The Jazz Era
Jazz was originally a Creole word meaning to speed up, certainly an appropriate characterization of the fast, frenetic activity associated with the period between World War I and the Depression. Jazz also had a syncopated beat that is very like the sound of the steam engines that brought southern blacks to St. Louis, Memphis and New York. Eight states and Washington saw a net migration of 414,000 between 1910 and 1920, with a further gain of 714,000 during the next decade. The biggest gainers were, in order, New York Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Missouri, Indiana and Washington, D.C.
As a national music, ragtime was somewhat older, having come to national and international attention at the great Chicago midway, known as the Columbian Exposition of 1893. However, it had much less of an impact than jazz on the national and international scene since it was subsumed by jazz. Ragtime was more influential in giving us dances such as the turkey trot, grizzly bear and bunny hop (1907-1914) with the Charleston coming about 1922. It was the rage of Europe by 1924 as delivered by the elegant Josephine Baker in Paris.
However, the first American dance form to achieve international recognition was the ante-bellum cakewalk of the 1850s, a high-strut step by slaves mimicking their masters’ social promenades. It took off in the 1890s and received international validation in 1904 by the Prince of Wales. Both Claude Debussy and Louis Gottschalk wrote cakewalks.
Although it arrived later, jazz was the first music to be accepted as quintessentially American, both in the United States and abroad. It was black America’s first great culturally accepted contribution internationally. The great art centers of the African Sahel and Benin cultures had reached international prominence around 1910, when artists such as Picasso modeled their work on Dan masks (Picasso’s seated woman and portrait of Gertrude Stein) and Geh masks for the origin of cubism. Modigliani used the Dogon horsemen concepts for his long-necked women.
At the same time that jazz began to represent America in the l920s, there was a major flowering of black American culture known as the Harlem renaissance. This movement was as well-accepted internationally as African art influences, and it generated a sense of assurance and self-pride among black Americans. The Harlem renaissance was not Afro-centric but rather island-centric in nature. Its artists did not adopt the pastels and designs found in both West African villages and fabric, but rather the bright vibrancies of island culture found in Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti. In dance, Harlem’s Savoy ballroom saw the Lindy hop introduced in 1928. It was the original jitterbug dance that swept the popular dance world during World War II and evolved (in half time) into the 1970s ‘hustle,’ then into ‘hip hop.’ It was a dominant dance for almost two-thirds of a century worldwide!
At the same time that American blacks were gaining self-assurance through the cultural achievements of the Harlem renaissance, there was a recrudescence of the anti-black Ku Klux Klan, which was reactivated in 1915. The new KKK made its first major public statement by a cross burning on Stone Mountain, GA in 1915. Its rise was sparked, in part, by the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s highly successful film, Birth of a Nation. This 1915 film used Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Klansman as a source, the book that first introduced the concept of cross burning.
Initially focused upon the ‘insubordination’ of blacks, the Klan soon broadened its focus to immigrants, Jews, Catholics and the role of women. It proposed to purge America of impure, alien influences. These were anything that challenged the Klan’s version of traditional American values. It opposed labor unions, drunkenness, immigrants, irreligion and sexual promiscuity. It worked to support prohibition, racial homogeneity and compulsory Bible-reading in school. It sought to punish divorce, contraception and other anti-family values. It became a political power endorsing and electing candidates, particularly in the midwest and south, and by 1924 had a membership of some four million, about as many as voted for the ‘Bull Moose’ party in 1912.
The super-patriotism of World War I helped the Klan to rise with its push for ‘American values.’ German music, language and culture were under attack. Sauerkraut was renamed ‘liberty cabbage,’ the Metropolitan Opera refused to perform any German music during the 1917-1918 season and the Boston Symphony’s conductor was deported for criticizing the musical quality of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ which was not yet our national anthem. The 1917 draft act permitted conscientious objectors, but they were harshly dealt with; 500 received court-martials with 142 resulting life sentences and 17 death penalties (not carried out). Several thousand anti-war protesters were deported without formal trial under the Alien Act of 1918. Eugene Debs, who had won over 6% of the popular vote in 1913, was given a ten-year jail sentence for an anti-war speech.
