We all spend about five minutes on Prohibition in U.S. History class sometime in high school. We learn that the temperance movement brought various religious organizations into the discussion to ultimately make the ban on alcohol law, and maybe, if our instructor is really enamored of the topic, we hear that Maine was the first state to outlaw alcohol in 1851 and that the 18th Amendment, which ultimately banned the sales, distribution, and transportation of alcohol, was ratified in 1919. By 1920, Prohibition had begun.
While we usually hear sensational stories about bootleggers, the rise of the mob, and speakeasies, we are less likely to be taught about one of the most beneficial effects of Prohibition: the initial stages of desegregation. That’s right: The desire to imbibe and indulge at will and in volumes determined by our own common sense (or lack thereof) brings people together like nothing else. Of course, jazz was right there in the mix. In many states at the time, clubs, bars and performance halls were segregated by law. However, people of all colors came together in establishments known as “black and tan clubs,” where multiple races socialized, danced, and drank on common ground.
There are countless stories about these clubs. Famous locations include Connie’s Inn, which was owned by a bootlegger, and the Sunset Café, which hosted Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway on multiple occasions. Even the speakeasies that restricted access to white patrons usually broke their own rules to bring in African-American jazz performers and service staff, including the famous Cotton Club, owned by bootlegger Owney Madden.
Interestingly, Armstrong received a great deal of criticism over his lifetime for his decision to remain relatively quiet on the topic of segregation. Many believed he did so in order to continue to receive patronage from clubs that did not allow African-American clientele but did actively court Armstrong and other famous African-American musicians. He never commented on his decision to remain quiet directly, but he did address the topic of segregation directly in an explosive interview in 1957.
Armstrong talked about the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of black students being prevented from attending an all-white school in Arkansas, by famously saying, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Many people called for boycotts of his shows in the wake of that interview, to which Armstrong responded, “I feel the downtrodden situation the same as any other negro. I think I have a right to get sore and say something about it.” President Dwight Eisenhower ultimately sent soldiers to desegregate Little Rock, but not before being labeled “two-faced” and “no-guts” by Armstrong. This did not ultimately prevent Armstrong from being appointed as an official cultural diplomat for the U.S. in 1960, long after Prohibition had ended. In fact, the 18thAmendment had been significantly “walked back” nearly three decades earlier, and the 21stAmendment officially repealed the 18th in 1933. The winds of change were still moving, however, and jazz would remain a crucial part of it all.
Fats Waller, composer of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” was one of the most prolific jazz musicians of his time. He copyrighted more than 400 songs and was described by collaborator Andy Razaf as “the soul of melody.” Sadly, Waller died at the age of 39, officially a victim of pneumonia, although many historians believe heavy drinking weakened his immune system and made him susceptible to infection.
While everyone has heard Fats’ Grammy-award-winning tunes “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, not everyone realizes there was a lot more to this popular performer. Here are three unusual facts about Fats Waller you probably didn’t know.
#1: His great-grandson is a professional football player.
Darren Waller, who plays tight end for the Oakland Raiders, is Fats’ great-grandson. Darren Waller played college football at Georgia Tech, and was drafted in the 6th round in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, the player has struggled with substance abuse since 2016, but in 2018 he was signed to Oakland and played that season and the one following. He is presently active on the Raiders’ roster.
#2: Fats was kidnapped as part of a surprise for Al Capone’s birthday.
After a 1926 performance in Chicago, Waller was forced into a car at gunpoint by four men. They took him to Al Capone’s Hawthorne Inn, pushed him toward a piano with a gun to his back, and told to play. It turned out Waller was a “surprise guest” for the gangster’s birthday party, and Fats performed for three days before being tipped and released.
#3: He was the first African-American songwriter to compose a hit Broadway musical for viewing by a mostly-white audience.
During Fats’ lifetime, music was nearly as segregated as the rest of society. Being an African-American musician might mean one performed for audiences with mixed racial demographics, but composition was generally still a segregated issue. Therefore, it was highly unusual and truly groundbreaking when Fats was hired to create the musical Early to Bed in 1943. Waller was initially asked to perform in the musical as a comedic act but was soon hired to compose as well.
Unfortunately for his estate, Waller sold the rights to the music for $1,000 while drunk after threatening to leave the production entirely if the producer would not buy them. Acquaintances reported this was “typical” of Waller’s behavior when drunk and that he would often sell off the rights to his compositions for quick cash. As a result of that forced sale, Waller was removed from the performance side of the show and retained only as a composer because the producer felt his drinking made him too big of a risk to a production with eight performances a week. Waller died less than a year later after contracting pneumonia on a train.
We all have a little music inside us, so it probably surprises jazz fans less than most that their favorite genre’s nomenclature means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. After all, we’re all different! Of course, our music is distinct, as well. However, with jazz music, its very name has a storied etymological history that begins several years before the generally acknowledged emergence of this musical genre.
