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, it arose fierce opposition and hot support.
Detractors thought jazz was messy and unprofessional – when they didn’t dismissed it altogether as just noise – 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 that were notoriously tide to bootlegging rings. Many performers found themselves on gangsters’ payroll. Bad.
Black-and-tan clubs would allowed both black and white patrons and in some of these establishments 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 age jazz played in nightclubs.
By the end of the 1920s, at least 60 communities across the United State 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