The Jazz Age In America

 

 

 

It’s almost impossible to look back on the Jazz age and see it for what it was. One had to experience it, be a part of cultural, political and emotional upheaval of the times. Even for the participants of that era, it would be years before even they understood the events and ramifications of what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “…the most expensive orgy in history.”

Until I met Muriel, my impressions of the Jazz Age centered on music, the Charleston, flappers, bobbed hair, bathtub gin, and flaming youth gone wild.  While all of these elements were present during the 1920’s, there was also a sense of frustration, anger and cynicism sweeping the country because of the Victorian, heavy handed political and cultural structure which many felt were stifling and oppressive.

While writing Muriel’s bio, I delved more deeply into the background and events of the era that gave birth to that crazy, frenetic decade that Scott Fitzgerald coined “The Jazz Age.”  As a result of Muriel’s stories and hundreds of hours of research in libraries (oh, what I would have given for computer back then), I began to understand how the amazing Roaring 20’s blazed upon the cultural scene with all of the dignity and finesse of a lightning strike on a munitions dump—everything went up in flames, and it took ten years for the ashes to sift back down to earth!

It was the perfect storm. Several historic and far-reaching events in America overlapped and led up to the unrest and disillusionment that fueled the Jazz Age rebellion.  I have space for just a few of the major political and cultural challenges citizens were facing at the time.

World War I had just ended and left America still reeling from not only the tragic loss of thousands of lives, but with the thousands of wounded, especially those who had been gassed and would never fully recover.  What had they gained that compensated for the terrible loss?

During the war, the controversial 18th Amendment was passed. This law banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol, giving birth to speakeasies and gangsters who managed the market for booze throughout the 1920’s until the law was repealed in 1933.  It is said that Al Capone’s earnings stood at $60 million a year, plus millions more made by other gangsters and speakeasy owners.  People continued to drink liquor, they just had to pay more for it and risk getting caught.

Speaking of getting caught, I can’t help grinning as I remember Uncle Charlie’s story of my Grandma Russell taking an axe to Grandpa’s stash of blackberry wine in the smokehouse.  The pigs and chickens lapped it up and staggered out the door to sleep it off. Satisfied with her mission, Grandma relaxed in her rocker with her afternoon tonic…Lydia Pinkham’s Lady’s Tonic, which she ordered from Sears and was about 80% alcohol!  Unbowed, Grandpa hid his next batch in the loft of the barn!

The next big event was the 19th Amendment in 1920—finally giving women the right to vote after 72 years of struggle!  It is hard to imagine women not being able to vote, isn’t it?  I’ve voted in every election since I came of age—never missed a one. I can imagine how anxious those women were to cast their first vote. And what domestic discord it must have caused if they voted differently than their husbands. Hot on the heels of gaining a voice, female voters all over the country began to unite to clean up politics, improve society and end discrimination, surely a powerful force to be reckoned with. H. L. Mencken penned thousands of words about well meaning, but naïve “lady do-gooders.”

The younger generation was fighting to escape the Victorian Age mentality still prevalent in America with its harsh, judgmental edicts about social morals and artistic freedom.  Writers, artists, dancers and musicians were especially angered and outspoken, with many of them leaving the United States and becoming expatriates in Paris, where artistic freedom was nourished. American authors wrote scathing indictments on what they saw as the shallowness and narrow-mindedness in American life.

T.S.Elliott wrote that we were a nation awash in materialism and devoid of spiritual vitality. Sinclair Lewis added fuel to the fire when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 for his “Main Street” (1920) and “Babbitt” (1922), both satires on smugness and narrow minded complacency in small town America, causing a firestorm of angry protest from small towns throughout America!

Then there was H. L. Mencken, the acerbic editor of “Mercury Magazine” who wrote hundreds of essays mocking many aspects of American life.  He pounded away at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of WW I and the gangsters of the 1920’s prohibition era.  He insisted that, “Doing good is in bad taste!”  And when asked why he was such a keen observer of people when he complained about them so much, he replied, “Why do people go to zoos?”  Not surprisingly, his Mercury Magazine was quite popular with the younger generation. Their elders? Not so much!

