The Great Gatsby The Jazz Age Essay

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.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.

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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.

One of the earliest such pieces, “The Appeal of Primitive Jazz” (1917), decried the “colored” groups as seeming to be “infected with a virus” that made them “shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return of the medieval jumping mania.” If such casual dismissiveness was not enough, the writer then argued that jazz was performed by “savages” who showed their “aggressive” and “retarded” nature through music, an image that would likely have brought to some readers’ minds the image of Gus from the 1915 movie , in which Gus, an old colonial caricature of black men as dangerous and sexually rapacious, assaults white women.

Jazz, in this all-too-common line of reasoning, did not advance us; it brought us backwards, and possibly even endangered white listeners.

And Fitzgerald’s incorporation of jazz both into and into his definition of the 1920s was similarly fraught.

Despite his decrying of white supremacist ideologies, many of his depictions of African-Americans employ obvious, if casual, racial caricatures, even as he was willing to embrace the musical style that African-Americans invented and were indelibly associated with.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.The African-American musician James Reese Europe popularized jazz in France during WWI, performing “novelty music” with the 369 Infantry Band in 1918; earlier, he had formed the Clef Club, a society and band for black musicians, which would make history by playing the “new” music at Carnegie Hall.The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white group that produced the first jazz record in 1919, incorporated barnyard noises in its hit single, “Livery Stable Blues,” a harkening to the use of bizarre sounds in black vaudeville.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.Nevin’s song, which was often performed on piano or violin, might be done with three clarinets instead, as the ragtime musician Wilbur Sweatman did in vaudeville performances.These popular, innovative acts, as Kenney notes, led to white Americans and Europeans imitating this sort of improvisational instrumentation, and to African-American artists refining the vaudevillian shows into a more coherent musical form.Moreover, white critics often associated jazz with minstrelsy.The earnest contributions to music history by black vaudeville performers was almost always overshadowed by the contemptuous, caricatured performances of white Americans wearing blackface in minstrel shows.


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