Recently, I spent a little time researching just how jazz got its name. We’ve all heard the conventional explanation, that the word is a combination of sexual innuendo and a description of the energy typical of the music throughout history. However, Rutgers professor Lewis Porter, who now teaches in the New School jazz program, says there is much more to it than that.
“When it comes to the origin of the word ‘jazz,’ it seems each person simply believes what she or he wants to,” he wrote in an article on the topic.
Porter noted that many people believe the word originated in Africa, but an equal number believe equally passionately the word has French origins. “The real story is far less simple,” he concluded.
Here are three things I learned during my research on the topic that I never knew before about how jazz got its name:
The word “jazz,” as spelled today, was first used in 1912 in the context of baseball.
In a California newspaper printed April 2, 1912, the term “jazz” made its official debut as an adjective for a type of curveball. A pitcher named Henderson claimed in an interview he had developed a new type of curveball that “wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it” because it is too “lively.” This is interesting for several reasons, including:
- Conventional jazz history insists the word was first spelled “jass”
- This means the word originated with white Californians
- The “official” history of the word according to the Oxford English Dictionary places its initial use in 1909 in a song recording titled “Uncle Josh in Society.” However, the 1909 version of the song does not include the word jazz; the artist rerecorded the song in 1919 and added the word because by then, everyone was using it.
The word “jazz” probably did not originally have sexual connotations.
Another popular myth in jazz culture is that the word “jazz” was slang for a sex act and derived from the words “jasm” and “gism.” However, jazz did not become slang for sex until around 1918, when this very sexy musical genre was in the process of emerging as the powerful force of energy and passion that it remains to this day. In fact, although “jasm,” which originally meant energy, vitality, or pep, does sound similar to the other word, most etymologists agree the two words were not originally related! They only became conflated because of jazz music in all likelihood, rather than the other way around.
A press agent’s joke in 1917 has confused the issue for more than 100 years.
In 1913, the San Francisco Bulletin published an article on the origins of the word “jazz” and what it meant for the sports world. Four years later, a press agent named Walter Kingsley published a spoof of this article that included “facts” about the term such as that John Milton used it in the late 1600s. In reality, Kingsley fabricated much of his article, but over time, many people lost sight of the humor and accepted his fiction as truth.
Jazz, Ragtime, and Good Promotional Practices
It was not until 1915 that a new kind of music in Chicago, not New Orleans, was dubbed “jazz” by the local papers. Over time, the term migrated south, to New Orleans, where it fell into use to describe the “ragtime” music many of the earliest New Orleans jazz musicians were playing at the time. Duke Ellington, himself, wrote in his autobiography that jazz was named by “white people, not by the black musicians who created it.” However, implications that the name was derogatory are also inaccurate, since the word jazz emerged in the south as a promotional term to emphasize the energy of the music.
The history of jazz nomenclature is as long and varied as the development and evolution of the music itself. These are just three of the many surprising things you can learn about the word “jazz,” and we’ll explore more in a future post.
If you think about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece about the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby, you cannot help but think of flappers, wild and excessive parties, and strains of jazz music. However, if you were to put that music to paper and play it today, most musicians would agree that the tunes you were playing should be called swing, not jazz. Most people have no idea where jazz stops and swing begins and may even believe the two types of music are identical. In this post, we’ll explore the distinctions between the two musical genres so you can tell them apart in the future.
Jazz Came First
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, jazz music predates swing music. Jazz, which was commonly known as “Dixieland” in its earliest days while the term “jazz” was still being used predominantly in baseball, emerged before World War I. In fact, some historians argue that the earliest roots of the music were in evidence around the turn of the century in the very early 1900s.
Swing, on the other hand, emerged in the late 1920s, which is why Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is so often considered synonymous with jazz but set to musical scores that feature swing music instead. At that time, swing was evolving as a genre with its roots in jazz music.
Swing Bands were Big Bands, Unlike Jazz
Swing emerged from jazz naturally because in the late 1920s and early 1930s, people wanted to dance while they listened to their upbeat tunes. Swing emerged just as the Great Depression was hitting the country, and dancing was one of the few escapes most people had. Swing is generally considered more “dance-floor-friendly” than jazz and places a heavy emphasis on the rhythm section of the band. Swing bands are also much larger than jazz bands, in most cases, with lots of musicians and the traditional “big band” feel. Jazz bands tend to be smaller and fronted by cornets, trumpets, trombones, or clarinets.
Because jazz musicians may not even use musical scores and are expected to improvise as they play, jazz music does not necessarily lend itself to big band performances. While five or even seven musicians can work together seamlessly in a jazz performance, two or three dozen musicians (such as those in a big band) need a score or an arrangement in order to function.
