In the 1920s New York provided an ideal environment for jazz to widen its base and flourish. What were the conditions that fostered this environment?
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In the 1920s, New York provided an ideal environment for jazz
to widen its base and flourish. What were the conditions that
fostered that environment?
New York became the center for jazz for the same reason it
became the center for most of the arts. New York City is where
the industry was. When I say industry, I mean not just the
record companies but the publicists; film companies were still
located in New York, the radio networks were all located in New
York. That's where the power was, and so you might be a
wonderful musician in Kansas City or St. Louis but ultimately
if you were going to have a national, let alone international,
reputation, you were going to have to come to New York and
become part of that star-making machinery including the
publicity arms and the radio networks and so forth.
So the other thing is, dance bands became hugely popular in New
York. Really, they started out in San Francisco-Paul Whiteman
and Art Hickman. But they had a fairly minor audience there
compared to when they came East. They started working at places
like Atlantic City and they had these big lush orchestras that
played for dancers at a time when dancing was becoming very,
very popular. Morals were loosening up, it was ok for men and
women to be holding each other on the dance floor, the waltz
was old news; the waltz which had been so scandalous in Europe
was old news. So they were starting to write what they
considered a sexy, jazzy-at least jazz-influenced-kind of big
band music that young people especially gravitated to.
And as real jazz musicians started playing dance music at the
same time-and remember that the orchestras were completely
segregated. Paul Whiteman had the best white musicians in the
world. Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington had the best black
musicians in the world. And they were friends and they worked
together at private jam sessions, and they hung out maybe at
their homes, but never publicly. Not until the middle 1930s. So
you have them encouraging a whole different kind of social
milieu. Now, it's interesting that much as rock and roll was
attacked in the 1950s, the guardians of our morality, the
Republicans, went after jazz, uh, you know, with a truncheon in
the 1920s. Ladies' Home Journal literally, in a famous essay by
Anne Shaw Faulkner, accused jazz of the increase in rape. And
it said that jazz was going to destroy the morals of our young
women, it was going to lead men to drug addiction and alcohol.
But what they were really terrified of is that it was going to
lead whites and blacks to socialize.
And you know what, they were absolutely right. They had every
reason to be afraid. Of course, this is one of the things we
venerate about jazz and later rock and roll, is that it broke
through those social conditions. It did do that. It made white
people hunger to go up to Harlem and into the black communities
in Kansas City and Chicago to get more of this music. And of
course it ultimately had a terrific influence on integrating
show business, because, you know, who was the Jackie Robinson
of American show business? Most people would say Teddy Wilson,
the pianist that joined with the Benny Goodman group. Most
people had never seen whites and blacks play on stage.
Remember, that was 1935, relatively late in the game.