To add to these monumental events, there was great political unrest especially in the south where the African Americans were becoming restless and vocal about mistreatment and discrimination.  They were also threatened by the growth and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan, but continued demanding their rightful place in society. The situation was becoming volatile and the government was slow to respond.

Something else was coming out of the south—a very different sound, especially to white Americans, that would forever change our musical history. We didn’t know what to call it at first—it was a unique sound, a mixture of blues, ragtime, gospel and a joyful syncopation of style and improvisation. Early on, it was sometimes referred to as “Jas music,” then “Razz,” and finally “Jazz”, a musical style that originated in the early 1900’s in southern African American communities. The popular Jazz bands made recordings that were played on radios across the country. They performed in Chicago, New York and San Francisco clubs and speakeasies.

Jazz music quickly became the rage, especially among the young people.  The Black Bottom, Charleston and Foxtrot followed hot on its heels.  It was as if the younger generation had been desperately seeking an outlet to release the tension, anger and discontent that had been building up and found it in Jazz and wild, uninhibited dances.  It’s not surprising that many of their Victorian parents were scandalized and strongly objected to Jazz and the dances. They condemned the unfamiliar saxophone (the sultry sax sounded too much like sex) that promoted close, intimate dancing as well as wild, hysterical gyrations that looked like the dancers were possessed.

A 1921 edition of “Ladies’ Home Journal” published an article called, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”  The author claims that the outrageous dances were destroying the morals of today’s youth.  Jazz was blamed for everything from drunkenness, to deafness, to madness and a huge increase of unwed mothers! Despite such opinions (or because of them) Jazz remains to this day immensely popular. It gave birth to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Reggae, bebop, vocal jazz and scat, Bluegrass and today’s popular music played all over the world.

Musician, J. J. Johnson, put it best when he said, “Jazz is restless.  It won’t stay put and it never will!” I think this also defines every new, restless generation. They won’t stay put either, and never will!

My parents didn’t do the Charleston (or did they?) but they were the best foxtrotters in the county.  However, they strongly disapproved of the “jitterbug” the new dance craze when I was in high school.  I loved dancing the “bug” to the swing music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But I remember being appalled the first time I saw the dances kids are doing today, which seems to consist mostly of pelvic thrusts. God knows what the next generation of dances will be!  Anyway, I can understand the 1920’s parents shock at the music and dances.

In addition to all the above events, the turmoil in the United States was heightened by the contentious, long Scopes Trial, which pitted friend against friend, and the disturbingly large exodus of writers, musicians, and artists who fled to Paris, along with numerous African American musicians and entertainers who found the longed for freedom and acceptance they couldn’t find here. They all became part of the large, growing American expatriate community in Paris.

Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald who coined so many words and phrases defining the 1920’s through his books and essays.  In 1922, he described the 1920’s as “The Jazz Age.” The phrase became the iconic title of an era so difficult to define. Gertrude Stein called it “The Lost Generation,” and Ernest Hemingway insisted that “…they were battered, but were not lost.”

So, the younger generation had made their statement through fashion, style, music, dance and thought. Gradually, their freedom of dress (no more corsets, hooray!) and life style entered mainstream America. They embraced the philosophy of the popular Broadway musical, “Anything Goes.”

The Jazz Age bubble burst and plummeted to earth with a resounding crash when Wall Street collapsed in 1929. Scott Fitzgerald recalled events in his famous 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  He said the era was an age of miracles, art, excess and satire. The Jazz age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age, but it was only borrowed time. Eventually, “Somebody blundered, and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

He ended the essay with, “It all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings again.”

I don’t perceive the Jazz Age in the same way I did before I wrote Muriel’s story. It’s easier to see why Paris became a beacon of artistic freedom that drew her, Bob and hundreds of other artists to its promising light.  Next week, we’ll explore the Jazz Age in Paris, which was a much different story from what Muriel experienced in her own country. We’ll talk about the Dada movement, famous artists, the opulent life style and…All That Jazz!