Jazz Keeps Evolving Even Today
The “swing era” of music ended around the time World War II ended. A number of famous jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitgerald, appeared with swing bands during the swing era, which further conflated the two musical genres in the public eye. One of the most obvious distinctions between jazz and swing is that jazz continues to evolve even today. Swing, on the other hand, is a distinct musical movement with a clear beginning and end. Sure, it “comes back” periodically as people enjoy big band performances and the easy, lively dancing that accompanies the sound, but the sound remains distinctive and largely the same. Jazz, on the other hand, has since evolved into modern jazz, classical jazz, hip hop, the blues, and many other genres that, like swing, are part of the comprehensive concept that is jazz music.
More than 50 years ago, John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner packed up their instruments after a long day in the Van Gelder Studio and headed for home. They were tired, having recorded for hours in the studio space. They probably were a little light-headed, a little sick of each other, and maybe a little discouraged, since the session tapes from that day ultimately were shelved and eventually destroyed in the 1970s as part of a cost-saving measure at Impulse! Records. Clearly, Coltrane, who must have received a copy of that session since it turned up in his wife’s estate half a century later, wasn’t too impressed with the content since it never hit the airwaves and, as far as anyone knows, the recording was never played again.
Fortunately, Juanita Naima Coltrane, who was Coltrane’s wife from 1955 to 1966, shelved the tape herself. Although Juanita Coltrane died in 1996, 22 years later her family members found it while cleaning out part of her old estate. The family released the session tape and allowed the world to enjoy not one but two entirely unknown compositions as well as another five unheard renditions of other tracks. The album was released under the title Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album and consists entirely of takes from that day in 1963.
The owner of Van Gelder Studio, Rudy Van Gelder, was known for his fastidiousness when it came to recordings and production. It is no surprise to jazz historians that Van Gelder played a key role in the creation of the copies of the performances that day and the duplicate recording that ultimately preserved those performances. Van Gelder was known for his secrecy, including hiding multiple microphones throughout the studio to capture as much of the “warmth and intimacy of live jazz performances” as possible in his recordings. One historian, David Simons, writes, “If someone took a photograph in [Van Gelder’s] studio, he would move the microphones around first so no one could steal his secrets.”
The studio was home to many Coltrane recordings, as the musician was very fond of Van Gelder’s physical layout and recording process. Coltrane recorded the released Both Directions at Once there, as well as John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman and A Love Supreme. The newly released Both Directions album has been widely hailed as a showcase of “an epochal band in its prime” (as music critic Giovanni Russonello wrote) and a production that captures “the breadth and energy of [the group’s] live performances.” Thank goodness we only had to wait 50-plus years to hear it.
When you hear the name John Coltrane, you probably know you are hearing about a “jazz great,” but do you really know what made him stand out from the crowd? If you love jazz but have not been listening very long, then you might not be able to follow the conversation when the genre’s true aficionados really starting jamming. Check out our easy list to get a basic overview of what makes these five jazz greats just so special in the jazz books.
Mary Lou Williams
For starters, Mary Lou Williams was alive for nearly the entire initial lifespan of jazz, since she was born in 1910 and died in 1981. Of course, she did not start performing at birth. She entered the jazz arena playing in a swing band but continued throughout the evolutions of the music to stay at the forefront. She also is unique because she was one of the few musicians fully accepted by the classical world at that time.
Skill Set: composer, pianist
Miles Davis may be best known for his 1960s recording Bitches Brew. He is also known for the strangely exotic impact a rampant heroin addiction had on his music, his life as a hustler, and his raspy voice, which he acquired in 1955 after an operation to remove polyps from his larynx. Davis was instructed by his doctors to remain silent until he healed but could not avoid an argument and permanently damaged his voice. He was also called “The Prince of Darkness” after this time.
Skill Set: prolific composer, extremely flexible musician, bandleader, trumpet, flugelhorn, electric organ
Thelonious Monk’s music has been called “Picasso’s work set to music.” Although his work sometimes is misconstrued as overly simplistic and minimalist, it has many layers and often includes dissonance. His piano playing changed the way musicians in multiple genres approach the instrument, thanks to a percussive style that includes lots of silent gaps and hesitations in the music. One famed critic once called him “the elephant on the keyboard.” Monk would also occasionally stand up while his fellow musicians were playing and dance for a few minutes before returning to the piano. He also had a distinct look, including suits, hats, and sunglasses.
Skill Set: piano, composer
No list like this could be complete without Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. Not only did Fitzgerald collaborate with other greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but she also performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra, often in Harlem. She was an incredible improviser and scat singer. She is known for “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”. Fitzgerald’s performance career lasted nearly six decades, during which she won 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Skill Set: impeccable diction, vocal talent, swing, bebop, traditional pop, vocal jazz, blues, scat singing
After all that, we couldn’t leave John Coltrane off the list! Coltrane played truly spiritual jazz, and is known for his album, A Love Supreme. He was also at the forefront of the free jazz movement and collaborated with many other musicians throughout his career, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He is considered one of the greatest and most influential saxophonists in music history and was even canonized by the African Orthodox Church. He played the tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and flute, and would sometimes keep an extra set of drums on stage so he could play those as well.
Skill Set: musician, bandleader, composer, clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, alto sax, flute