As I made the journey down Bank St. in Ottawa, tunes filled my ears almost distracting me from winter’s cold. Still I was more preoccupied by other more random thoughts than by the music. This was a shame since contained on my trusty Mp3 musical device were some true gems. Yet in a world where music can be carried literally in the palm of each individual’s hands, I take for granted periods when there were no Mp3 players, no Sony Walkman or Discman—carried in the smallest of palms—and no ghetto blasters carried on shoulders, carted around to amuse distracted minds. Ours is an age of music made portable and personal, but that has not always been the case.
A product of the modern age, mass popular music has become entrenched in our social world—soundtracks for life going back beyond frisky break-dancers parading streets, adeptly and skillfully footing it on urban and suburban sidewalks, ghetto blasters making shoulders robust.
I was drawn deeper into my reverie by a Janice Ian tune reminding me of time when the world was younger than today. Still, I am thinking farther back into history—before Ian’s time—back into the jazz age when the radical action of that era’s youth unsettled norms that their parents had thought were firmly etched and confirmed.
The youth of the jazz age grew up during the decade that followed the First World War, a time when the modern world would lose its innocence. The dreadfulness of that war settled like ashes at the feet of that generation and it was amidst the knowledge of those horrors that they displayed an unsettled existence. In all their actions they seemed intent to understand and recapture some of the essence of what had been lost on battlefields in foreign lands.
In the time between 1918 and 1930 the United States of America experienced tremendous changes in the social dynamic of society, influenced by an economic confidence that permeated culture as never before. Some called them the spawning of a social hysteria. Those transformations were so significant that they are credited for having defined the era—a revolution of sorts.
In the midst of change were the youth, led by the pied pipers of culture with names including Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Claude Mckay, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There was also a man named Louis Armstrong and he associated himself with another—lesser known today but significant all the same—named Joseph ‘King’ Oliver who came with his Creole Jazz Band. They brought jazz to the American north and ultimately to the world, spreading it thick over society like peanut butter on the novelty of hot, chunky slices of American bread. Jazz music was a rich, relevant, rebellious mantra for the day.
In their quest for understanding the young generation sought new truths on which they could rely as they unlearned the ones their parents had laid out. Fittingly, jazz music became the anthem for this time, or the first mass popularization of music as a vehicle in social change. Jazz was said to be the music of the outcast and for a society whose youth shirked tradition, outcast was a most appropriate term and Jazz music a most appropriate anthem.
Jazz has a long tradition as a freedom fighter’s rhythm, hailing back in American history to Louisiana and New Orleans. During the period following the American Civil War (1861-1865), Jim Crow laws penetrated Louisiana, the final frontier of free blacks in American society, and nearly half a million “Freedmen of Colour” in and around New Orleans saw their Fourteenth Amendment Rights taken away.
Finally—all equal rights and liberties were washed away as though with the deluge of blood that had flowed from the wounded and the dead of that war, and a once free people found themselves with nowhere to turn and nothing on which to rely for self-expression. However, that did not last for long.
They still had music, and so those that could, bought the musical instruments of the defeated army. Many of these once free people came from a tradition of self taught learning, and had a great deal of practice with teaching their young ones. So they combined the music they and their children had absorbed in better times during their travels abroad capturing music from countries like France, and Italy, ballads from England and Scotland, work songs from riverfronts around the world, and most importantly, Negro spirituals drawn from African lyricism. Jazz music was born, every strand echoing rhythms from here, there, and every place. It was a fusion of the world’s music and it became the means of protest against the injustices that were born out of the American Civil War.
It was not music of the defeated though, nor was it a swan song to lost freedoms; instead, Jazz music became an avenue of free, self-expression. In its origin, it was characterized by a free, loose, wildness, ignoring written composition and opting instead for improvisation. It did not balk at written traditions it merely added a new element to musicality itself. As though it was the intent of the creators, it stimulated a physical freedom that was sometimes characterized by free and untamed movements in dance.
Out of this historical tradition of free self expression, Jazz music became the anthem of the Flapper age, and cities all over America became little countries in which they flew their flags of freedom. When the Flapper persona made her debut she not only defined the era in every way, she redefined it for all time, ushering in a new age in social relations not just for young men but for young women also. They began to view certain traditions as constraining. For instance, females cut their traditional long hair into a bob that was boyish and saucily finger waved it to make it modern. Layers of clothing were removed in favor of lighter, looser attire. For the first time since it was introduced the corset was eliminated from the female wardrobe—solidifying a terrific shift in convention.
They began to wear dresses that were often sleeveless and if they chose they would opt to raise the hemline above their knees. The Flappers’ beau also changed his convention and came in all sorts: there was the so-called Joe College, sweater swank-ily tied about his shoulder; and there were young men who wore belted jackets, new Van Heusen soft collars, and trousers with wide flapping legs. These men shared the Flapper’s good times and in a rapidly changing America were like loyal subjects of their own new land.
Make no mistake, conservative America did not die, it was just forced to co-exist with new liberal norms that youth did not care to hide and were in the midst of embracing, fully. They were called the lost generation; and they were search of something; and in their display they appeared to want it all.
