In his deeply researched, vitally energetic new book Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, author T. J. English (one of America's premier chroniclers of Mafia lore and Mob history) guides readers through decades of 20th-century Jazz artistry, explaining and dramatizing how major figures in the history of crime in America were essential in bringing Jazz to the public.
The History Behind T.J. English's Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld
America's unique contribution to world culture is the ever-evolving music commonly called Jazz. It was, and is, a musical phenomenon that could not have emerged elsewhere. And the history of Jazz has geographical, racial, social, economic, historical, and convoluted turnarounds no less complicated than a transcription of one of John Coltrane's 14-minute tour-de-force solos.
At the same time, there is also a "through line" to the history of Jazz that's as fundamental as the basic three-chord structure of the 12-bar blues.
In a nutshell: The majority of musical innovations required for Jazz to evolve were created by African-American musicians, who worked much of the time in brothels, clubs, dance halls, theaters, recording studios, and other venues for white bosses, white managers, white producers, and other paymasters -- and most of the money-men were usually entangled with the underworld.
From the mythic "Storyville" section of World War One-era New Orleans to Chicago when controlled by Al Capone and The Outfit in the 1920s and everywhere else from Kansas City to New York and Boston and L.A., as Jazz music infiltrated Americana, a musical art form was allied with local and national criminal figureheads.
What Were the Links Between American Jazz and Organized Crime?
Everything about the all-American gestation of Jazz was a matter of successive historical forces (from the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws to Prohibition) creating the conditions needed for innovators to take the lead. Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld is a robust, eye-popping account of larger-than-life American icons (from Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra to Mayor Jimmy Walker and gangster "Bugsy" Siegel) who stand no chance of ever being carved on Mount Rushmore.
Geography is a crucial theme in the story. New Orleans was the cradle of Jazz, in the beginning. That had much to do with the commingling of African-Americans (already outcasts) with a surging population of emigrant Italians (despised and exiled by the city's Caucasian overlords). Significant parts were also played by the equally shunned Irish immigrants. Jazz as a musical force was primarily an African-American odyssey of instrumental adventuring and experimentation. But as a social phenomenon, as it shifted from disreputable "devil's music" to popular entertainment (in clubs, on radio, and in films of the 1930s and 1940s), becoming a dance-centered national soundtrack during the WWII years and shortly thereafter, Jazz was forever dependent on the power and largesse of white men calling the shots behind closed doors.
And yet, this racially conflicted panorama of American archetypes (true-life characters like mobster Sam Giancana or record producer Mo Levy or horn-playing titans like Charlie Parker and others) makes most Hollywood characters seem like cartoons. But they remind us that decades prior to the integration of baseball in America (via Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947), Jazz inspired modes of integration unimaginable elsewhere in society.
Long before "the color line" was broken in the U.S. armed forces or big-time sports, the interdependence of Blacks and Whites on Planet Jazz was a given. It's true that racism always loomed. For example, Black performers a la Duke Ellington and His Orchestra became nationally famous through their late-1920s radio hook-ups at the Cotton Club, at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. After the Cotton Club, the Ellingtonians went on to triumph in Hollywood movies and at London concerts in the 1930s. However, at the Club itself, the audience permitted was strictly Whites Only.
Contrarily, it was the policy of the legendary Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s and beyond, as well as the Cafe Society nightspot where Billie Holiday introduced her anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" (originally a poem written by Jewish-American schoolteacher Abel Meeropol) to insist on policies of No Segregation. Neither on the stage nor in the audience.
Dangerous Rhythms Delves Into Racial and Ethnic Undertones of the Jazz and Crime Evolution
What makes Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld a surfeit of riches is that T. J. English breaks down and explains clearly how Jazz dovetailed with overlapping dominant issues of predatory capitalism, the rise of ethnically divergent crime-driven urban networks who sought to control everything nefarious (prostitution, narcotics, and gambling) and seemingly innocent: jukeboxes and record distribution, linen supplies, and of course all the union-allied personnel related to theaters, clubs, studios, and more.
T. J. English reminds us early in the book: "It is a quirk of history that around the same time that jazz was first taking shape, organized crime was also in its incubation stage. Organized crime, as opposed to random street crime or crimes of passion, was rooted in the economic system of the country. Almost from the beginning, there existed in the United States a belief among some that capitalism was a shell game that involved the exploitation of labor, using violence if necessary."
We're also reminded of this: "Jazz was eviscerated by white cultural commentators in its first decade of existence. It was thought of as 'jig music' . . . played most commonly in places of ill repute -- bordellos and clubs owned and run by Sicilian immigrants. These clubs were often located in vice districts made possible by political bosses who were Irish, another ethnic group often denigrated by the WASP ruling class. To top it all off, as the music developed and became more of a commercial venture, the agents and managers who became important brokers for the musicians were often Jewish, the newest target of bigotry and vilification to arrive on these shores."
English ties it together: "The fact that jazz was attacked in the newspapers, with quotes from cultural arbiters, music critics, some politicians, and toadies in law enforcement, usually stemmed from the music's roots in the underworld. Jazz was viewed as being morally suspect. The fact that 'Negro musicians' -- in some cases, [descendants] of former slaves -- were fraternizing with known criminals from the immigrant class was viewed as an unholy alliance. The average Black musician had less to fear from an Italian mafioso inside a club than he did from the average white cracker out on the street. The . . . musician had less to fear from a gangster than he did from a policeman."
Followed by this remarkable summing up: "In crucial ways, the mob used the popularity of jazz in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s as a way to stretch its muscles and expand to cities and small towns all around the country. There was a time when most jazz clubs in cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Kansas City were 'mobbed up.' Throughout the century, this model spread to other cities on the coasts (especially in Los Angeles) . . . . In the Nevada desert, an entire city was founded on the relationship between jazz and the underworld (Las Vegas), and the model was transported beyond the boundaries of the United States to Havana, Cuba, in an audacious attempt by the mob to go international. Through all this, the music developed and evolved according to commercial trends, technological advances, and the artistry of the musicians."
Jazz and Crime: A Study in American Contradictions
One of the most gifted of those musicians was Lionel Hampton (rightly billed as the Master of the Vibes and the King of the Drums), whose 1989 appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show struck a note for honesty when "Hamp" flat-out said: "History has proven that nobody was better for Black jazz musicians than Al Capone. His nightclubs alone employed hundreds."
Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld is a case study in American contradictions. The narrative is replete with piercing examples of corruption, racism, violent abuses -- plus endless musical glories involving everyone from royalty like Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. There is no shortage of rough anecdotes about exploited talents and burned-out casualties, from the Royal Roost to Birdland and Bop City.
Nonetheless, it's an exhilarating book. And the writing of T. J. English has the verve of first-rate Jazz.
M. J. Moore is the author of Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, and For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, a novel. Learn more by visiting heliotropebooks.com.
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Featured image: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Cotton Club circa 1929; screengrab via YouTube (C) Donald Herbert Holmes