[Dixielandjazz] Press coverage of early jazz

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Sat Dec 18 00:16:05 PST 2004

The piece below is long, but the struggle for acceptance of jazz in New 
Orleans, New York, and Chicago might interest some DJMLers.--Charlie 

"Jazz Notes," December 2004
Journal of the Jazz Journalists Association (website www.jazzhouse.org)

Press Coverage of Early Jazz –A Tale of Three Cities

Charles Suhor

In the beginning (of jazz) was the (printed) word. And the word in 
early newspaper coverage of jazz wasn’t a nice one. Donald Winston 
notes that even before the term “jazz” was in use, newspaper reports at 
the turn of the century described music in New Orleans black night 
clubs as "discordant" …"disgusting"…with an "indecent ring."

I came across Winston’s and Luther Williams’ woefully underexposed 
studies of early jazz press coverage in New York and Chicago while 
gathering similar information about New Orleans newspapers. Winston’s 
project was very ambitious, covering several papers in New Orleans 
(1890-1917), the Chicago Defender (1918-26), and the New York Times 
(1920-27). Williams looked intensively at the New York Times (1921-29). 
I can give only a quick walk across the coals of history here, but it 
should be of interest to jazz journalists, musicians, and fans.

Curiously, Williams' and Winston took different perspectives that 
resulted in contrary conclusions about jazz coverage in the New York 
Times. Williams saw dominant patterns of condemnation, implicit racism, 
ignorance, and virtual exclusion of jazz musicians’ voices during the 
1920s. In the Times news reports, editorials, and feature stories, jazz 
was blamed for, among other things, fornication, suicide, alcohol 
abuse, the heart attack of an elderly classical cornetist, an 
unfavorable trade balance between the U.S. and Hungary, the waning 
quality of Italian tenors, the frightening of bears in Siberia, and the 
  decline of modern civilization.

On the positive side, Williams cited a 1926 Times story that included 
the views of a black commentator sympathetic to jazz. Nicholas Ballanta 
took a stand that was thoroughly radical at the time, claiming that 
jazz was derived from many cultures, with distinctive African elements 
enriching American music by developing the "American sense of rhythm."

Williams believed that by 1929 the immense popularity of jazz both 
domestically and abroad trumped the New York Times “hidebound policy” 
about the negative effects of jazz. Times reportage began to reflect 
glimmers of pride in the music and recognition of its value as a 
cultural export. According to Williams, “In April, 1929 the death knell 
was sounded not for jazz but for the controversy surrounding it in an 
article in the Times recounting the European travels of Sandhor 
Harmati, Director of the Omaha Symphony. He said that jazz…was the only 
American music known by the European generation of that day. It 
appeared that jazz had arrived to stay.”

The wider scope of Donald Winston’s study might explain his oversight 
of many of the Times jazz-bashing reports cited by Williams for the 
comparable years. But he did uncover some formidable anti-jazz copy, 
like the March 13, 1925 editorial that urged a quick exodus of American 
jazz musicians to Europe. He also quoted a January 3, 1922 report of an 
Episcopal minister lambasting jazz as the "savage crash and bang" of 
"African jungle music."

More disturbing is the fact that the focus of Winston’s search resulted 
in an overly generous view of the Times’ reportage of jazz. Relying 
mainly on reports about songwriters like Irving Berlin, Richard 
Rodgers, and Jerome Kern and the “symphonic jazz” of George Gershwin 
and Paul Whiteman, Winston concluded that the paper "came close to good 
coverage, meaningful coverage” of jazz.

This bias is precisely what Luther Williams decried in noting that the 
Times made a sharp distinction “between the ‘respectable’ kind [of 
jazz] and the kind played by most musicians.”  Jazz musicians, knowing 
nothing of the classics’ “noble appeal,” were excluded. White 
songwriters and musicians were lauded for their attempts to marry jazz 
elements “into the proud old family of the concertos and the 

In his conclusion Winston did acknowledge the Times' "failure to report 
on the activities of Negro jazzmen." Turning a flaw into a mitigating 
factor, he surmised that the music of black jazz artists must have 
"seemed especially crude to the Times reporters and music critics." 
Confusing cause with effect, he stated that "this failure to cover 
Negro activity and music …resulted in a poor understanding of the whole 
jazz environment and its musical sense."

Winston's rationalizations of the New York Times' jazz coverage are in 
contrast to his straightforward discussion of The Chicago Defender and 
the New Orleans press. He saw Defender’s coverage of jazz between 1918 
and 1926 as a reflection of its editorial mission as a black newspaper: 
to counter anti-black discrimination by praising the products of 
African-American culture.

