The “devil’s music” had such a powerful influence on American life in the 1920s that the decade is also known as the Jazz Age.
Jazz influenced fashion, dances, accepted moral standards, youth culture, race relations. But it could also be said that all these phenomena found fitting expression in jazz music and its way of performance. It’s truly very difficult to separate one from the other.
Although it’s universally accepted that jazz as a form of artistic expression was born in the South of the United States, most probably in New Orleans, the origin of jazz is still quite mysterious and shrouded in legend. Scholars tend to think it probably emerged from the mixing and evolution of different African and European forms of music that eventually created a completely new, different musical expression.
Jazz is very difficult to define because it brings together several different elements and styles. 1920s jazz, in particular, was about breaking the rules. Instead of following traditional music structure, it realises heavily on improvisation and personal interpretation, which may factor in the lyrics, melody, harmony, time signature and in fact any element of the music. In the Twenties, jazz made its own rules, and that was seen as corruptive, barbaric, disharmonic and downright ugly. At least by academics.
In the Twenties, most of the clubs were segregated and would only allow white bands in white clubs, though some very popular black bands played also in white clubs where black customers were not allowed. Black musicians were not allowed to play in most establishments, so they played where they could, which may be brothers, speakeasies and other venues of questionable repute. Because of this association with prostitution, alcohol, gambling and organised crime, jazz was considered immoral.
It also originated within the black community, and the most popular jazzmen were African Americans. Aspiring white jazzmen went to those speakeasies to listen and learn from them.
Still, there has always been a difference between black and white jazz, and this was particularly true in the earlier decades. Jazz, as interpreted by the black community, was a lot more involving and liberating. Lyrics were often very explicit on many levels, a rough language was common. Rhythms were syncopated, and especially the relation between performers and audience was fluid and tight. The “call-and-response” technique that worked between instruments inside the band also worked between performers and audience. Hence, the one influenced the other, continuously changing both the music and the audience’s reaction. This characteristic added to the perception that jazz – and especially black jazz – was barbaric and chaotic.
White jazz tended to be more sedate, and certainly, there wasn’t that element of “call-and-response”. The audience would listen to the performers, with very little interaction.
In a moment where behaviour, ways of thinking, lifestyle were breaking loose from the past, jazz, this so new, so cutting edge music, was the ideal soundtrack for this generation.
The People History – The 1920s
University of Chicago Library – Jazz
Academia – Influence of Jazz in Women’s Fashion and Society in the 1920s
PBS – The Devil’s Music: Jazz
The Guardian – A history of Jazz
All Music – 1920s Greatest Hits
Color line and jazz (pdf)
Gara, Larry, The Baby Dodds Story Edition: As Told by Larry Gara. Rebeats Pubblications, Alma (MI), 2003 (revised edition)
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989