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.