Subject Area: Music and American CultureTopic: Jazz: Urban and Rural Reactions in the 1920sIn parallel with the uproar of jazz during the 1920s came the commotion of different critics from various geographical settings. Many of the white people living in rural areas disliked and rejected jazz as a musical genre. However, the urban city-dwellers were more fond of it; therefore, it was more generally accepted and frequently found in city nightclubs and radio stations. Several characteristics of cities also allowed jazz to survive in urban areas over the rural ones, such as: diversity, tolerance, a more progressive attitude, technology (media, radio), more entertainment locations, and a more educated populace.
Cities were known for the more relaxed and less-religious atmosphere; in contrast with cities, the rural setting was dominated by a more religious and conservative mood with a homogenous population that was more opposed to the cultural liberalism found in the cities, jazz, and the black society in general. Unlike the rural areas of the time, the socio-cultural dynamic of urban areas, with respect to tolerance, diversity, education, nightlife, and the media, allowed jazz to thrive and become a huge part of American culture.
The formation of jazz occurred between the years 1897 and 1917. When jazz bands started playing, they had no way of recording their music until 1917; and even then, the quality of these recordings were atrocious. Another aspect of early jazz was that anything that was played was ever written. Jazz evolved from the blues, ragtime, brass band music, and other musical works that were all around the United States. “One important factor that existed only in New Orleans, namely, the black Creole subculture” allowed jazz to emanate from the mentioned city (Weinstock).
Another aspect of New Orleans that allowed jazz to thrive in this city was the medley of “ethnic, cultural, and musical conditions […] [and] the necessary philosophical impetus for [j]azz i.e., […] freedom of individual expression supported by group interaction” (Weinstock). This implies that New Orleans was one of the cities, and most likely one of the first, that hosted the new counter-culture that would soon spread throughout the United States. “The preeminence of New Orleans as a Jazz center came to an end in 1917 during World War I as a result of still another ordinance when Storyville [(an area of New Orleans that was full of dance halls and bordellos where Jazz was the dominant music)] was closed by the Navy Department” (Weinstock).
As a whole, the United States embraced jazz, but there were still many groups of people who disliked jazz and all that it represented. These close minded people, especially those in small-town America, were afraid of the fast changes that were occurring in society and that jazz was the “cause of [the] loosening [of] morals and frightening dislocations” (Roaring 1). The New York American published an article expressing the views of many conservative, white Americans who thought that “moral disaster [was] coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz…”(Roaring 2).
White audiences in the southern part of the States were ruthless towards black people and their music. The north appeared to be more tolerant, but there were still many confrontations between blacks and whites. Jazz was a part of modernism which helped pave the way for liberals who felt pinned down by the older conservative generations. It also served as a medium for white musicians searching to liberate themselves from the conservative constraints of their time. One can see that the northern part of the states, where cities were mostly located, accepted jazz more easily and quicker.
The predominance of racism and general intolerance towards the black culture was another aspect of rural areas that did not allow jazz to thrive. Since jazz was also rejected because of its African American origins, and not only because of the supposed moral decay that it provoked in the youth of America, racism also tied into the calumniation of jazz. This also affected the conservative populace of the suburbs who were afraid their young girls were mesmerized by the “black music.” Jazz was so closely tied with to African American culture that it was often referred to as being “the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer” (Roaring 2). By referring to jazz in this manner, critics were trying to degrade and undermine everything that it meant to the black community.
They were also trying to lure white Americans into their train of thought and trying to get them agree with their mind mapping accusations. “Many […] Americans were appalled to see their children dancing to music that was believed to have emerged from […] [the] Negro brothels of the south”(Roaring 2). In addition, a plethora of jazz critics became famous for voicing their dislike of jazz. But in fact, they hid behind their critiques of jazz in order to express, not the dislike of the music, “but the social and political dislike of the black population” (Anderson 135). The problem that worried white conservatives the most was interbreeding between black and white young people who were really into jazz mainly because it belonged to the new counter-culture. Jazz served as the highway that joined blacks and whites. Whites were not only racists towards blacks emotionally, but their prejudice expanded to influencing their physical behavior as well.
Many times did the racist, anti-jazz white population try to sully jazz to something much dirtier than it truly was. Since jazz came from the black population, who were once slaves, jazz was not socially accepted as a real musical genre. It often occurred that jazz musicians were characterized as viruses that tried to infect the general population through their music. Jazz was labeled Mumbo-Jumbo (meaning non-sense) by many critics, and by this discounting jazz as any kind of music where talent is needed. It seemed like the white trend was being against jazz and it’s black producer.
According to an article in the September 1918 issue of the Current Opinion: “One touch of [j]azz makes savages of us all” (Anderson 138). The goal of white critics was to undermine black music and culture. Hate towards jazz and jazz musicians in general came to such extremes as to where they were threatened through magazine articles. These articles suggested lynching, kidnappings, and murders, among others, to scare the black population. Even though that by the 1920s and early 1930s jazz had gained an international reputation and was already part of the American culture, the “racial innuendoes in articles on jazz continued” (Anderson 141). The white population continuously tried to limit jazz’s growth, by letting the jazz musicians know that their music was not welcome through critical and controversial magazine and newspaper articles.
The main goal of the critics who published articles dehumanizing blacks and bashing jazz was to disenfranchise the jazz industry and to label blacks as savages who wanted to recruit more and more people to their music. “[M]usic soothes the savage beast, but we never stopped to consider that an entirely different type of music might invoke savage instincts”(Anderson 141-42).
