Jazz was the Sound of the Speakeasies

“Jazz signified revolt against sweet-tempered parlor music and polite entertainment, and defiance against Prohibition and Puritanism of all kinds.” (Streissguth, p. 116) “The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow- from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air…It is the revolt of the emotions against repression.” (Moore, P. 57, quoting J. A. Rogers) Classical composer and conductor, Leopold Stokowski, summed up jazz’s appeal as follows:” Jazz has come to stay because it is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, super active times in which we are living, it is useless to fight against it…[Negro musicians]are pathfinders into new realms.” (Moore, p. 57)

Jazz originated in New Orleans out of “Ragtime” and “The Blues”. It combined the rhythm and drumbeat of Africa with the instruments and heritage of Europe. It added a dash from the spirituals of the black Protestant churches and from the talents of some black musical geniuses who could be heard in the street bands [of New Orleans] and nightclubs. (Hakim, p. 267). Jazz drifted up the Mississippi River on riverboats to Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis and east to Harlem, NY. (TFC, 78; Reader’s Digest, p. 394) Each location added something new or different to the sound of basic New Orleans style jazz. For example, in the Chicago style, trumpets, which replaced coronets, and clarinets carried the melody, while rhythm parts were taken over by piano players. The saxophone replaced the clarinet, and the standup base was used instead of the tuba. (Streissguth, p. 117).

Harlem was the Mecca of the jazz scene: “I would say that the Cotton Club, in some respects, represented the epitome of what the literary and cultural mavens called the Jazz Age. You were not considered part of the hip crowd, or the cognoscenti, as the literary people would say, if you didn’t conclude a night on the town with a trip to Harlem. There was always a visit to Harlem at the end of the night to get the real thing.” (Jennings, p. 135, quoting Howard “Stretch” Johnson.)

But, Harlem and its jazz clubs, were the playground of the rich whites from downtown Manhattan. The well-known Clubs catered exclusively to white clients. Claude McKay called Harlem an “all-white picnic ground”, and Langston Hughes said Harlem was the “bookie, bootlegger and bordello to white downtown”. (Moore 62-63)

Dominant jazz performers during the Twenties included Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, Bessie Smith – “Empress of the Blues”- who in 1924 was earning $1,500 a week (Moore, P. 49), Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Ma Rainey, Eubie Blake, pseudo-jazzman Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin of “Rhapsody in Blue” fame.

Famous producer of historical documentaries, Ken Burns, developed a three-part series on the The Jazz Era entitled “Prohibition”. The program featured “speakeasy music” such as the following songs: “Davenport Blues” – Bix Beiderbecke, https://youtu.be/iurxEyqcueg ; “Just a Little Drink”, Paul Whiteman Orchestra, https://youtu.be/vxoqPSFc1fc; “Black and Tan Fantasy”, Duke Ellington, https://youtu.be/GN3_c1OnA3s; “Knockin’ A Jug”, Louis Armstrong, https://youtu.be/gpVahZEmoFI; and, “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)”,  Bessie Smith https://youtu.be/hbQEapPrjGM . https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2011/09/26/140806996/five-jazz-sides-for-the-age-of-prohibition

Recognizing that Prohibition was being disregarded and that it resulted in organized crime, on May 20, 1929, President Herbert Hoover established The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (aka The Wickersham Commission after former attorney general George W. Wickersham who chaired the 11-member group.) The Commission studied Prohibition and made recommendations for appropriate public policy. Not surprisingly, the Commission determined that Prohibition was ineffective largely because police failed to enforce it. The Commission concluded that Prohibition should be repealed.

Newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams reflected public opinion in the following ditty: “Prohibition is an awful flop, we like it; It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop, we like it; It’s left a trail of graft and slime; It don’t prohibit worth a dime; It’s filled our land with vice and crime, Nevertheless, we’re for it.” Even some proponents admitted that the 18th Amendment resulted in “evil consequences.” The Rev. Sam Small, an evangelist and temperance advocate, said that Prohibition had created “an orgy of lawlessness and official corruption.” John D. Rockefeller, a teetotaler, observed in 1932, “drinking has generally increased, the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, and a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale.” The “noble experiment” ended at 3:32 p.m., December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition.

“Prohibition is a Failure”, New Lost City Ramblers, expresses the reality of Prohibition’s ineffectiveness. https://youtu.be/8v9l6_OIi0I

Prohibition is a failure as anyone can see
For whiskey is sold in every town in the good ol’ USA
Oh, the policeman will arrest you, he’ll lock you up in jail
He’ll drink up all your liquor, and turn you out on bail.

I’m going back to Georgia, to join the drinking clan
Where whiskey is made of Red Seal Lye and sold in old tin cans
Where the men they drink and gamble, and the women quarrel and fight
And the saloons they run wide open, and a man’s killed every night.

Oh the moonshiners in the mountains, they operate the stills
They’re true blue to each other, what they say they’ll do, they will
They all carry six-shooters, shotguns and bowie knives
And the man who tries to raid them is sure to lose his life.

Oh the city dude he makes home brew, most anyone can learn
He takes a can of old malt syrup and an old-fashioned churn
He adds a cake of yeast or two and he lets it work and foam
And a bottle or two on a Saturday night, he’ll sing ‘My Home Sweet Home’.

Oh at the next election, I’m sure you all will see
We’ll have light wines and good ol’ beer in 1933
And if we do not get it, I’m tellin’ you and you
We’ll make our own home liquor, and drink our old home brew.