Jazz, widely considered America’s classical music. With legends like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong swinging away on trumpets, drums, and clarinets. But what if I told you that without the American Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, and the age of prohibition, the age of modern jazz would’ve never flourished.
To begin this story, we need to go back to the early 1920’s, the age of prohibition. The 18th amendment, the prohibition act went into effect on January 18, 1921. The reason behind the amendment largely had to do with the Ku Klux Klan from the southern more rural states gaining political power. The KKK and it’s beneficiaries said that they wanted to ban sale of alcohol, as it was against their followers religions, and it was bringing down America. While the statement held water as many ethnos religious groups such as; Baptists, Protestants, and Presbyterians, were against the sale of alcohol. But the true reason behind wanting prohibition was the ability to shut down major immigrant businesses.
After the Civil War many African-Americans left the south and accumulated in major northern urban areas such as New York and Chicago. Also during this time, immigrants across the Atlantic also started to set ashore in major Northern urban hubs. What immigrants lacked in the English language and connections, the made up for in hard work and entrepreneurship. One of the main sources of income for many immigrants was alcohol production and distribution. Breweries started by German immigrants in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland and many people enjoyed drinking Irish whiskey or Italian wine at bars and restaurants owned by their immigrant patrons.
With the influx of immigrants to the North, most of the money and influence followed suit. The South was fledgling after the Civil War, as their main sources of incomes made on the back of slave labor. The Rural South needed a way to try to regain power and many thought that prohibition would be the way to do it.
With alcohol illegal in the states, many immigrant breweries and bars began to shut down. But the thing about alcohol is that it is addictive and just because the law says you can’t drink it doesn’t mean you won’t. But how would you be able to get your hands on that beautiful elixir we call alcohol? Who can we look to offer a service that many want but is illegal? I think everyone knows the answer here, you simply need to get a hold of your local organized crime syndicate.
Immigrant gangs have been around since the first boat arrived in the land of the free centuries ago. But the term gang was exactly what they were. Small amounts of troubled youth in urban centers fighting over turf and robbing people for spare change, it was nothing sophisticated they were simply thugs. But with advent of prohibition in the early 20’s, people needed a service provided and thugs were the only ones who weren’t afraid of stepping over the law. The problem with bootlegging is that it was a complex model. Gangs couldn’t do what they were doing before and hope to make a profit while avoiding the Federal Government. They needed to get organized, and that is exactly what they did. Sicilian, Irish, and Jewish gangsters began working together to create a system to produce and distill alcohol, transport it, and sell it to customers. And after a short amount of time the Speakeasy was born.
Speakeasy's were underground clubs in urban areas that sold liquor and entertainment to the masses. The term “Speakeasy” came from Irish slang meaning “Keep it on the down low”.
These Speakeasy's were generally ran by the Sicilian and Jewish gangsters and generally under the guise of a normal business to avoid suspicion of the government. By the end of the prohibition era there were an estimated 30,000 speakeasy's running in New York City. Due to their illegal state, people couldn’t be picky with who they decided to spend their time with. Before the speakeasy, most drinking occurred in Saloons. Saloons were generally designated to the white male crowd, women generally drank at home and minorities and immigrants drank at their own establishments.
When alcohol became illegal, people of every race, culture, and gender began hanging out with each other and intermingling. This intermingling didn’t stop with the patrons either. The black and jewish entertainers began working with each other in speakeasy's, developing and combining influences from one another's culture and the new age of jazz was born.
Jazz was not taken seriously by the mainstream audience, and considered abominations of culture by rural areas. Jazz was originally called “jass” by many of the mainstream, shunning the music as “black and criminal” music. Yet the music caught on by many including many of the gangsters themselves. Al Capone was a jazz aficionado, and was an owner of many jazz clubs in downtown Chicago. Due to his love of jazz he was one of the first club owners to pay performers better than subsistence wage.
Many famous jazz musicians got their start in clubs owned by gangster owners. Louis Armstrong’s first gig was given to him by a Sicilian mobster who owned many clubs and brothels in the French Quarter. Other notable names getting their start in the speakeasy's owned by less than credible owners included King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and many other future legends of classical American music.
Jazz was never as popular before the prohibition era and maybe never as popular since. Jazz represents the melting pot this country's built on. People from many different backgrounds getting together due to unforeseen circumstances, and creating something beautiful. But the chances of that cultural integration and the music it created, may never have happened if it weren’t for prohibition and the future criminal empires that sprouted from it.