Jazz and the 18th Amendment

In the 1930s, sociologist Robert K. Merton observed that attempts by well-meaning crusaders to bring about social change for the good of society had in many instances instead caused a perverse result. Known as the “Law of Unintended Consequences,” it is usually cited to support the notion that even the best intentions can cause negative, unanticipated outcomes.

A case in point is the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It became the law of the land on Jan. 17, 1920 and ushered in the era of Prohibition. Known as the “noble experiment,” its proponents claimed that the banning of alcohol would bring about a reduction in crime and corruption, solve social problems related to alcoholism, improve Americans’ health and lessen the needs for prisons and poorhouses. Here was the textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. Crime soared along with the corruption of public officials as the “mob” took over the liquor industry, tax revenue declined (liquor sales had been previously heavily taxed), people died from drinking adulterated alcohol and while social problems weren’t solved, a whole new set of problems arose.

However, Merton also noted that not all unintended consequences had to be negative. In fact, there was one very beneficial outcome of Prohibition, at least from my prospective; it caused the popularity of jazz to skyrocket. How so? The 18th Amendment may have outlawed the sale of liquor, but it didn’t legislate again thirst and the desire to have a good time. With bars and saloons closing in January 1920, a completely new set of establishments began to open to meet the demands of a thirsty public determined to drink and have a good time. These clandestine bars became known as speakeasies (you had to whisper to gain access and when you were in public you were supposed to “speak easy” about their location) and they were everywhere. It is estimated that there were many more illegal drinking dens operating during Prohibition than there were legal drinking establishments before Prohibition.

Competition for customers was fierce and it was the first time in the U.S. that races were allowed to intermingle. A customer’s race, class or social standing being immaterial, as long as the customer could pay the tab. With so much competition, bar operators had to differentiate themselves to attract new customers and they began to feature musical entertainment. Since frequenting an illegal bar had a certain cachet, what better music to present than something illicit and sinful like jazz. The so-called “devil’s music” that originated in the “sporting houses” of Storyville in New Orleans, was compelling and captivating and fit the “outlaw” vibe of these establishments. Jazz broke all the rules, musically and socially – improvisation over structure, the mixing of the races, forbidden venues vs. concert halls – the perfect music for a rapidly changing America. Speakeasies became the places where jazz was presented and the mob was more than willing to hire black jazz musicians, so long as the customers kept coming back, and they did, to see Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Paul Whiteman, and many more. Jazz became the popular music of the day, putting the “sin in syncopation,” as one critic noted.

While prohibition was enacted at the beginning of the decade of the “Roaring Twenties,” it was also the beginning of a tumultuous period of cultural revolution in America and F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly named the era the “Jazz Age.” Change was underway with Americans leaving rural areas to settle in urban centers, including hundreds of thousands of African Americans leaving the South for the cities of the North in what became known as the “Great Migration.” Women had just secured the right to vote and were rebelling against the conservatism of the Victorian era. With new clothing, hairstyles, smoking cigarettes in public and driving their own cars, these “flappers” were declaring their independence with a “modern” view of morals and had new music to listen to and dance to. Dancing became an entirely new endeavor and jazz was the music that was danced to. No longer were partners held in a formal way, instead, there was a no “holds barred” approach with the new seductive dances such as the Charleston, Lindy, Shimmy, Cake Walk, Black Bottom and Turkey Trot all in vogue. Jazz became the soundtrack of a rebellion and speakeasies were the venues where this exciting music was played and swayed to.

The Roaring Twenties was also a time of remarkable technological advances – the phonograph, radio and talking movies spread the sound of jazz. The first radio station opened in Pittsburgh in 1920 and soon thereafter, there were stations throughout the country broadcasting jazz. It is estimated that there were only 60,000 households with radios in 1922, but 10 million by 1929. In 1917 the first jazz record was made and by the end of the Roaring Twenties, records had spread the sound of jazz to every corner of the nation. The first “talkie” movie was made in 1927, “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was first performed in 1927 blending jazz with the sound of a symphony. It clearly was the “Jazz Age.”

On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted repealing Prohibition. By then the stock market had crashed and the Great Depression was underway … but jazz was everywhere.

At 6 p.m. on July 5 Vail Jazz presents The Hot Sardines in Lionshead. This 8-piece band will take the audience back to the speakeasies of the Prohibition era in a very hip and modern adaptation of the hot jazz of the Roaring 20s and beyond.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.