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From the publication of his 1922 collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, and beyond, F. 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. The presence of jazz in his other works, perhaps most iconically in his grand novel The Great Gatsby, linked the term even more tightly to his name.  Today, the moniker “Jazz Age” has come to signify, as a kind of evocative shorthand, the 1920s in both academic and pop culture. 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 The Great Gatsby’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.

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“It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” Fitzgerald famously wrote of the 1920s in a 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  In his mind, the decade defied any rigid definition, but what perhaps characterized it best was the jazz music he so frequently alluded to in his own writing. In Fitzgerald’s most popular novel, The Great Gatsby, jazz appears as constant background music. 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 de rigueur to evoke the 1920s.

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. And Fitzgerald’s incorporation of jazz both into The Great Gatsby 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.

Jazz in the 20s

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. A weltanschauung, a personal identity, a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, an eros, a mode of sociality—an entire way of being.” It was a musical style that, with its improvised orchestration, complexity, and danceable melodies, seemed to represent, through the fusion of seemingly contrary impulses, so much of the world at the time: the dissonance of Modernism, on the one hand, with jazz’s rejection of straightforward classical music, and, on the other hand, its class-transcending popularity, whereby both rich and poor could, in theory, dance to similar music.

The origins of jazz are somewhat hazy. This is partly because, as the music scholar William Kenney notes, jazz did not come from one sole place. Instead, its ancestry can be traced back to musical theatre and black vaudeville performances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—though the vaudevillian connections are often neglected in conventional histories of jazz. Early white historians of jazz, like Otis Ferguson and Sidney Finkelstein, argued, inaccurately, that jazz was essentially “folk music” played for all-black audiences—a mixing-up of jazz with country blues. Many classically-trained black Americans, like Will Marion Cook (who had studied music at Oberlin College), found themselves unable to work in grand concert halls, due to anti-black discrimination. As a result, they frequently turned to popular music, theatre, and vaudeville, which would lead, in part, to the formation of jazz, as well as to many other African-American theatrical and entertainment productions. Cook, for example, went on to produce the first African-American Broadway musical comedy, Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, in 1898.

The Protean Genre of Vaudeville

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. Many popular acts included unusual sounds on stage, using washboards, saws, and other household items as instruments, usually for comic effect. In the years immediately following World War I, such novel orchestration was conventionally termed “jazz” or “novelty music.” Other acts featured well-known songs, like Ethelbert Nevin’s “The Rosary,” played on unexpected instruments. 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. The African-American musician James Reese Europe popularized jazz in France during WWI, performing “novelty music” with the 369th 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.

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. Because of this, along with an ever-growing stable of jazz-playing showmen and African-Americans publishing sheet music, jazz began to reach an even wider audience, until it became the most popular music of the 1920s.

White Americans and Black Jazz

As the scholar Maureen Anderson points out, white Americans swiftly condemned this new, ubiquitous music. “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 1917 and 1930 sought to attack African-Americans more than the music itself. 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 Birth of a Nation, 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.

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. 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, The Jazz Singer, which heralded the end of the silent film era. Jolson, portraying a white Jewish singer, decides to “become American” by wearing blackface and crooning jazz on stage; as the scholar Michael Rogin observes, because blackface and minstrelsy were amongst the most iconic images at the time of American entertainment, viewers would have understood, immediately, how merging jazz and blackface was equivalent to projecting an identity of “American-ness.”

In much the same vein, an explicit connection between jazz and minstrelsy appeared in a famous Betty Boop cartoon, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (1932), in which Louis Armstrong and his band perform. In the episode—which, by virtue of Armstrong’s presence, has become part of jazz history—Betty Boop is captured on a safari by dark-skinned cannibals, who attempt to devour her. When her companions, Bimbo and Koko the Clown, attempt to save her, they are chased by a cannibal in an extended scene in which their pursuer morphs into a gigantic black head, which then shifts into Armstrong’s own face, then back into the cannibal, the head’s engorged proportions suggesting the exaggerations of minstrel shows. Armstrong is thus represented as both a skilled singer and  a “savage” attempting to eradicate white characters. Such racist iconography was hardly unusual for cartoons of the Jazz Age and beyond, reinforcing the idea that American cultural production, jazz, and minstrelsy all existed together—an idea softly present, too, in The Great Gatsby, as jazz in the book indicates the American-ness of the text, alongside its minstrel-like racial caricatures in the few times it mentions black Americans.

