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Jazz and Black Politics In the 1920s

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The following excerpt comes from Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America:

“The Victorian color caste system was challenged most comprehensively during the 1920s by Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois. Despite their sound ideas and vigorous efforts, neither man accomplished much to raise the position of American blacks – nor could they. White racism remained too formidable, and it had left blacks without the experience, knowledge or financial capital necessary to make successful use of these leaders’ programs. Nevertheless, Garvey and Du Bois did arouse blacks to action and they left a valuable heritage of their experience and concepts to future generations.”

Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t have much success in challenging the Victorian racial caste system with black politics in the 1920s. It wasn’t a total loss though. Oscar Stanton De Priest was elected as the first black congressman of the 20th century from Chicago in 1929.

In the 1920s and 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois was despondent about the prospects for blacks in America at exactly the moment when race relations were about to radically change because White racial attitudes were changing because of the impact of jazz and Modernism on White youth culture.

“One of the most destructive of these activities to Victorian concepts arose from the sudden release of black speech, jazz, blues, and dances into white American society. Previously, those had been contained largely in black enclaves, especially in the rural South. By the 1920s, nightclubs and speakeasies in black areas of northern cities attracted white jazz fans who felt that “real” jazz could be heard only in its “natural” surroundings. In addition, novels, stories, and poems of black protest and musical shows featuring black social dances all proved alluring to white audiences. A high proportion of younger whites found black styles irresistible, often because they wanted to act and look up to date and to free themselves from restrictive Victorianism. Most of their elders lacked the audacity to open themselves to black styles, and they projected onto these their deepest fears and most repressed wishes. Those black styles have continued to affect profoundly white music, dance, speech, dress, demeanor, and literature.”

This is an understatement.

From jazz to rap and hip hop, blacks have negatively influenced White culture mainly through music. Modernists soaking up this shit in speakeasies and nightclubs, particularly in New York City, is closely related to why “antiracism” suddenly gained traction around this time.

The following excerpt comes from George Donelson Moss’s book The Rise of Modern America: A History of the American People, 1890-1945:

“The Jazz Age, as the 1920s was sometimes called, owed its name to the music created by African American musicians working in New Orleans at the turn of the century. By the 1920s it had spread to the rest of the country. White musicians learned to play jazz, and white audiences gathered to listen and to dance. Jazz was endlessly experimental, and the best jazz musicians were inspired improvisers. Jazz provided a way for African Americans to express symbolically their resentments and frustrations at the constraints imposed on their lives, and it also expressed their joy and a sense of community. Jazz also served as a call for freedom and rebellion. It appealed to young middle-class whites rebelling against the Victorian restraints imposed by their parents.”

As we have already seen, some of the first Whites to become deracinated and antiracist in the 1920s were the White jazz musicians.

The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:

“White youths – Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell, Bix Beiberbecke, Mezz Mezzrow, Jimmy McPartland, and others – haunted places like the Lincoln Gardens on the South Side to listen in awe to Armstrong and other black musicians, and then tried to make similar sounds leavened with some touches of their own. Bud Freedman remembered that the doorman of the Gardens, who weighed 350 pounds, always greeted them with the same words: “I see you boys are here for your music lessons tonight” …

The hot, wild sound produced by the jazz musicians was a symbol of their lifestyle. Bootleg booze, women, and dope were all hazards of the job. Bix Beiderbecke, the master cornetist who was first attracted to jazz by jearing Louis Armstrong play on a passing riverboat, destroyed himself with liquor at the age of twenty-eight. “I think one of the reasons he drank so much was that he was a perfectionist and wanted to do more with music than any man possibly could,” observed Jimmy McPartland. Nevertheless, as clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw noted, “While there were some musicians who did a fair amount of boozing and whoring around and marijuana smoking, there was also a hell of a lot of damn good honest jazz being played.”

This is a common thread with modernists.

Bix Beiderbecke died when he was 28-years-old from his degenerate modernist lifestyle. Their lives are a total disaster because of their libertine values which are reflected in their rough lifestyles. F. Scott Fitzgerald became an alcoholic and died when he was 44-years-old. Zelda Fitzgerald ended up in a mental hospital. Ernest Hemingway shot himself. After condemning “American civilization” as philistine, Harold Stearns ended up a laughingstock passed out drunk at that café in Paris.


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