Jazz Age New York

The jazz age in New York is one of the most infamous times throughout the history of New York. From the booming music scene, to the changing social and sexual norms, New York became the hub for enjoying the newly emerging American culture. New York City is one of the entertainment capitals of the world, and much of that entertainment is from music. Music is not new to the city, and came to a peak during the jazz age. The jazz age was at its peak in the 1920s, when jazz was becoming more and more popular. Many of the most famous jazz musicians were African Americans such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The jazz age was not only a pivotal time for music, but also for fashion, mass culture, prohibition, the automobile, and the lives of women. This time is also called “The Roaring Twenties,” since it was a time known for its opulence and over the top parties. New Yorkers travelled to Carnegie Hall to get their fix of jazz music at one of the many concerts put on there. People looking to party and drink illegal alcohol would visit speakeasies such as The Back Room, where the entrance to the bar was hidden behind a bookcase. The Cotton Club was another major jazz club, known for its “#1 Beer” and a memorable house band led by Duke Ellington. New York is full of landmarks that will transport visitors back to the Jazz Age with just one step inside.

The Jazz Age was an age marked by the uprising of jazz music, and the drastic change in American culture. Women called “flappers” were wearing shorter dresses and cutting their hair into bobs, dancing to the popular music in speakeasies and dance clubs. With prohibition in effect during this time period, alcohol had to be illegally made and served at places called speakeasies. One of the most popular speakeasies could be found at 102 Norfolk Ave, and was called The Back Room. While many speakeasies had fake fronts, this speakeasy had an actual business operating in conjunction with the speakeasy, Ratner’s Restaurant. This particular speakeasy was known for serving illegal alcohol and the criminals of the city as well. Many gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel used this space for “business meetings.”[1] The gangsters preferred this speakeasy due to its multiple exits onto different streets. If there was a hit going on, or a raid, it was very easy for the gangsters to make a quick getaway through one of the many entrances.[2] Today, the Back Room is accessed the same way it was during the 1920s. A secret staircase behind a bookshelf brings customers down to the speakeasy and transports them to the 1920s. With vintage décor and cocktails served in teacups, just like they were during prohibition to secretly drink, one trip to this hidden bar will make you feel like you are partying at the peak of the jazz age.

Aside from parties and illegal alcohol, the jazz age was known quite obviously for its music. Jazz was making its way into the limelight and became the music of the 1920s and 30s. Jazz music was not new in America, but was becoming more and more popular at this time than it had ever been before. In the article “If Jazz Isn’t Music, Why Isn’t It,” from the June 13th, 1926 edition of the New York Times, Paul Whiteman claims that “jazz came to America 300 years ago in chains.”[3] There is an undeniable truth that jazz is a major part of the African American culture and many of its roots lie within the slaves that came to America hundreds of years ago. As the years went on, jazz began to spread to mainstream American culture and gave African Americans the opportunity to be in the spotlight. Jazz music was mainly performed by African Americans during this age at the listening pleasure of wealthier white citizens. One place where this jazz music was heard was at the Cotton Club, one of the most famous jazz clubs in NYC during this era. It was located in Harlem and owned by the infamous gangster Owney Madden. This club was the go-to spot for illegal alcohol and entertainment from jazz musicians and dancers.[4] The acts that performed at the Cotton Club became world famous musicians, such as Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington led the Orchestra at the Cotton Club from 1927-1930, and sporadically after that for 8 years. Ellington and his orchestra gained national attention and praise through weekly radio broadcasts that were sometimes recorded and released on albums.[5]