They thought themselves blameless for craving openly what their parents did not even allow themselves to imagine. The war was to blame. Their parents caused the war, so why should they accept any responsibility for any repercussions that their parents did not foresee and were now desperately trying to avoid? How could they be expected to balance the traditional values from times past within an era that was rapidly changing?
For example, under challenge were social events. In that not so distant past many of these had been based around the church as an arbiter of social norms and a facilitator of social gatherings. However, in this emerging age youth courtships and outings once restricted and chaperoned by the so-called responsible adult met with defiance. Little pecks on the cheeks, on the front porch, illuminated by the lantern under the watchful glare of overly protective guardians were no longer the only option. To be sure, these norms did not die. However, a new norm came to be as lovers’ lane joined the list of possibilities for curious, frisky, frivolities.
The Flapper had access to birth control by 1923, the year that Holland Rantos invented the rubber diaphragm, though this she kept between her and her beau. The act in itself was revolutionary enough. She attracted a modern sort of male, drawn to her flamboyance and modern appeal. They were the generation that was introduced to cars and at first a fortunate few could be seen in Howard Marmon’s more expensive luxury Marmon V-model vehicles. However, Henry Ford aided the masses by raising his minimum wage and making the car universally affordable offering up his rattletrap Ford Model T Tin Lizzie Flivver—produced between 1908 and 1927. New moral values and a new piece of equipment collided with old morals as young lovers cast off the conservative notions of physical exploration held in high esteem in their parents’ time and before long found themselves in back seat of the car. Lovers’ Lanes sprang up all over America as these adventurous youths parked their cars in the shadow of cities and country roads, sat back and enjoyed the pleasures of their flesh with new precautions against repercussions.
It was a new start in American popular culture characterized by a physical movement and a dance that by 1924 found itself a name; the Charleston. On and on they went, these young men and young women, arms extended, heads bent forward, females wearing risqué drop-waisted-skirts, and males with loosened shirts, stepping in a frenzied mania one step an attempt to outdo the last. Recall Daisy Buchanan and her bunch making merry until dawn on Jay Gatsby’s front lawn in author F. Scott Fitzgerald`s novel for that time The Great Gatsby.
There was an intellectual movement in change as young thinkers put a new spin on literature and movies that coincided with the new progress in music and dance. For instance authors such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled changes even as they were occurring and at times even defined though changes. Hemingway wrote about a trend where the ultra privileged or the superbly lucky traveled across the Atlantic, soaking up a sort of European culture that seemed to be influenced only by Americans. Meanwhile as he took in the scene Fitzgerald fittingly summed up the times describing it as the Jazz Age.
They drew influence from the movies, copying trends, and were the first to see the talkies, offered to them by cultural revolutionaries such as Charlie Chaplin or Cecil B. De Mill, acted in by the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Betty Blythe, names now obscure. However, it is these names that made way for those we know today, names like Al Pacino, Kate Winslet, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dave Mathews, Bruce Springstein, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Ron Sexsmith and so many others that today are more familiar.
When the youth of the jazz age embraced jazz music conservative America suffered a blow that did not end with the music. Lines of race and social distinctions were crossed as bands led by young white musician the likes of Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke joined existing groups of black musicians and helped alter the ever transformable music of jazz, forming a brotherhood of sorts.
The youth of the Jazz age defied traditions—that had almost seemed etched into the social fibre for all time—by doing what we today call clubbing. They danced the nights away—venturing into roadhouses, places that were classified as the wrong side of the track. Before that time if good, respectable boys and girls were to enjoy the pleasures of the dance hall, they did so discretely, without the knowledge of parents and more conservative friends. Before this time such activities were forbidden and were only restrictively offered up to those who were daring enough to risk gaining a certain unsavory reputation. But then things changed. With jazz music the Flappers made a most indelible mark, by crossing the track, and tampering with previously drawn lines in the sand.
To imagine such social limitations today is difficult. Think of the freedom of going to a music festival on a summer’s evening, from Vancouver to Montreal and all points between and beyond. Imagine having to take in the meaty sounds of bands like Billy Dixon’s Soul Train Express, or the sultry lyricism of Diana Krall under the suspicious scrutiny of a chaperone. Worse yet, imagine being told that this kind of music was forbidden. I once sat on a grassy bank on Vancouver’s Granville Island and watched a group of young women, no chaperones in sight, dance with hula hoops to the sounds of a Dixie band called the Johnny Doheny Project, and I observed that they whirled with a joy that was pure and sweet. It is difficult to imagine a time when such a thing would have been faux pas.
As I walk down another street, this time in Vancouver, I am drawn from another reverie by the last strains of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Lost in thought I had missed a favorite song, but I resisted the urge to hit the replay button on my Mp3 device. With each song competing for attention I instead embraced an instrumental sound from Vancouver’s Laila Biali, soothed by the sweet musicality and lulled into anticipating the next. I knew it would be a tune by the British Katie Melua, a phenomenal lyrical and instrumental masterpiece mixing sounds of the Orient, an accompaniment to her song Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing.
If you influenced the Jazzers the world has already bid you a fond farewell. If you were a Jazzer, we are in the process of saying good-bye, and even if you are a child of a Jazzer, you will soon be gone from us, to one and all, this is an Ode to you from the stages of festivals everywhere.