Supporting the rise of the Klan were the events of 1919. In that year there was a wave of strikes, 3,600 involving over 4-million workers. They culminated in the September Boston police strike, which brought Coolidge to national prominence, and the U.S. Steel strike of the same month, which left 17 strikers dead. These strikes reverberated against the radical bombings of June 1919 which had triggered Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s ‘red scare’ campaign. This campaign saw the arrest of some 6,000 on New Year’s Day, 1920, but netted only three pistols of the radical’s supposed ‘arms caches.’ The year also saw a wave of book bannings, dismissals of ‘radical view’ university professors and a July race riot in Chicago that left 38 dead, 537 injured and over 1,000 homeless. All together, 120 people died in race riots in the summer of 1919. Lynching also peaked that year with seventy victims, some of whom were war veterans.
A major black response to the rise of the Klan was Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalism movement. Garvey (1887-1940) created the Universal Negro Improvement Society (UNIA) after he came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1916. It claimed to have 4 million members, and probably had somewhat over I million. In the critical year of 1919, Garvey formed the New York newspaper, Negro World, started the Black Star shipping line known to Liberian philatelists and founded the Negro Factories Corporation to support independent black businesses. Conflict with other black leaders and prosecution in 1923 by J. Edgar Hoover led to his imprisonment in 1925 and deportation in 1927. The Klan’s power peaked, just before the Scopes trial of 1925, when the Democratic Party split evenly over whether to denounce it by name in their platform. Financial squabbles over the highly profitable sale of ‘regalia,’ internal power struggles and several sordid scandals discredited some of its most important leaders. By 1929 it was devolving toward extinction. However, the ‘issues’ it pushed remained active for years and are even reviving today.
Another major shift during the jazz era was the role of women. Women won the vote in 1920 following a campaign modeled on the British suffrage movement, which involved militancy, hunger strikes and police brutality. The U.S. 1920 election that saw Harding gain the White House attracted about eight million more votes than the 1916 election. Significantly the Republican vote increase was also just about eight million, suggesting that women overwhelmingly used their new franchise to bring a Republican victory.
Two inventions of the 1870s — the telephone and the typewriter — were responsible for impelling women into the labor market, by creating jobs as telephone operators and secretaries. From less than two million workers in 1870, female employment rose to more than five million by 1900 and almost 11 million by 1930, including two million female clerical workers
During World War I some two million Americans went to fight in France, with 1.2 million participating in the Meuse-Argonne offensive alone. Most were native-born who had never previously experienced a foreign culture. They reveled in the dance halls of Montmartre, the bars of the Left Bank student quarter of Paris and the omnipresent French bistro. When they returned home, they brought back a taste for bohemianism that sparked the Greenwich Village culture in New York, as well as a liking for brandy and bistro food such as french fries
It has been stated that the key intellectual interests of the jazz era were not economic and social problems but rather those of religion, morality, aesthetic values and psychology.
A good deal of this emphasis can be traced to the overseas influence. The wartime experience also led to a wave of American expatriates such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his circle during the postwar era. These expatriates were following the pre-war footsteps of Mary Cassatt and Gertrude Stein. The new French influence upon American culture helped give the jazz era a sense of both frenzy and frivolity that has been well noted..
Communications were also ‘jazzed up’ following the war. Daily newspaper circulation had risen from 758,000 in 1850 to 8.4 million by 1890, when the introduction of comic sections and the great newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst jacked it up to more than 15 million by 1900. It was the era of ‘yellow journalism,’ a phrase to which Hearst gave new meaning before his expulsion from Harvard for donating chamber pots to his least-favorite professors. Daily newspaper circulation reached 28.8 million in 1914, 33.7 million by 1921 and 42.0 million at the close of the jazz era in 1929. The newspaper, a long-term child of the postal system, had now become the dominant means of obtaining news, replacing the letter. The accompanying daily comics broke out of the print medium as the era closed with the popular success of the song ‘Barney Google and his Goo-goo-googly eyes,” which became an early radio hit