In the 1920s America, Jazz Music Was Considered Harmful to Human Health, the Cause of “Neurasthenia,” “Perpetually Jerking Jaws” & More

These are some inter­est­ing sto­ries about the Nazis and jazz, includ­ing one about a very bad jazz pro­pa­gan­da band cre­at­ed by Goebbels him­self. But we need not men­tion these at all, or even leave the shores of jazz’s birth­place to find exam­ples of extreme reac­tions to jazz by author­i­tar­i­an fig­ures who hat­ed and feared it for exact­ly the same rea­sons as the Nazis. Chief among such Amer­i­can ene­mies of jazz was rag­ing anti-Semi­te Hen­ry Ford, who feared that jazz was, you guessed it, a Jew­ish plot to infect the coun­try with racial­ly infe­ri­or “musi­cal slush.”

Ford used white coun­try music and square danc­ing in pub­lic schools as weapons of war­fare against jazz in the 1920s, there­by dis­plac­ing black­face min­strel­sy as the dom­i­nant form of para­noid response to black music in mid­dle Amer­i­ca. Anoth­er cru­sad­er, Har­ry Anslinger, com­mis­sion­er of the Fed­er­al Bureau of Nar­cotics between 1930 and 1962, more or less invent­ed the war on drugs with his reefer mad­ness war on jazz. He said it sound­ed like “the jun­gles in the dead of night” and could “lure white women.” Anslinger relent­less­ly per­se­cut­ed Bil­lie Hol­i­day and went after Thelo­nious Monk, Dizzy Gille­spie, Duke Elling­ton, and Louis Arm­strong.

It was with­in this ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry milieu that oth­er insti­tu­tion­al powers—some of the country’s most powerful—declared a war on jazz for sup­posed rea­sons of pub­lic health. (A move­ment, inci­den­tal­ly, giv­en to an enthu­si­asm for eugen­ics and forced ster­il­iza­tion at the time.) His­to­ri­an Rus­sell L. John­son has doc­u­ment­ed this cam­paign in the jour­nal Health and His­to­ry, and Jessie Wright-Men­doza describes many of his find­ings at JStor Dai­ly.

Milwaukee’s pub­lic health com­mis­sion­er claimed that the music dam­aged the ner­vous sys­tem, and a Ladies’ Home Jour­nal arti­cle report­ed that it caused brain cells to atro­phy. In Cincin­nati, a mater­ni­ty hos­pi­tal suc­cess­ful­ly peti­tioned to have a near­by jazz club shut down, argu­ing that expos­ing new­borns to the offend­ing music would have the effect of “imper­il­ing the hap­pi­ness of future gen­er­a­tions.”

Jazz was “unrhyth­mi­cal,” oppo­nents argued, and so was dis­ease. Q.E.D. In 1923, the Illi­nois Supreme Court upheld a rul­ing that shut down a jazz club, cit­ing in their opin­ion a belief the music “wears upon the ner­vous sys­tem and pro­duces that feel­ing which we call ‘tired.’” Doc­tors warned that too much jazz could cause neuras­the­nia, a catch-all for anx­i­ety, depres­sion, headaches, fatigue, etc. But jazz could also cause patients to become “ner­vous and fid­gety” with “per­pet­u­al­ly jerk­ing jaws.” What­ev­er it did, jazz was haz­ardous.

Odd­ly, just as in the Nazi’s fer­vent attempts to con­trol jazz, as Czech writer Josef Skvorecky once described it, and as in Joseph Goebbels attempts to co-opt the music for white suprema­cy, the archi­tects of Amer­i­ca’s jazz pan­ic found the rem­e­dy for jazz in jazz. But seg­re­gat­ed jazz. They turned “hot jazz” into “sweet jazz,” a style “inter­pret­ed by main­ly white musi­cians to appeal to a wider com­mer­cial audi­ence.”

It hard­ly needs to be said that any­one real­ly afflict­ed with a pas­sion for jazz ignored this pre­scrip­tion, as did every jazz musi­cian worth lis­ten­ing to. Read more about Johnson’s his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can fear of jazz at JStor Dai­ly.

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Hear the Nazi’s Biz­zaro Pro­pa­gan­da Jazz Band, “Char­lie and His Orches­tra” (1940–1943)

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

How Jazz-Lov­ing Teenagers–the Swingjugend–Fought the Hitler Youth and Resist­ed Con­for­mi­ty in Nazi Ger­many

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.