacy is difficult to pin down and understand. “The dominant role which Louis Armstrong has played in the development of jazz is hard for us to fully realize today. Not very many are aware of the fact that most of our present-day trumpets are simply repeating from memory ideas which Louis Armstrong created almost twenty years ago. It was he who fertilized the new art, intensified it, animated it, and gave it the lift which has carried it to the present time” (Goffin 119).

To be sure, the legacy of jazz in America cannot be said unequivocally to be an instance of mainstream America’s transcendence of race. Rudi Blesh notes, “The Negro’s success in America is not to be measured by the chimera of popular acclaim nor to be counted in dollars that will not buy equality. Swing music, as a form and as a whole tendency, is an abandonment of the truly Negroid elements of jazz in favor of white elements more intelligible and acceptable to white society. Thus swing, outwardly the symbol of triumph, is inwardly that of the failure of Emancipation” (Blesh 262). Jazz, which evolved into popular swing music, was not an unqualified success for the black American community.

Blesh continues, “How tragically the Negro trades the liberation of his own music for only another sort of slavery! How tragically unaware he remains of the power of his own art, through the pure, magnetic compulsion of which the white man was being forced to imitate his darker brother” (Blesh 262). Black Americans achieved dominance in the music scene, as Blesh writes, but he feels that they relinquished this power with the advent of swing music. Blesh further theorizes that it was the very site of this blurring of racial boundaries that this collection addresses – New York City – that jazz lost its power.“It was in New York that jazz met its apparent defeat; swing scored its apparent victory. The stage was set early with a false emphasis on white jazz, for here, as in Chicago, Dixieland led the way when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came in 1916. Soon a school of northern and eastern white players – who had failed to notice the earlier appearance in the metropolis of the Original Creole Band and its fine Negro jazz – began a literal imitation of the Dixieland that was, of course, only a third-rate version of real jazz” (Blesh 262).

Blesh is concerned largely with what he terms the “dilution” of the genre. He writes that jazz music became progressively more European in its style as its popularity grew in New York – eventually becoming swing, a thoroughly white form of music, or, jazz with the teeth taken out of it.  He writes, “The instrumental tone has lost all elements of hotness. Pure in the European sense, it has gone to an extreme of sweetness. The trumpet’s voice has almost assumed the languishing tones of the crooner; the suave, devitalized trombone has learned drawing-room manners; the clarinet, its fine reedy timbre gone, has acquired a cloying quality and its melodic line flows in a drooping, decorative pattern like that of Artie Shaw and much of Benny Goodman’s playing. Gone is the flashing, elastic, whip-like quality of Dodd’s phrases, his blue and surging tone, his swinging stresses. So this music sings, not in the African tones of jazz, but in bathetic and sentimental accents. It is salon music” (Blesh 266). Blesh concedes, however, that the music of Louis Armstrong between 1925 and 1928 marks a return to the jazz he as an author knew and loved.

And it is impossible to discuss the importance of jazz without noting the connection between jazz and dancing – one of the aspects of popular jazz clubs that made them such a destination for white and black Americans who either wanted to let loose or culturally enrich their lives. R. W. S. Mendl writes in The Appeal of Jazz that dance and music have almost always been closely linked, as historically, instances of dance without music accompanying it are few and far between.

Jazz and the accompanying dancing were not always viewed as a positive thing, however. Many were concerned about the type of dancing that accompanied the syncopated jazz rhythms as opposed to the typical ballroom dancing that was culturally prevalent at the time. In fact, some saw jazz as subversive. This is seen in the 1926 New York Times article that opens Ogren’s The Jazz Revolution “The Salvation Army of Cincinnati obtained a temporary injunction today to prevent the erection of a moving picture theatre adjoining the Catherine Booth Home for Girls, on the grounds that the music emanating from the theatre would implant ‘jazz emotions’ in the babies born in the home. The plaintiffs realize that they live in a jazz age declared the suit, … ‘But we are loathe to believe that babies born in the maternity hospital are to be legally subjected to the implanting of jazz emotions by such enforced proximity to a theater and a jazz palace’” (Ogren 3).

This fear of “jazz emotions” as subversive and the need to protect babies from jazz music is not unlike the frenzy to protect white maidenhood from black men perceived as sexually subversive. This link is particularly poignant given the connection between black American culture and jazz music. While it is not explicitly stated in the New York Times article, the fears of jazz as subversive may very well have been linked to race. And since neighbors of the jazz palace were not intentionally “slumming”, this contact with an unfamiliar culture may very well have been viewed as unwanted by those in the Catherine Booth Home for girls.

Chad Heap affirms that the fear of jazz (and its acceptance in some circles) was certainly tied to sex. And just as racial lines were crossed by jazz, sexual lines were crossed, too. Sometimes the two were connected, others, they were not. “As a heterosocial phenomenon through which substantial numbers of white middle-class women first joined their male counterparts to partake of urban leisure and public space, slumming provided a relatively comfortable means of negotiating the shifting contours of public gender relations …. Yet slumming accomplished more than simply creating places where affluent whites were encouraged to cross preconceived racial and sexual boundaries.  By opening spaces where people could explore their sexual fantasies outside the social constraints of their own neighborhoods and where those who engaged in same-sex and cross-racial relationships could publicly express their desires, this popular phenomenon played an extensive role in the proliferation of new sexual and racial identities” (Heap, Introduction).

One could make the argument that jazz provided an outlet in the 1920s – culturally, socially, personally – that alcohol could not, under Prohibition. Ratified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. Once a powerful social outlet, alcohol was no longer available as a recreational activity. In this way, jazz may have filled the void that alcohol left. And by extension, by inadvertently promoting jazz, the Eighteenth Amendment may have, to some degree, allowed for the blurring of racial lines in the 1920s. Whether or not the reader buys this argument, Prohibition was certainly a powerful and pervasive aspect of the cultural and political landscape in the 1920s, and no examination of the jazz age would be complete without mentioning it.

And so in conclusion, it is indisputable that jazz music, particularly in the 1920s, brought together members of different races that might not have otherwise interacted in that capacity. But it is critical to recognize that racial lines were not universally crossed by jazz – they were crossed by those who consciously interacted with those who they perceived to be different from themselves. Make no mistake – jazz, while it did bring white Americans to clubs in traditionally black neighborhoods to hear traditionally black music -- cannot be defined as a quick fix to 1920s racism.

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