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Billie Holiday in Performance
Jazz ExchangeSpeakeasies
Speakeasies The Carroll Dickerson Band at the Sunset Café in Chicago, 1922
Other Jazz Exchange Sections
Speakeasies

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio sample Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)
Clarence Williams' Blue Five

Recorded January 8, 1925
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


The Roaring Twenties began on a dry note on January 29, 1920, at 12:01 a.m. when the 18th Amendment was put into effect. The Anti-Saloon League of New York and others who wanted to make the sale and manufacture of alcohol illegal — thereby combating the related moral and social ills associated with drinking — had successfully lobbied Congress to pass the amendment. Prohibition had begun.

As law enforcement officials shut down saloons across the country, speakeasies — illegal bars — sprouted up quickly. They were given their unique name for the need to whisper, or "speak easy," as patrons attempted to cross their illegal thresholds. A secret knock, password or handshake could get a prospective drinker through a door that appeared to lead to an ordinary apartment, deli, tailor, or soda shop. Once inside, however, there was plenty of drinking and entertainment, including torch singers, cabaret singers, and vaudeville acts.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
Hear the quote below:
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


The growth of speakeasies had tremendous ramifications for the development of jazz. As the critic Gary Giddins explained,
Then in 1920, the best thing that could have happened for jazz, they passed the most idiotic law in the history of the United States, prohibition... Well, from a handful of saloons around the country, you now have thousands and thousands of speakeasies, especially in all the major cities. I mean, at one point in New York City alone, Manhattan had 5,000 speakeasies. And in the competition, you want to bring in people, you have music. So suddenly, there's work. There's tons of work for jazz musicians. Also, Prohibition is loosening up morals. It's doing exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Women, for example, did not drink in saloons. They sure drank in speakeasies ... So the Jazz Age became a kind of umbrella term to this whole loosening up, this whole lubrication thanks to Prohibition when everybody was drinking more than they should just to defy an absolutely unenforceable law.
By the late 1920s, it was obvious that Prohibition was failing. Bootleggers made gin and bribed public officials in order to keep their businesses thriving. More people were drinking than ever before. Many Americans challenged the law by carrying hidden flasks, though some drinkers paid a high price for this illegal habit, dying of wood alcohol poisoning. The social ills caused by the consumption of alcohol worsened as gang murders, turf wars, and booze smuggling became commonplace. Controlling the presence of speakeasies was futile. They opened as quickly as they were shut down. Finally, on February 20, 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition. Herbert Hoover and other republicans referred to the Prohibition Era as a "noble experiment," and as legal bars, saloons and clubs opened once again, speakeasies became a memory of the past.