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Dizzy Gillespie on 52nd St sign post, NYC
Jazz in TimeRoaring Twenties
Roaring Twenties, History in the key of jazz Flappers dancing
Other Jazz in Time Sections
Roaring Twenties

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 decade following World War I would one day be caricatured as "the Roaring Twenties," and it was a time of unprecedented prosperity — the nation's total wealth nearly doubled between 1920 and 1929, manufactures rose by 60 percent, for the first time most people lived in urban areas — and in homes lit by electricity. They made more money than they ever had before and, spurred on by the giant new advertising industry, spent it faster, too — on washing machines and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, 12 million radios, 30 million automobiles, and untold millions of tickets to the movies, that ushered them into a new fast-living world of luxury and glamour their grandparents never could have imagined. Meanwhile, at the polls and in the workplace as well as on the dance floor, women had begun to assert a new independence.

Parisian Redheads
The Parisian Red Heads, 1927
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Nothing quite like it had ever happened before in America. And by the mid-1920s, jazz was being played in dance halls and roadhouses and speakeasies all over the country. The blues, which had once been the product of itinerant black musicians, the poorest of the southern poor, had become an industry, and dancing consumed a country that seemed convinced prosperity would never end. There were "all-girl" orchestras on the road now — including Babe Egan's Hollywood Red Heads, a band billed as the Twelve Vampires, and the Parisian Red Heads, all of whom actually came from Indiana. More than 100 dance bands regularly criss-crossed the wide-open spaces between St. Louis and Denver, Texas and Nebraska, playing one-nighters. They were called "territory bands" — the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks; the Alphonso Trent and Doc Ross and Troy Floyd and Benny Moten Orchestras; the Deluxe Melody Boys and Happy Black Aces; Jesse Stone's Blue Serenaders; George E. Lee and his Singing Novelty Orchestra; Walter Page and his Blue Devils; and Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy. "People didn't think anything about going 150 to 200 miles to dance back in those times," one territory band veteran remembered. They'd say, "We came 200 miles to see y'all."

Meanwhile, radio and phonograph records — Americans bought more than 100 million of them in 1927 — were bringing jazz to locations so remote that no band could reach them. And the music itself was beginning to change — an exuberant, collective music was coming to place more and more emphasis on the innovations of supremely gifted individuals. Improvising soloists, struggling to find their own voices and to tell their own stories, were about to take center stage.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On Prohibition, speakeasies and Jazz
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


But for many of the millions of people for whom the 1920s never roared at all, fearful of such rapid change and nostalgic for the small-town America of the turn of the century, jazz music came to seem not merely an annoyance but a threat, one more cause of loosening morals and frightening dislocation. Ragtime had been bad enough, with its insinuating rhythms and daring couple-dancing, but the jumpy, rancorous version of New Orleans polyphony projected by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and many of its imitators seemed much worse. "As I understand it," said Professor Henry Van Dyck of Princeton University, "it is not music at all. It is merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion. Its fault lies not in syncopation, for that is a legitimate device when sparingly used. But "jazz" is an unmitigated cacophony, a combination of disagreeable sounds in complicated discords, a willful ugliness and a deliberate vulgarity." The editor of Musical Courier reported on a poll of academically trained musicians: most found "the 'ad libbing' or 'jazzing' of a piece ... thoroughly objectionable," he said, "and several of them advanced the opinion that this Bolshevistic smashing of the rules and tenets of decorous music" spelled disaster for American music.

Entertainer at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem, 1929
Entertainer at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem, 1929
Image courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettman

For some, jazz simply became synonymous with noise. Thomas Edison, whose invention of the phonograph had made its sudden rapid spread possible, claimed that he played jazz records backward because "they sound better that way." When the New York Times reported that the citizens of one Siberian village had driven hungry polar bears from its streets by banging pots and pans, the headline read "Jazz Frightens Bears," and when a celebrated British conductor collapsed while visiting Coney Island, the same paper blamed the jazz bands — now loudly competing with one another along boardwalk — for his demise.

Jazz — and the dancing it inspired — was also said to be having a catastrophic impact on the national character. "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls," reported the New York American, "through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras." In just two years in Chicago alone, the Illinois Vigilance Association reported in 1923, the downfall of one thousand girls could be traced directly to the pernicious influence of jazz music. In Cincinnati, the Salvation Army obtained a court injunction to stop construction of a theater next to a home for expectant mothers on the grounds that "the enforced proximity of a theater and jazz palace" would implant dangerous "jazz emotions" in helpless infants. A social worker reported on the "unwholesome excitement" she now encountered even at small-town dances in the Midwest. "Boy-and-girl couples leave the hall in a state of dangerous disturbance. Any worker who has gone into the night to gather the facts of activities outside the dance hall is appalled ... by the blatant disregard of even the elementary rules of civilization ... We must expect a few casualties in social discourse, but the modern dance is producing little short of holocaust."

Beyond its disturbing sounds, its fast pace, and its supposed impact on morals, jazz was also condemned because of its origins. Many white older Americans were appalled to see their children dancing to music that was believed to have emerged from what the music critic of the New York Herald Tribune called "the Negro brothels of the South." "Jazz," said the editor of Etude, "is often associated with vile surroundings, filthy words, unmentionable dances." It was originally "the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer," declared Mrs. Max Obendorfer, national music chairman of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, "stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds ... [It] has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate barbarity and sensuality." Blacks were not the sole sources of the jazz contagion. The critic Carl Engel also worried about the effects on Anglo-Saxon youth of what he called "Semitic purveyors of Broadway melodies," while Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent blamed what it called "the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes" on sinister Jews.

There was nothing new in these attitudes. Twenty years earlier, many whites had deplored ragtime in part because it was based on black songs and dances, just as their descendants would one day denounce rock 'n' roll because of its links to the African-American blues tradition. But something altogether new really was happening here and there across the country. A few white youths — living in small towns and comfortable suburbs as well as big-city slums — started to see more than mere novelty and excitement in this new primarily black music, began actually to hear their own feelings mirrored in the playing of African-Americans, and to look for ways they might participate in it themselves. In a country in which by law and custom blacks and whites were forbidden to compete on anything like an equal basis in any arena — even boxing (the heavyweight title was then off-limits to black challengers) — these young men were willing to brave a brand new world created by black Americans and in which black musicians remained the most admired figures.