Despite, or perhaps because of, jazz’s prominence, all the way up to the 1950s, the most conservative critics dismissed jazz as the Devil’s music, immoral orchestration that encouraged sex, drugs, and violence. Writers warning against the “Satanic” quality of jazz, however, were not merely giving jazz the same treatment that rock and hip-hop later would get; they were also drawing on a long history of associating black people with evil—“darkness”—by virtue of one’s swarthy skin, a racist tradition extending well into the early days of European colonialism.

Fitzgerald’s Relationship with Jazz – and Race

Fitzgerald’s embrace of jazz, then, was both an acceptance of popular music and a rejection of these racist critiques. Although the word “jazz” only appears a few times in the Great Gatsby, the music itself is ever-present; when music is playing in the background, Fitzgerald frequently refers to saxophones and horns, iconic instruments of the genre. Because of how organically omnipresent jazz is in Fitzgerald’s novel, virtually all later depictions of the book feature roaring jazzy orchestras as a way of capturing the book’s atmosphere, from film adaptations to the by-now-common phenomenon of the Gatsby party. So indebted is Gatsby to jazz and its origins that the critics Catherine Kunce and Paul M. Levitt have strikingly argued that even the structure of the novel itself can be convincingly read as a kind of extended vaudevillian performance.

At the same time, however, Fitzgerald tended to outline black characters in language straight out of minstrel iconography. In The Great Gatsby and elsewhere, black men are often described as “bucks,” a term linking black males to animals white men might hunt. As Gatsby drives Nick Carraway into New York, the narrator describes passing “three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” The men are “bucks;” the rolling eyeballs suggest a caricature from a minstrel poster; and the whole group is meant to inspire laughter. That this is one of the few times black characters explicitly appear in the novel is suggestive.

The cover of The Great Gatsby, 1925
via Wikimedia Commons

These tendencies of Fitzgerald’s did not go unnoticed. On July 23rd, 1934, Earl W. Wilkins, an avid reader of Fitzgerald’s, sent him a letter. “Must all male Negroes in your books and stories be called ‘bucks?’” he asked. Within a fortnight, the scholar Alan Margolies reveals, Fitzgerald replied, but his response has unfortunately been lost. Still, it seemed Wilkins’s letter had made an impression, as Fitzgerald saved it.

Such racist imagery was not exclusive to Fitzgerald’s fiction. In a letter from May, 1921, to Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald described a trip to Europe by claiming that “[t]he negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race.” The phrasing contains uncomfortable echoes of racialist pseudoscience and white supremacy.

Yet Fitzgerald would later argue stridently against the white-supremacist movement of “Nordicism,” which held that whites in Europe and America were being “replaced” by the “spread” of nonwhites and that white people would soon simply cease to exist (an idea echoed today in memes about “white genocide”). When Gatsby’s narrator describes Tom Buchanan’s infamous white-supremacist rants as “impassioned gibberish,” he is perhaps echoing Fitzgerald’s own views. The ideology of “Nordicism” appears in Gatbsy only as further proof of Buchanan’s irredeemable unpleasantness, as Buchanan—the book’s most overtly racist character—is clearly meant to be unlikeable.

Fitzgerald’s deployment of jazz imagery, then, was as cutting-edge as it was conservative. He embraced the new music; he struggled more to embrace its practitioners and progenitors. He was willing to learn. Yet in the age when jazz was at its arguable peak of public visibility, he was still not able to see black people in the same way he saw white Americans and Europeans.

Empathy is partly what jazz set out to create, unsettling traditions and traditionalists at first, then luring them in with its almost surreal, fey beauty. Jazz attempted to dissolve social lines between race, class, and political affiliation, as in James Baldwin’s famous short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the new music ultimately brings two long-warring brothers together by the sheer emotiveness of the melodies that the titular Sonny plays for his sibling. Jazz was, to a degree, an equalizing force both in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre and the wider world.

The Great Gatsby, then, was a clear product of its time, embracing the new music but also falling prey to the caricatures that had become associated with it. Still, it used jazz as the gentle but powerful backdrop to a story of failed love that endures today, and in this way, along with his usage of the term “Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald helped cement the idea that jazz defined the 1920s. For all his flaws, Fitzgerald, too, was a dancer on that grand stage of an era, saxophones, pianos, and everything else blaring around him.


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