JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"

RUNNING TIME, 3:31

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.