The jazz age

In 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald reflected on the era that he had named ‘the Jazz Age’. The word jazz, he observed, ‘is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war’. This is a useful reminder that jazz operated in the 1920s not just as a loose name for a wide variety of musical styles, but above all as a term of art. People were certainly hearing new kinds of popular music, in music halls and nightclubs and especially as recorded on disc and broadcast on the radio. But jazz above all provided a metonym for talking about the times, as well as a soundtrack to them. In 1924, for example, Irving Berlin, who would have been considered a jazz composer, compared the music to the ‘rhythmic beat of our everyday lives’. ‘Its swiftness is interpretive of our verve and speed and ceaseless activity. When commuters no longer rush for trains, when taxicabs pause at corners, when businessmen take afternoon siestas, then, perhaps, jazz will pass.’[14]

Jazz was thus heard as the rhythm of modernity and as the noise of machinery. Jazz also mimicked the universal flow of capital and of commodities by spreading everywhere. A New York writer reported home from his world travels:

No sooner had I shaken off the dust of some city and slipped almost out of earshot of its jazz bands than zump-zump-zump, toodle-oodle-doo, right into another I went. Never was there a cessation of this universal potpourri of jazz. Each time I would discover it at a different stage of metamorphosis and sometimes hard to recognize, but unmistakably it was an attempt at jazz.[15]

At the same time, jazz was part of the polyglot cosmopolitanism of Europe’s capitals. Langston Hughes was working as a dishwasher in Le Grand Duc nightclub in Paris when he wrote his poem Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret in 1924.

Play that thing, Jazz band! Play it for the lords and ladies, For the dukes and counts, For the whores and gigolos, For the American millionaires, And the school teachers Out for a spree. Play it, Jazz band! You know that tune That laughs and cries at the same time. You know it. May I? Mais oui. Mein Gott! Parece una rumba. Play, jazz band! You’ve got seven languages to speak in And then some, Even if you do come from Georgia. Can I come home wid yuh, sweetie? Sure.[16]

Although universal and cosmopolitan, jazz was also heard as specifically American and in some often vague way as black. Kurt Weill in 1926 was more musically precise than many of his contemporaries:

The rhythm of our time is jazz. The Americanization of our whole external life, which is happening slowly but surely, finds its most peculiar outcome here. Unlike art music, dance music does not reflect the sense of towering personalities who stand above time, but rather reflects the instinct of the masses…Negro music, which constitutes the source of the jazz band, is full of complex rhythm, harmonic precision, and auditory and modulatory richness which our dance bands simply cannot achieve.[17]

Being heard as American and black, jazz embodied the very sound of the crisis as which modernity was experienced in Europe. As early as 1921, the Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell hoped that the fad for jazz was passing, because it represented for him banal and immature tendencies in modernity rather than the critical edge of modernism that he saw in the paintings of Picasso, Braque and Derain. The Paris-based German commentator Ivan Goll also picked up on this anxiety, but with a greater degree of self-awareness. Like many people formed by the trauma of the war, he saw that the vogue for jazz and for primitivism generally signified a loss of confidence in European culture and the desperate desire for a new cultural authenticity. In his dispatches to Die literarische Welt from the cultural front, he alerted Berliners that Josephine Baker and the Revue nègre were on their way.

The Negroes are conquering Paris. They are conquering Berlin. They have already filled the whole continent with their howls, their laughter. And we are not shocked, we are not amazed: on the contrary, the old world calls on its failing strength to applaud them…One can only envy them, for this is life, sun, primeval forests, the singing of birds and the roar of a leopard, earth.

Goll was, however, alert to the parodic nature of much of La Revue nègre, and scoffed at the assumption that its version of jazz and black America had anything to do with Africa.

These Negroes come out of the darkest parts of New York. There they were disdained, outlawed; these beautiful women might have been rescued from a miserable ghetto. These magnificent limbs bathed in rinse water. They do not come from the primeval forests at all. We do not want to fool ourselves. But they are a new, unspoiled race.

As Goll continues, he articulates a characteristic ‘cultural eugenics’—the idea that an exhausted and etiolated European culture needs reinvigoration by ‘Negro’ blood.

Their dancing comes out of their blood, their life…The main thing is the negro blood. Drops of it are falling on Europe—a land, long dry, that has almost ceased to breathe. Is this the cloud that looks so black on the horizon? A shimmering stream of fertility?…Do the negroes need us, or do we not rather need them?

Whereas Bell railed against jazz because it confounded hierarchies of aesthetic cultural value and threatened to make ‘the coloured gentleman who leads the band at the Savoy’ the ultimate arbiter of taste, Goll heard in the sound of jazz and saw in the movement of black bodies a grotesque image of the strength, authenticity and intensity of affect that had been damaged mortally by the Great War and that were being further undermined by the American culture of which commercial jazz was another product.

The musician Paul Stefan put this more programmatically in an editorial for the avant-garde music journal Anbruch in 1925.

For us, jazz means: a rebellion of the people’s dulled instincts against a music without rhythm. A reflection of the times: chaos, machines, noise, the highest peak of intensity. The triumph of irony, of frivolity, the wrath of those who want to preserve good times. The overcoming of Biedermeyer hypocrisy.[18]

The impact of jazz on Europe in the 1920s was, of course, more complex and more nuanced than I have been able to convey here. I have simply sketched how and why jazz functioned as the sound of modernity, and how it helped to school an emerging mentality. This had more to do with the way the music was heard in Europe than with the reasons why it was created in America, although the imagined relationship between Europe and America was a significant part of it. The actual cultural significance and aesthetic value of jazz were always greater than its detractors feared and often less than its supporters hoped. It was not yet a music of conscious African-American self-expression: it was the sound of an ambivalence towards the fact of modernity, a representation of Benjamin’s complex training of the senses but also a sometimes startlingly inventive commentary on it.[19]