Although the jazz music was played mostly by African Americans, the clubs they were performing in were not so racially friendly to customers and other workers. The club was created with the idea to make “a stylish plantation environment for its entirely white clientele.”[6] The Cotton Club originally excluded all but white customers, although the majority of the performers and staff were African American. The dancers were held to a very strict standard and were required to be under 21 years old, light skinned, and at least 5’6” tall. The music here was instructed to be played to give a jungle like atmosphere to portray the African American employees as plantation residents or exotic savages. Although the majority of the population in the Cotton Club was African American and the music would not be possible without them, the club was extremely segregated and oppressive. Jazz music was bringing together the races, only to segregate them when they got together. Carnegie Hall was another music hall that was popular for jazz music during this period. It was home to hundreds of jazz concerts by famous artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Early jazz was first heard here in 1912, becoming one of the first places in the city to go and listen to the newly emerging genre.[7] Carnegie Hall is still in use today and has withstood the test of time as a prestigious music venue.

The jazz age was also a time for new fashion, especially for women. The flapper style became very popular starting in the 1920s. Women began cutting their hair short into bobs, wearing shorter skirts that showed their legs, wearing more makeup, and high-heeled shoes. Being a flapper was not all about the clothes, but also their state of mind. In the April 16th, 1922 issue of the New York Times, a flapper “dresses simply and sensibly, and looks life right straight in the eye; she knows just what she wants and goes after it, whether it is a man, a career, a job, or a new hat.”[8] This new type of woman pushed the boundaries and challenged the sexual standards of the times. Women were no longer submissive to the men in their lives and were not afraid to have fun. Flappers would go to dance clubs and dance until the wee hours of the morning. They would spend their time with men drinking and socializing in speakeasies while listening to jazz. The changing times came with changing standards for women and gave them more freedom. If it wasn’t for the brave flappers who changed the rules, women would not be where they are today.

Overall, the Jazz Age in New York City was a time of change and advancement. The music scene was changing with the emergence of jazz into popular culture. This music was played by African American musicians in places such as the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. While the African American musicians were in the spotlight, their business was not welcomed as patrons. These jazz clubs were segregated and only white clientele were welcome to see the show. Besides the jazz clubs, New Yorkers also passed their time by going to speakeasies to drink illegal alcohol. Prohibition was in place during this time period, so the only way to get alcohol was to go to a secret club. These secret clubs were also hot beds of mob activity. The mob was very active during the jazz era and gangsters used prohibition to their advantage. For example, famous gangster Owney Madden was the owner of the Cotton Club and used the club to sell his “#1 Beer.” The Back Room was also used by many gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel used this space for “business meetings.”[9] The gangsters preferred this speakeasy due to its multiple exits onto different streets. If there was a hit going on, or a raid, it was very easy for the gangsters to make a quick getaway through one of the many entrances. From flappers, to gangsters, to jazz musicians, the jazz age in New York City has a colorful history. A tour around New York City with visits to the Backroom, The Cotton Club, and Carnegie Hall, will instantly transport you back to the opulent 1920s and early 1930s.

[1] “The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation.” The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2014. Accessed October 05, 2016. https://savingplaces.org/stories/historic-bars-backroom-bar-new-york-city#.V_XJFOLMicE.

[2] Savingplaces.org

[3] “If Jazz Isn’t Music, Why Isn’t it?” 1926.New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 13, 1. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/103913320?accountid=13793.

[4] Elmayan, Lara. “Vintage Photos: Inside the Cotton Club, One of NYC’s Leading Jazz Venues of the 1920s and ’30s.” Untapped Cities RSS. N.p., 05 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.

 

[5] “The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed,” accessed December 14, 2016, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/cotton-club-harlem-1923.

[6] Ibid

[7] “Press Center,” carnegiehall.org, 2016, accessed December 10, 2016, https://www.carnegiehall.org/Press/People-and-History/.

[8] By, MARGARET O. “More Ado about the Flapper.” New York Times (1857-1922), Apr 16, 1922. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.shu.edu/docview/98854065?accountid=13793.

[9] “The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation.” The Backroom Bar in New York City | National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2014. Accessed October 05, 2016. https://savingplaces.org/stories/historic-bars-backroom-bar-new-york-city#.V_XJFOLMicE.

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