The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz When the new sound of jazz first spread across America in the early twentieth-century, it left delight and controversy in its wake. The more popular it became, the more the liberating and sensuous music was criticized by everyone and everything from carmaker Henry Ford to publications like the Ladies Home Journal and The New York Times. Yet jazz survived.
Dubbed by conservatives as “the devil’s music,” the 1920s era can be examined to determine the evolution of jazz music from a radically new and socially unacceptable musical genre to its current status as a great American art form. What was it about the music that offended so many people-and how did jazz finally gain widespread acceptance? Does this struggle for respect resonate with modern musical artists like the creators of rap?
Jazz was different because it broke the rules -- musical and social. It featured improvisation over traditional structure, performer over composer, and black American experience over conventional white sensibilities. Undercurrents of racism bore strongly upon the opposition to jazz, which was seen as barbaric and immoral. Before jazz emerged, many music educators -- worried that jazz would destroy young people's interest in classical music -- tried to convince the public that European classical music was the only "good music." Jazz musician Marian McPartland recalls the stigma of the jazz sound by illustrating how the genre was originally not socially acceptable, nor allowed in the conservative school system of the 1920s: "One day I was in a practice room supposedly practicing classical music, but I was playing some jazz and, I guess my professor heard me because he opened the door and looked in and said, 'stop playing that trash.'"
But the music played on. New Orleans became the first center of jazz, with honky-tonk clubs popping up all over Storyville, the city's red-light district. Because black musicians were not allowed to play in "proper" establishments like their white counterparts, jazz became associated with brothels and other less reputable venues. In 1917, when the US Navy, fearing for the health and safety of sailors who frequented the jazz clubs, shut down these jazz venues, throwing the composers, singers, and musicians out into the streets. However, in the same year, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band -- an all white group from New Orleans -- cut the first jazz record, bringing the music to a national audience and opening the door for sound-alike white bands to cash in on the jazz scene.
As jazz's popularity grew, so did campaigns to censor "the devil's music." Early detractors like Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, ridiculed jazz, saying it sounded better played backwards. A Cincinnati home for expectant mothers won an injunction to prevent construction of a neighboring theater where jazz would be played, convincing a court that the music was dangerous to fetuses. By the end of the 1920s, at least sixty communities across the nation had enacted laws prohibiting jazz in public dance halls.
While the critics and the courts failed to silence jazz, the growing demand for labor following World War I managed to expand its influence. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled the South to find work in industrial cities to the north during the teens and early twenties. Artists need an audience, so musicians from New Orleans and other Southern cities flocked north as well, bringing jazz with them. Chicago became the new center of jazz with more than 100 clubs dotting the city's South Side. "Midnight was like day," wrote poet Langston Hughes, referring to the city's music-filled nightlife.
The advent of Prohibition in 1920 brought jazz into gangster-run nightclubs -- the only venues that served alcohol and hired black musicians. Whites and blacks began mixing socially for the first time in the Black and Tan clubs of Chicago. White youth from all social classes were drawn to jazz and the seductive new dances that went along with it. With the help of the monkey glide, the turkey trot, and the Charleston, they were moved by the music, figuratively and literally. This newfound physical freedom, combined with the illicit mix of races and the widespread belief that jazz stimulated sexual activity, caused critics of jazz to step up their efforts. "Jazz was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds," proclaimed Ann Shaw Faulkner, president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, a powerful alliance of women's social and reform groups that launched a crusade against jazz in 1921.
But the reformers couldn't fight progress. Jazz recordings allowed the music to reach beyond the nightclubs. New York radio and recording companies began to dominate the music industry, replacing Chicago as the center of jazz. In the 1920s, the black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance began, solidifying the city's position at the epicenter of African American culture. Although jazz was an important part of this movement, not all blacks were fans of the music, including W. E. B. DuBois, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, who was said to prefer Beethoven and "Negro" spirituals to jazz. "There is no question that black people themselves were the ones saying we have to uphold the standards of European culture," explains scholar and cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson. "Upper-class Negroes were, you know, inveighing [angrily critiquing] against the vicious nature of that gutter, ghetto Negro music."
The 1920s also marked the self-coronation of the "King of Jazz," a white bandleader named Paul Whiteman. Although many blacks and whites criticized Whiteman for co-opting and sanitizing jazz, his recordings, which linked his syncopated sound to European symphonic music, sold millions. While Whiteman was getting rich, Louis Armstrong -- the true jazz genius -- arrived in New York City, where he played to a smaller, but loyal audience of fans and fellow musicians who understood that they were witnessing a new revolution in jazz. Armstrong soon emerged as a star attraction, achieving popular success on the New York stage. Although his fan base was well established by the end of the decade, Armstrong's record company suggested he change suggestive lyrics to avoid offending his white audiences.
The Devil's Music features another jazz great of the century, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, who created a sensation when he toured England in 1933. By the time Ellington hit the scene, classical musicians and music critics alike were analyzing jazz and declaring it a serious art form.
But even today, the controversy over gangster rap and explicit song lyrics suggests that concern still exists over the effect that some African American popular music may have on its listeners. "Unless we speak against this [rap music], it will creep continually into our society and destroy the morals of our young people," declares Reverend Calvin Butts. William Bennett of Empower America says, "I think that nothing less is at stake than preservation of civilization. This stuff by itself won't bring down civilization but it doesn't help." "It's controversial because it provides something different," sums up rap artist Chuck D. "It's a different point of view."