The Jazz Age

Cars gave young people the freedom to go where they pleased and do what they wanted. (Some pundits called them “bedrooms on wheels.”) What many young people wanted to do was dance: the Charleston, the cake walk, the black bottom, the flea hop. Jazz bands played at dance halls like the Savoy in New YorkCity and the Aragon in Chicago; radio stations and phonograph records (100 million of which were sold in 1927 alone) carried their tunes to listeners across the nation. Some older people objected to jazz music’s “vulgarity” and “depravity” (and the “moral disasters” it supposedly inspired), but many in the younger generation loved the freedom they felt on the dance floor.

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In 1925 the Jazz Age was in full swing. It was the year Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington made their first recordings. The Phantom of the Opera opened at movie theaters. The Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C. People sat on flagpoles, danced the Charleston, read a new novel called The Great Gatsby. And a young man named John Scopes went on trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in defiance of a Tennessee law.

The Scopes trial was a signature event of the Jazz Age. It had that "ballyhoo" spirit so typical of the 1920s. In one way, however, it was atypical. The Scopes trial took place in a little town in the South, far from the roar of the metropolis.

The Jazz Age glorified city life. Americans -- including many African American sharecroppers from the South -- were leaving their farms in record numbers to live and work in places like Chicago and New York City. F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a time when "the parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the buildings were higher, the morals looser."

Definitions of the 1920s reflect the extreme nature of the era itself. Playwright Elmer Davis said, "Today Croesus is King. Not thinkers but rich men rule the world." Looking back on the 20s, Kevin Rayburn wrote, "It was the first truly modern decade and, for better or worse, it created the model for society that all the world follows today."

The 20s in all its lighthearted excess grew from a great darkness. No one who survived what was then known as The Great War could imagine that anything like this cataclysm would happen again. The war opened eyes to unimagined horrors and when it was over people simply wanted to live again. Those who could afford it lived with a vengeance.

It was best to be young during the roaring 20s. Many people born in the 19th century felt threatened by a culture that seemed to have lost its moral compass. William Jennings Bryan, a political and religious leader of the day, had campaigned hard for Prohibition and in 1919, it became the law of the land. But the law meant nothing to a wild new generation. Surveys showed that young people were losing their faith in God. In his attempt to bring America back to the Bible, Bryan chose to attack a single idea -- Darwin's theory of evolution.

Not everyone saw the problem in such a simple light. Writer Willa Cather said that for her, the world broke in two around 1922. Like Bryan, Cather had grown up in a less frantic America -- before the automobile, the talking pictures, and the phonograph. Cather thought the modern world was an uglier place than the one she remembered. In 1921 she said in a speech, "We now have music by machines, we travel by machines -- soon we will be having machines to do our thinking."

Iconoclast H.L. Mencken turned forty-five the year of the Scopes trial, yet he, more than anyone else, epitomized the era. Americans who wanted to be "in the know" read his magazine, The Smart Set. His boisterous sense of play, his hatred of the "pieties" of the past, and his outrageous reporting at events like the Scopes trial, made him the quintessential modernist. When asked what he would do if on his death he found himself facing the twelve apostles, the agnostic Mencken answered, "I would simply say, 'Gentlemen, I was mistaken.'"

The excesses of the Jazz Age came tumbling down with the stock market crash of 1929. Yet everyone who lived through it had been forever changed. In the words of Heywood Broun, "The Jazz Age was wicked and monstrous and silly. Unfortunately, I had a good time."

 

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Jazz was born around 1895 in New Orleans. Originally it was a mixture of Blues and marching band music and was played by African-Americans and Creoles on old U.S Army instruments like the cornet or marching drums. It is also marked through the use of improvisation, because most of the former virtuoso jazz musicians weren’t able to read music at all. Soon the white man noticed the popularity of jazz and started to play it too. Therefore the European and African music culture melted together and a new style of jazz was born.

The twenties, also known by some as the "Jazz Age", were the time for experiments and discovering new jazz-styles. In that period of growing industrialisation black people and new-Orleans-musicians moved from the country site south to Chicago. There they helped creating the (white) Chicago-Style. Lots of Chicago musicians finally moved to New York, which was an important centre of jazz, too.

Jazz bands started the musical revolution using for the first time the saxophone. It has been known to provoke close intimate dancing and many people were shocked by the loud and extraordinary sound of the sax (which happens to sound like sex).That’s why older people blamed jazz to be a bad influence on the younger generation. They began to rebel and refuse to follow the moral traditions.

With the help of national radio, the barely known new jazz sound spread quickly over America, and found many supporters. Lots of important clubs, or speakeasies (illegal pubs), helped jazz bands to get famous and featured their songs. Jazz often got connected with alcohol, intimate dancing and “other socially questionable activities”

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In New York the Jazz Age was a time where hardly anybody worried about money. “It was in such a profusion around you.”(p.3,3.paragraph) and prodigality belonged to everybody’s life-style. This is also a reason for the hospitality that was indispensable for all the parties that were given. To throw a party is not a cheap affair and so stinginess was very unpopular and supposed to be unfriendly.

Gatsby’s parties are typical for this time period. On his extravagant festivities “charm, notoriety [and] mere good manners weighted more than money as a social asset.” (p.3,3.paragraph). Proofs for this statement can be in all the gossip about Gatsby that is talked by his guests. Interesting at this point is that most of his guests do not even know him and spread rumours about him all the same. That’s how he got his notoriety: “I‘ll bet he killed a man.”(p.39,9). The good manners are reflected by gentlemen who always offer a helpful hand to charming ladies.

At Gatsby’s parties “people were not invited – they went there […] came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.”(p.36,23-29) For this spontaneous society Gatsby’s huge “party lawn” is an amusement park, a place animated with chatter and laughter where “casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot”(p.36,6f) are on the agenda. Since these parties are very large, there is time for privacy when anybody wants it and time for intimate moments without anybody realizing.

While reading Nick Carraway’s descriptions of Gatsby’s garden and all the decorations that are put up for the party, it seems a little exaggerated: “Several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree out of Gatsby’s enormous garden”(p.35,16-18) are hung up so that “the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors”(p.36,3). Also, Gatsby does not save any money with the food. Each evening a great buffet table with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, turkey, ham, salads and pastry pigs waits for his guests(cf.p.35,18f). Once a week five crates of oranges and lemons are delivered to impress his visitors with fresh fruits(cf.p.35, 11). Despite Prohibition alcohol is poured out.

The way the people dress during this jazz age period is also very interesting. Their hair is “shorn in strange new ways”(p.36,4) and around the women’s necks are “shawls beyond the dreams of Castile”(p.36/4).They wear “golden and silver slippers”(p.109,16f) and the best example is Gatsby “in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie” (p.65,1f) himself.

Moreover, Gatsby’s guests are, of course, entertained by cocktail music played by a typical jazz orchestra consisting of oboes, trombones, saxophones, viols, cornets and piccolos, low and high drums (p.35,23ff). They know how to play popular jazz songs, for example the “neat, sad little waltz of that year” (p.82,32) “Three O’Clock in the Morning” or W.C.Handy’s (1873-1958) “Beale Street Blues”, a famous jazz blues melody. Another song that is played is Vladimir Tostoff’s “Jazz History of the World”.

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02 September 2016, 7:38 AM
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