Monday, November 19, 2012

The Effects of Prohibition on American Jazz and Society

by Kyle Fisher

American Prohibition marked several significant changes in the course of American cultural history. When the Eighteenth Amendment was established, its new policies outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol, causing the American people to react in many unpredictable ways. As we shall see, Prohibition in American had a profound effect on music in the 1920s and eventually led to the intermingling of black and white cultures through the medium of music.

These changes started mostly in American “speakeasies”, or undercover bars, where bootleggers and gangsters secretly provided alcohol and entertainment to people of all classes during Prohibition. As these speakeasy owners and operators quickly discovered, it was necessary to depend on lesser-known musicians for bar entertainment in order to help avoid detection by the local law enforcement. Consequentially, speakeasy owners began hiring local black jazz musicians to play for customers, which as it turned out, was a hugely successful idea! The atmosphere offered by jazz to the party crowd at the time was irresistible and soon speakeasies everywhere picked up on the trend and were establishing jazz as fun, exciting, daring music.

A speakeasy from the 1920s.

One of the reasons jazz spread so quickly during the beginning of Prohibition was the simultaneous introduction of the commercial radio station. According to Piero Scaruffi, the first stations opened in 1920, and quickly "[jazz] percolated through the air waves”, reaching nearly every music center of the country in less than a decade. Following this radio revolution were the first phonographic recordings of jazz, some of which took place at Thomas Edison’s very own studio. These recordings were very popular and sold wildly across the country.

An example of one of the first Prohibition-age recordings is "Save a Little Dram for Me" by Bert Williams (listen here: Save a Little Dram for Me).

As time went on and jazz continued to develop in various parts of America, different cities began to distinguish their own styles of jazz. For example, New Orleanians improved upon the original ensemble-oriented style of jazz arrangement which left little room for improvisation. Chicagoans, on the other hand, started utilizing a very free style of jazz in which individual players were given room to improvise. As David Johnson pointed out, "It may have been that the scarce musical sophistication of the gangsters [speakeasy operators] made it possible for jazz soloists to break the rules of New Orleans' band playing."

Perhaps the most profound effect of Prohibition on American music and society was the creation of one of America’s first multi-racial mainstream genres. Many black jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington, owed their popularity to whites’ interest in jazz during the Prohibition Era, and similarly, many white jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke owed the style of their music to the black roots of New Orleanian jazz. Musicians aside, jazz during Prohibition was a type of music enjoyed by both blacks and whites alike.

The Great Gatsby (2013) depicts the multiracial crowds that attended jazz performances during American Prohibition.
To sum things up, jazz was a force that grew during Prohibition through speakeasies, radio waves, and phonographic records, which fused parts of black and white culture together. To this day, jazz is both a black and white tradition whose origins glimmer colorfully through the otherwise monochromatic age of American Prohibition. The changes that took place during the Prohibition Era made a mark on American music and society that will not be forgotten.


  1. Thank you so much for this amazing post. It was by far one of the coolest I've read on Jazz yet! I used this for a reference on my article called "Everything About Jazz Simplified" and linked to this page. Thank you again!

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