Vaudeville was one of the most enduring forms of entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
A protean genre, it contained just about everything: skits, song-and-dance routines, comedy performances, minstrel shows, sketches, and more.
“Unspeakable Jazz Must Go,” read one headline; another, more overtly racist, argued “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.” Critics who wished to demean African-Americans now had a new way to do so, through vitriolic articles about jazz.
Indeed, a striking number of anti-jazz articles in mainstream magazines between 19 sought to attack African-Americans more than the music itself.
In the contemporary phenomenon of “Gatsby parties”—festivities intended to capture the air of the titular Jay Gatsby’s famously lavish, bacchanalian parties—jazz is For all of its ubiquity in American culture in the twentieth century, however, jazz was also deeply divisive from its very beginnings.
If jazz was the most visible example of a new musical form in early twentieth century America, it was also one of the most frequently vilified, often in ways that directly or implicitly connected to bigoted assumptions about blackness. Scott Fitzgerald has been inextricably linked to jazz.Indeed, Fitzgerald is even widely believed to have coined the term “Jazz Age,” and although the phrase predated Fitzgerald’s book, his usage unquestionably boosted its popularity immensely.Alongside all this, by the 1920s, black vaudeville had become increasingly popular with interracial audiences, particularly due to the presence of black female vocalists who could draw huge crowds and garner critical acclaim, like Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and many others.Their songs often featured bands playing the “novelty” music, which had by now become firmly known as jazz.This, along with Jim Crow-era racism, meant that jazz quickly became associated in many Americans’ minds not only with the musical style itself, but with the worst images of anti-black mockery.An iconic example of this was Al Jolson’s blackface performance in the epochal 1927 movie, , which heralded the end of the silent film era.Because jazz’s lineage—difficult as it is to pin down—was tightly bound up with African-American performance, the music often came to signify black American cultural production, and so, whenever Fitzgerald invoked jazz, he was often, simultaneously, invoking blackness.Yet ’s usage of jazz is complicated, as Fitzgerald was simultaneously a proponent of the then-new, race-crossing music and a writer prone to resorting to racial stereotypes when black characters appeared—a combination that, unfortunately, was far from uncommon in Fitzgerald’s day.It is difficult to overstate the pre-eminence of jazz in the early twentieth century in America, appearing as a theme in everything from clubs to cartoons to realist fiction.“For the makers, consumers, and arbiters of culture,” the theater and music scholar David Savran wrote in 2006, “jazz was everything.