By Gene Wisniewski
Jazz music rose further than ever before during the prohibition era. In a time where booze was an even hotter commodity from its recent outlawing, underground saloons named “Speakeasies” rose at an astonishing rate. These “Speakeasies” became so popular that “…at one point in New York city alone, Manhattan had over 5000 speakeasies” (Ward and Burns). Amongst all this competition there had to be ways besides just serving liquor and beer to attract customers. This meant more jobs for musicians; Jazz musicians in particular.
The problem with prohibition was just simply the fact that most Americans did not want to stop drinking. If anything Americans wanted to drink more because alcohol almost became somewhat of a novelty with the idea of some sort of rebellion against the higher authority behind every sip of “firewater”. Mobs of the prohibition saw an opportunity of business in the bootlegging of liquor and the hay day of speak easies was born. Because of this, these millions of people who were looking for a buzz and a good time flocked to these speakeasies. Mobs were supplying liquor to the clubs at such a large quantity that it was almost as if it were never outlawed. People just never would quit drinking and America’s most notorious out law, Al Capone, was quoted saying “Let the worthy people of Chicago get their liquor the best way they can” (Capone). And the best way they could was through these speakeasies.
Mob influence didn’t stop at just the supply of alcohol though. Obviously each establishment served the same commodity (a club or bar setting where people loosened up and the booze flowed as freely as tap water), but what set each establishment apart from the rest was what band was playing at each joint. Gangsters such as Capone influenced the growth of jazz just because of the fact they supplied liquor to these illegal saloons where jazz was played since it was the “…music of his time and place…” which in turn caused Jazz musicians to gravitate “…to Chicago where they delighted audiences…” (Bergreen). With this, jazz rose to become one of the most popular forms of music in America.
Prohibition had done exactly the opposite of what it had intended to do. It intended to increase morals among Americans but instead people started coming out of their “shells” to the speakeasies. The men came to drink and the music meant dancing and where there was dancing there were women. Because of the popularity of speakeasies, prohibition gave birth to some of the most famous jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bojangles Robinson, and Ethel Waters.
The women that showed up to listen and dance to jazz showed up in a manner never before seen in America with their bobbed hair, ruby red lipstick and short dresses. This “lack of morals” that had newly appeared in women was blamed on the speakeasies and the jazz music they provided.
As a result this became somewhat rebellious on its own and of course a higher growth in appeal followed. With this it was soon realized that Jazz was becoming a commercial commodity. Jazz had become “…a dance craze, a form of light entertainment…” (Scaruffi). Jazz had gone so far as to become a career for those musicians who attempted to profit from “serious” music but had failed. From this this transition Swing music was born. With the birth of Swing, Jazz was not just an art anymore but had actually become an industry. With this new form of jazz, came a taste of disdain from more serious musicians who wanted to move away from it. To them Swing music made Jazz no longer an art but only a means for profit and it was something they wanted no part of. The public, on the other hand, loved swing music. Even after prohibition when there were no longer any speak easies, people still flocked to establishments that played swing so they could dance. Swing was viewed as a demoralizing music so it had the same appeal to the youth at the time that rock music had to youth in the fifties.
Swing had become an unstoppable force in music whether the most professional artists liked it or not and it didn’t stop until its popularity eventually died down in the fifties. Prohibition was one of the most unsuccessful attempts at lawmaking in US history but with it was birthed one of the most successful genres of music to ever have originated here. With Prohibition it spread the wonderful sound of Jazz to a more mainstream level where it was no longer class limited but instead had seeped its way into all social classes. It did at least to those part of each social class who were willing to slip away from” Johnny Law” into an underground establishment to steal a few sips of that forbidden feel good. If it weren’t for prohibition and the gangs that fed booze to the speakeasies, Jazz greats such as the aforementioned may have never risen to fame and never have gotten to share their contribution to society with the masses. Critics can say what they may about the commercialization of Jazz Swing music that was born during Prohibition, but it is arguably one of the most important eras of not only pop music, but music as a whole.
Bergreen, L. Capone, the man and the era. 1st Touchstone ed. Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.
Capone, Deirdre Marie. Uncle Al Capone - The Untold Story from Inside His Family. 1st. Recaplodge LLC, 2010. Print.
Scaruffi, P. (2005). A History of Jazz Music. TM.
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Jazz, A History Of America's Music. Knopf, 2002. Print.