Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1917. If only these kids had used their singular gifts to fight crime, not perpetrate it. No doubt it was the frequenting of “jazz cabarets” that steered them off the path of righteousness.
I apologize for the lack of new content this week. It’s because my p.o.s. Hewlett-Packard computer, barely 6 months old, is in the shop for repairs. In the meantime I’m using an ancient and borrowed Mac running OS 10.3.9, and I’m damned if I can get it to do what I need it to in order to process my clippings for the blog. It’s a bummer and a headache.
In the meantime, for want of fresh old news, I figured I’d do something a bit different. It’s come to my attention that a professor of Communications at Albion College is making pedagogical use of this popular post, Jazz-A Drug, for an undergrad course on media and entertainment. I was flattered to see the Hope Chest added to a syllabus of higher learning, but then the other night I ran across the blog of Albion student Ellie R. which shed some interesting depressing light on the interpretive use to which the item was being put in the classroom. I quote:
“Two factors must be closely examined when looking at the article. First, it is an influential black newspaper, and secondly, it was written in 1925. These factors are so important because, they highlight the racial issues at that time; during a period when in America blacks were definite second-class citizens if not worse.
In class we compared it to the theory of Marxism, in this case the blacks are the proletariats, and the whites are the bourgeoisies. The paper is instructing blacks to shun a music their own people are credited with creating, in an effort to mimic the whites who shun the music as seeing jazz as a non-white commodity.”
Not to put too fine a point on it (nor to snipe at Ellie R., who can’t be faulted for paying attention in class), but this is a deeply vulgar and simplistic spin to put on the clipping in question. It’s also one that speaks to a bugbear of mine, which is the lazy, ahistorical and presumptuous habits of the average academic in addressing popular culture. So, in the spirit of pro bono public service, I thought I would offer an alternative reading of the item for the possible benefit of Ellie R. and her classmates at Albion. So listen up, kids: This won’t be on the exam, but it may help you in future efforts to make sense of the past and maybe even the present.
First, you have to understand that jazz in the 1920s (aka The Jazz Age) was a self-consciously and defiantly counter-cultural phenomenon. It’s hard for us to listen to this paleo-jazz music today and perceive it as dangerous and sexy and threatening. To us, it sounds charmingly organic and acoustic and quaint. But in its time, it was intended by performers and perceived (by fans and haters alike) as very, very naughty indeed. It was associated with defiance of Prohibition and sexual immorality and what then passed for dirty dancing. Like gangsta rap today, it was the soundtrack of thug life, because gangsters controlled the nightclubs where it was played. The music itself originated in the Teens in houses of prostitution. In fact, the word “jazz” derives from the slang term “jass,” which was a synonym or precursor to “jizz.” (For a revealing audio snapshot of the environment in which jazz was born, check out this awesome recording of Jelly Roll Morton playing The Dirty Dozens–NSFW!– which is a song he first heard in a Chicago brothel in the early Teens.) It’s only much later on that jazz became respectable, unpopular, and dependent upon philanthropic support.
Second: It’s goofy and simplistic to reduce Dr. Rawlins to a puppet of white bourgeois hegemony. Rawlins is a doctor, which is to say that he was bourgeois himself. And the black bourgeoisie of this era was morbidly concerned with maintaining respectability–even more so than their white counterparts. There were good reasons for this, because racial segregation made it harder for middle-class blacks to insulate themselves from the black lower classes, and the black lower classes included some pretty scary elements due to the higher levels of poverty among the black population. Suppose, for example, you were a middle-class black person and you wanted to travel somewhere on business. You couldn’t stay in a whites-only hotel, and the separate accommodations for blacks could be pretty rough in places where the Jim Crow economy wasn’t big and diverse enough to offer alternatives to both middle-class business travelers and locals enjoying what was known as “the sporting life.”
Third: It wasn’t just status-anxious middle-class blacks who recoiled from jazz. Religious conservatives among the black working class (both industrial and agricultural) would have seen it as immoral and profane and sinful. That’s an attitudinal split between the sacred and profane that persists into well into the 20th century. For such people, church music (spirituals and later gospel music) was the only acceptable music.
Fourth: It’s extremely presumptuous for us, in the present, to look back at jazz-hating black people in the 1920s and indict them for “mimicking” white cultural values. (If I wanted to, I could score a cheap shot here by calling this position “racist,” but I’d just be lowering myself to the prevailing standards of the academic argument. So instead I’ll just call it “essentialist,” which among academics is to racism what manslaughter is to murder in the human realm.) Did the external weight of white cultural values play a part in creating these divisions? Inevitably. But to reduce the conflict to white hegemony and black false consciousness is just plain nuts. You wouldn’t argue today that Jessye Norman is obliged to love hip-hop by the fact that she’s black, or that Henry Louis Gates properly ought to know how to throw up a decent burner.
