The Devil Made Me Dance; Jazz’s Impact on Prohibition

The Devil Made Me Dance; Jazz’s Impact on Prohibition

During Prohibition, and especially in Chicago, jazz was a cultural touchstone that riled just as many in anger as it did others on the dance floor.  What was it about jazz that caused Thomas Edison to say that jazz would sound better played backwards?  What led to a Cincinnati home for pregnant women to claim that it had a detrimental impact on fetuses?  (No, seriously, that happened!)

You have to get honest about who we were as a country in the 1920’s to understand the reasons jazz was considered the “devil’s music.”  Jazz was played by African Americans in a Jim Crowe south where reality was determined by the pre-World War I generation.  When the Navy shut down the epicenter of jazz in New Orleans, it migrated north into burgeoning new cities like Chicago.  Once it hit Chicago, just like every other prohibited activity, the mob grabbed it and brought it into speakeasies and gin joints populated by the young, white crowds looking to break all the rules.  Here, the new generation learned dances that shocked their parents and the parents blamed the music.  But was it ever really the music?  Or was it white kids dancing with African American kids?

You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado in the 21st century to understand that this was never about the actual notes being played.  Parents have always feared that the crap their kids listen to is damaging their brains and turning them into hippies, dead-heads, and twerkers.  The country hasn’t changed that much.  But this was more about where the kids were and who they were with on a Saturday night than Louis Armstrong’s trumpeting.

Jazz also broke rules in ways that the older generation found offensive.  Of course it was the young people that looked to music as a way to break free from the rules.  Jazz was built on improvisation.  Big bands of the earlier generation followed musical rules and had sheets of music.  Jazz musicians just jammed and the lack of predictability and tradition was unsettling to those watching the world change after WWI.

Was it any different than the anti-war protests of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s?  The legalization of marijuana in the new ‘20’s?  Every generation wants to shock their parents and jazz was doing that, but it also changed the country.  Jazz was sexy and thrilling and broke down Victorian notions of purity.  It gave women an opportunity to embrace sexuality, smoke and drink in public, and fraternize with the types of men their mothers’ would disapprove of and what is more thrilling than that?  This is a time in American history where there is no internet, no music sharing files, no YouTube to expand your cultural horizons.  You had to go to where the music was being played, and that was like walking through the looking glass.

Yes, jazz changed the country because it redefined the American comfort zone.  And if we want to feel that way again, we might have to step away from our music streaming services and, you know, go to where the music is being played!

Written by Amy Williams

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