In the Twenties, everybody danced to jazz. Everybody listened to jazz. Musicians wanted to learn jazz. Recording industries and the showbiz wanted to make money off of jazz.
So everybody noticed jazz and started to think about jazz. Big trouble ensued.
As the popularity of jazz rose through the decade, a jazz controversy emerged, arising fierce opposition as well as hot support.
Detractors thought jazz was messy and unprofessional – when they didn’t dismiss it altogether as just noise. It was produced by low-class elements of society – that meant mostly African Americans – who had little or no musical education and relied on improvisation and playing ’by head’ because they could not read music.
Lovers hailed it as a profoundly new way to make music, the sound of their time, fast and exciting. A new language for a new century and a new society. They saw improvisation as the highest manifestation of freedom.
But however they thought about it, be it good or evil, critics on both sides agree that jazz was the symbol of the fundamental – and provocative – changes they were experiencing in their post-WWI urban, industrial society. It strongly connected to their time.
Detractors of jazz actually had a lot to bring to the table… so they thought.
First of all, jazz was clearly evil since it had first emerged in shady places, like brothels and honky-tonks. And as the Teens turned into the Twenties, it didn’t go any better.
Jazz would be performed mostly in nightclubs and speakeasies, establishments notoriously tide to bootlegging rings. Many performers found themselves on gangsters’ payroll. Bad.
Black-and-tan clubs would allow both black and white patrons, and in some of them, there was no restriction to free mixing and dancing. Very bad.
If this were not enough, jazz was thought to be barbaric, to take down moral barriers and stimulate sexual activity. Besides the dances that jazz inspired were quite plainly very sexy. This was, of course, a great danger for young people, most of all women. Who, by the way, were never allowed into saloons, but now frequented speakeasies, drank and danced, just like – and together with – men. Very very bad.
As jazz became ever more popular, community groups, as well as groups of private citizens, asked for a regulation of the music. In 1927 the Government finally issued the Radio Act, which encouraged the transmission of sanitized jazz rather than the more lively, more cutting-edge jazz played in nightclubs.
By the end of the 1920s, at least 60 communities across the United States had enacted laws prohibiting jazz from public halls.
One would think jazz was only music, after all. But detractors seem to fear jazz because it was different. It featured improvisation over tradition, performer over composer, and black American expression over conventional white sensibility. In short, it was subversive. But it was the language of a new era and a new society, and they could not snuff it.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
PBS – The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz
Quora – Why was jazz ocnsidered the devil’s music?
J Lenni Dorner
J here, of the #atozchallenge Arlee Bird’s A to Z Ambassador Team. Thanks for stopping by Arlee’s blog to comment on my Manhattan story.
How has the first week of the challenge been for you so far? Are you meeting your goals of posting and hopping to other blogs? Looking forward to Sunday off?
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I love that barbaric music! Funny how now it’s mostly considered a cultural, calm sort of music.
Yeah, but jazz as we listen to today is quite different from what it used to be in the 1920s. It’s more mellow, and I don’t think performances look anything like they used to be in the 1920s.
Though I jazzman I know (he’s Italian) frequents Nigerian clubs here in Verona and what he tells me about those – the kind of music and the kind of musicians/audience interaction – sounds a lot like what I’ve read about 1920s jazz.
J Lenni Dorner
That’s certainly true. It’s a big umbrella. Old Jazz, Smooth Jazz…
I like Nina Simone, personally.
I am enjoying this immensely!
Don’t let up! Keep it loud! Make it Jass! 🙂
LOL! Thanks my dear sir. And you, don’t give up on me 😉
hahahaa! these complaints seem so archaic today! of course, have you seen young people dance? it looks less like sex and more like convulsions.
Now, Pam… 😉
i KNOW!! my kids tell me to stop acting like a grandmother. a super cool grandmother, IMH.
GET OFF MY LAWN!!!
The establishment always fears what it cannot control and it clearly could not control jazz.
Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
That’s for sure 😉
Great stuff! 🙂
I don’t know if you follow DOWNTON ABBEY but I especially loved their segments during the Jazz Age. Hard for the older folks to adjust to!!!
Meet My Imaginary Friends
Actually, I’ve never followed that show, but I do know about it. ‘Jazz Age’ in Britain had a lot in common with American ‘Jazz Age’, from what I know. It was kind of different in continental Europe.
Jazz was the beginning of the end… the slippery slope that led to even more depravity… to Rock N’ Roll. Now in my day we did the waltz, but then that was considered almost outrageous.
The truth: love them all and glad society rebelled and embraced them. Innovation is always seen as rebellion. Just don’t forget what a crank does.
I do think jazz and rock n’ roll have a lot in common in terms of social impact. A lot of other ‘rebel’ music didn’t impact society in the same way. In my opinin.
Punk is one of those perhaps, although that might be me as I got selective around that time. And it has influenced other aspects of society.
Mhm, maybe. But I don’t see punk becoming so overwhelmingly ‘mainstream’ as jazz and rock n’ roll did.
Jazz and rock n’ roll influenced also the life of people who didn’t care for the music, because they were a larger movement. They expressed society as a whole, not just a section of it.
But this is just my feeling 😉
Agree with you, Sarah. Punk. as the name implies, is just a section of society.
It’s good to know Jazz won out. I love the music in all it’s many forms.
So, thinking of a ‘J’ letter for this challenge was a piece of cake for you I think. LOL
I never had a doubt what ‘J’ was going to be 😉
Loved this post! So informative and fun! I’m learning so much!!!!!
Thanks Tawnya. I’m happy you’re enjoying my theme 🙂
I feel like jazz is interwoven with women’s issues, definitely–for the first time, we were wearing shorter skirts, drinking, and dancing. Scandalous!
I feel like jazz in the 1920s was interwoven with most of what was changing. Not just women, but also African American awareness and freedom of expression. Facing a new life with different rhythms and expectations. Looking toward the future, rather than the past.
This is why jazz was so influential in the Jazz Age, I believe. It was not just about music. It was about an entire system of living.
Your description of Jazz in the 1920s is reminiscent of Rock and Roll in the 1950s. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change the more they stay the same.) This was a great read. Thanks! 🙂
Yes, as I’ve stated before, I believe 1920s jazz and 1950s rock n’ roll had a lot in common. Both were not just about music. They impacted an entire society.
Like Rock and Roll in the 50’s, Jazz was misunderstood and seen as decadent. The Nazis banned jazz as being non-Aryan music.
A to Z Challenge Co-host
And yet, it appears that the Nazis loved jazz too. I’ve heard that some Nazi hierarches had private jazz sessions performed specifically for them and their friends and guests.
It’s definitelly a very complex matter.
It is all kinds of ironic that in an era of blatant racism people would think that sex, music, and dancing were the greatest threat to society… XD I bet some people still think that way.
The Multicolored Diary
Well, I believe you’re mistaken. It wasn’t sex and dances the greatest threat to society. It was alcohol. I mean, they passed a ‘law’ against it 😉
I love that you included info about the controversy around jazz! It hasn’t always been revered and appreciated.
This was the agrument that really prompted the theme for this year’s challenge.
If you are interested in this, I’d reccomand Ogren’s book ‘The Jazz Revolution’, to which this theme is inspired. Truely intersting stuff 🙂
It’s always interesting to look back on what people of previous generations considered unacceptable, low-bred, too sexy, etc. In my own lifetime, I remember music videos like “Erotica” and “Justify My Love” being banned or only shown at certain hours, and yet today they seem so tame and tasteful. I don’t want to imagine what might someday make today’s hypersexual rap songs and ultra-violent movies look tame!
I suppose society gets accustomed to everything. And while sometimes this is a good thing, some other times it isn’t.
But then that’s why being aware of the past is so important: it help to create a perspective.