Fifth: It’s probably worth mentioning that Marxism has been traditionally hostile to jazz. The leading Marxist cultural critics of the 20th century were a bunch of pop culture-hating old poops known as the Frankfurt School, and they hated jazz with a particular passion, even more than most forms of popular entertainment. Most American Marxists followed the Frankfurt line in espousing the European classical tradition as the only valid musical form. Later on, so-called “folk” music was added to the canon of musical virtue. But jazz represented decadence to Marxists until it lost its popularity. Then they started hating on rhythm and blues, which took over from jazz as the cutting-edge of musical immorality.
Anyway, I hope I’ve helped to confuse the issue for you. Good luck with the semester. Drop a line if you need help with your term papers.
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1933. The guy was right about jazz in the long term, wrong about ballyhoo. Though it seems kind of inconsiderate for a man in his position to go gunning after someone else’s racket. You wouldn’t catch Hoagy Carmichael or Fletcher Henderson saying “The Episcopal Church is all washed up, see? Nobody wants their down-market knock-off of Papism anymore.”
New York Times, November 7, 1926. I seem to have accidentally captured the attention of the global jazz community with some of my recent, music-related posts, so I figured I’d cut a few more swaths from that very same rug. The above passage is my all-time favorite thing ever written by a Frenchman about American popular culture. I’m not exactly sure who the author is, and will leave readers to decipher this tortured attribution for themselves: “Messieurs Schaeffner and Coeuroy, writing in La Revue Musicale, quote parts from a volume entitled “Jazz,” which appeared in Claude Aveline’s collection of Modern Music.” (As Slim Gaillard would ask, “Is that clear-o-vouty?”)
Anyway, it goes practically without saying that the French intelligentsia were way out in front of their American counterparts in taking jazz seriously. About the only prominent American thinker writing positively about jazz in the 1920s (as opposed to spreading moral panic about it) was Gilbert Seldes, author of the 1924 landmark treatise on pop culture, The Seven Lively Arts. But all Seldes was basically saying was that jazz was another valid musical idiom among many and that the best of it was good clean fun. Leave it to the French to equate jazz with the zeitgeist and limn the ectoplasmic links between the banjo, aviation and “tall, supple girls, the pride of commercial firms, ascending in flashing elevators, with their arms full of official papers.”
Above all, I love the sepia-toned techno-futurism of the thing. Magnetos! Electric fans! Air machines! Zut alors!
If anyone can bring me up to speed on those intriguing “red pantaloons in the woods of Meudon,” please drop a line.
I’ll run some more of this crazy Gallic balloon juice in a bit. Right now I’ve got some deadlines to meet.
The New York Amsterdam News, April 11, 1923. Here’s more anti-jazz moral panic from E. E. “Uneasy” Rawlins, M.D. Seems the good doctor had no Hippocratic scruples about recycling his prose from one year to the next. Tsk tsk! But this piece is actually a bit more shrill then its 1925 sequel. Basically he’s calling for God’s wrath (aka “History”) to punish a wicked jazz-besotted nation and bring it back to moral bedrock. By 1925 he’s saying “Safe–when used in moderation.”
Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1921. I think we all instinctively feel the same way about “brown spirit rays,” whatever their source. Then again, if Egyptian mummies turn out to be the primary or sole source of these brown emanations, then charges of Orientalism are sure to follow. In that case, our very favorite color of spiritual radiation is brown–we don’t want any trouble from the late Edward Said’s ronin bodyguards.
The New York Amsterdam News, April 1, 1925. The Amsterdam News was another influential black newspaper, somewhat stodgier than the Chicago Defender.
Like anyone else concerned about “respectability,” middle-class black people in the 1920s were not warmly receptive to jazz, which at the time was signified as the equivalent of gangsta rap, punk rock and death metal rolled into one. It was simply the most depraved thing to happen to music since ragtime. So here’s the paper’s medical columnist warning his public about the addictive and soul-destroying properties of this dangerous music.
Detroit News, March 28, 1931. This is a perennial news item throughout the Twenties and Thirties: Some credentialed highbrow wishfully announces for the millionth time the imminent death of jazz. Today, of course, jazz qualifies as cultural spinach of the highest nutritive value, and nobody listens to it but credentialed highbrows. Oh, the irony of it all.
P.S. I did not know that about cottonseed meal and trout.
Detroit News, 1931. This is satirical comment on crooners like Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, whose intimate new vocal style was made possible by the invention of the microphone. Like all things related to jazz, crooning was widely seen as a terrible source of cultural pollution.
I sort of love how labored this kind of humor is. By the time we get to the punchline, the dead-horse set-up has not just been whipped but pureed into equine guacamole. And the repetitive image of the straight man shielding his eyes against the brilliance of the singer’s diamond tie pin is so dumb it’s genius.