With this, Anderson is trying to imply that blacks are savages and those who listen to jazz will turn into savages as well. By the latter part of 1924, jazz had gained many white musicians and had also grown in popularity among the white crowd. The white population came to believe that notion that “[…] when white people play jazz, it is jazz music, but when black people play jazz, it is jungle noise” (Anderson 144). So, in order to accept this, many critics came to the conclusion that white and black jazz were different and that white jazz was pleasing while black jazz tried to make music but only succeeded in producing noise. Critics played a huge role in dehumanizing jazz and the black population.
During the late 1920s to early 1930s, Jazz became so big that it came to shape and represent the new American culture of the cities and the people of this time. “Jazz music […] became a symbol for all the modern innovations that traditionalists despised[:] the new leisure, city life, Freud, and other elements of the 1920s cultural modernism”(Peretti 2). Peretti is implying that jazz became a huge part of America in a way that it helped shape the culture to what it is today. In fact, it became such a big influence, that during the 1930s white jazz musicians tried to get all the credit for jazz and succeeded in many places. Audiences would consider many white performers (i.e. Benny Goodman) symbolic to jazz.
However, in big cities like Chicago, blacks were credited with the invention of jazz and their seemed to be more cooperation between black and white musicians. Chicago was one of the main destinations for black musicians who moved from rural to urban areas of the country in order to play and promote their music. It is speculated that white musicians only exploited jazz because of the commercial gain and the huge public attention that it had. It is also believed by some that they played the music in parody: in order to mock the black musicians and jazz. In many places, whites tried to take all the spotlight for inventing jazz while whites in other locations stepped out and let the black culture shine.
The big cities of America were famous for their animated and wide ranging nightlife that allowed jazz to be heard by a manifold of people. Many clubs around the states opened their doors to jazz and jazz musicians from various ethnicities, though mainly white and black. Jazz nightlife reached its peak in Harlem, New York during the 1920s. This era was also known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this time one of the most eminent clubs in that area was the Cotton Club.
The elite would frequently congregate at this location which was famous for having alcohol, during the age of prohibition, and because of its jazz. Although jazz and black jazz musicians were welcomed and most of the time the protagonists on the stage, they were not allowed to be part of the regular crowd or mingle with the white throng; admission to the Cotton Club was strictly limited to whites. This was an example of how the white population discriminated the black people but embraced their music and part of their culture. American cities, like New Orleans, New York, and Chicago, were the birthplaces of jazz and allowed jazz to spread throughout the other states.
Another northern city that was also affected by the ‘big bang’ of jazz music and its culture was Chicago. This was also a scene where prohibition loomed and nightclubs defied it. Big jazz bands were many times features in lavish shows put on in cabarets. Many Chicago residents turned to these destinations in search of a fun night. For many city-dwellers, joining the jazz scene was a way of protesting against prohibition. “Biting and incisive, jazz personified this protest, this direct, raw approach to life, which offended the “solid” citizen and was looked upon as sinful by puppeteers and preachers and as cheap and tawdry by small-minded classicists”(Dexter 34).
Chicago was not only the scene of protest against prohibition, but also the place where many young musicians moved to with a goal to start and succeed at their own musical careers. Many prospered, but many more did not; Chicago became such a hotbed for jazz, that there were too many musicians trying to spread their sounds. One of the places where musicians could go to listen and talk to other musicians was the Three Deuces (later known as the Off-Beat Club). It was a “convenient and cheap place to meet and jam between jobs…” (Dexter 38). When jazz was on the verge of expansion, numerous small clubs appeared in many cities were jazz musicians could congregate and listen to different songs and interpretations.
The invention of the “talkie”, an early form of the jukebox, had a great impact on the spread of jazz. At first, many musicians had no idea how the talkie could revolutionize the music scene. At this time, the only way to listen to music was to presence it live. The talkie allowed for a raunchy reproduction of several tunes, which became the perfect tool for the spread of the popularity of jazz. These talkies were soon spotted and nightclubs, diners, bars, and other locations, for their customers to listen to jazz (or any form of music) freely. The talkie sparked a new interest for jazz, which later led to the dispersion of many musicians from Chicago who moved on to accept jobs in other cities (especially New York). The invention of the talkie gave people from all around the country access to jazz anytime they pleased.
Jazz owes all its fame, glory, and expansion to the great cities of the 1920’s America. Full of diverse people, vast places for entertainment, the radio and a more educated populace that yielded more tolerance to new ideas and forms of expression, cities opened their doors to jazz and all that this new music represented. They were responsible in allowing for the formation of jazz to what it is today; embedded in the American culture, jazz has become the only true American form of music. Though often challenged by close-mindedness, jazz managed to prosper. Jazz has not only maintained its original form through the interpretation of some talented musicians but it has also evolved to influence the popular music of today.
Anderson, Maureen. “White Reception of Jazz in America.” African American Review.
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Dexter Jr., Dave. The Jazz Story: from the ’90s to the ’60s.
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
Peretti, Burton W. Jazz in American Culture.
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.
Peretti, Burton W. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
“Roaring Twenties – History in the Key of Jazz.” PBS – Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns.
7 September 2004. Weinstock, Len. “The Origins of Jazz.” The Red Hot Jazz Archive.
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