In the Old West, honky tonks were a mixture of bawdy music hall, cheap dance hall and brothel. They were lawless, violent places most of the time.
Where the saloon had its own social role in that it offered a place for men to meet up, socialise and exchange information on events inside the community and work (it often double up as post office), the honky tonk was really a den with no recognizable positive quality.
But there was music. The honky tonk was often a piano bar where a music related to ragtime was played. The pianos in those establishments were often poorly taken care for and were out of tune – when keys weren’t altogether missing. Thus this music would emphasise rhythm more than melody or harmony. It tended to be very straightforward.
These distinctive characteristics made honky tonk music evolve into a genre of its own and later acquired a kind of middle-brow status.
Because African Americans were barred more attractive work possibilities, most musicians played, and learned to play, in honky tonks, and here’s where jazz most probably acquired a few of its characteristics.
Honky tonks were working class places with a reputation for fleecing their customers and like saloons, they catered exclusively for men. They offered music and even shows where vocalists and dancers often mingled with patrons in what was a very basic form of communal creation. Later, they became very popular for jam sessions. Many early jazzmen remembered honky tonks with great fondness.
Neil Powell, The Language of Jazz. Routledge, 2000
World Wide Words – Honky Tonk