This made the Defender a rare, if not evenhandedly critical, champion 
of jazz in its early years. For example, a March 9, 1918, item on the 
entertainment page praised a band from New Orleans led by cornetist 
Emanuel Perez. "Have you heard Emanuel Perez's Creole Band?...that 
wonderful…music that the people of Chicago are going wild about?  It's 
gripping the dancers of the Windy City, and causing people to come to 
the Peking dance pavilion…and hear the music that's all the rage in the 
East and in the West."

Winston wrote that the Defender's tendency to report about jazz in 
superlatives seldom included attention to the musicians themselves. And 
worse, support of jazz was not carried out as a policy when other 
purposes related to the paper's mission could be served. In connection 
with a high school essay contest for Music Week, for example, the 
Defender ran these student comments on June 10, 1922:  "Nothing is bad 
enough to say about this pestilence…Jazz indicates a tendency towards 

Information about reportage of jazz in New Orleans papers comes from 
many sources. Winston’s 1890-1917 search of the Picayune, 
Times-Democrat, Item, States, and the Bee uncovered the aforementioned 
barbs about music in black night clubs. He found that the local press 
regarded the “newer, ‘hot’ forms of music” as “an ignominious peg on 
the musical ladder.”

In Storyville, New Orleans (University of Alabama Press, 1974) Al Rose 
speculates that a cartoon in the sensationalistic weekly Mascot of 
November 15, 1890, was "the earliest known illustration of a jazz 
band."  And perhaps the earliest known condemnation.  Both the drawing 
and the description are racist and contemptuous of the music. Four 
buffoonish black musicians, playing instruments resembling a trumpet, 
trombone, clarinet, and bass drum, are on the balcony of Robinson’s 
Dime Museum on Basin Street. Well-dressed whites are moaning and 
fainting in the street, pelletted by the notes from the horns.  The 
text states "we have been visited by a sad affliction….several 'coons' 
armed with pieces of brass have banded together ….This man Robinson 
came here with a monkey and a blue parrot….The town knew him not, but a 
nigger brass band betrayed him…. Robinson's balcony serenade is enough 
to make the dead rise."

The archetypal anti-jazz screed is the "Jass and Jassism" editorial in 
the June 20, 1918, Picayune. It describes jazz as “a low streak in 
man’s tastes that has not yet come out in civilization’s wash….the 
indecent story syncopated and counterpointed.” Enjoyment of this “loud 
and meaningless” music is like excitement at “the sight of flesh and 
the sadic pleasure in blood.” Although New Orleans has been called the 
birthplace of this “musical vice….it behooves us to be the last to 
accept the atrocity in polite society, and…we should make it a point of 
civic honor to suppress it.”

Don Marquis notes in his classic biography In Search of Buddy Bolden 
(LSU Press, 1978) that the first positive feature story about jazz in a 
New Orleans paper was in the still-extant black newspaper Louisiana 
Weekly in April, 1933—seven years after the New York Times ran 
Ballanta’s insightful comments. "Excavating Local Jazz," a two-part 
article by E. Belfield Spriggins, contained an interview with former 
King Oliver trombonist Will Cornish.

Incredibly, the New Orleans dailies continued to treat jazz slightly or 
disparagingly well into the second half of the century. The true 
pioneer of jazz journalism in the city was the New Orleans Jazz Club’s 
Second Line. Beginning in 1949, the magazine tracked and commented 
faithfully on traditional and Dixieland jazz. An amateur effort by 
mainstream press standards, it carried an energy and authenticity that 
utterly eluded the staid Picayune  (which author Walker Percy once 
called “a house organ for its advertisers”).

In the sixties, the apathy and ineptitude of the local press resulted 
in  Down Beat becoming the journal of record for jazz in New Orleans. 
As a stringer I  submitted twice-monthly club listings and news items 
and wrote frequent articles on jazz in all styles, many of them 
collected in my 2001 book Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years 
Through 1970 (Scarecrow Press/Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, 2001). 
Largely through the influence of the New Journalism movement and the 
Vieux Carre Courier, a brilliantly feisty weekly of the late sixties, 
the Picayune was jarred into a belated hipness that is now mandatory, 
if a bit scattershot.

The writers and publishers that I’ve discussed mainly reflect 
university settings, where jazz is regarded as a rich subject for 
historical study, and painstaking research is valued and accommodated. 
Luther William’s 1987 project (titled “New York Times Coverage of an 
Emerging Art Form, 1921-1929”) was a Department of Journalism paper at 
the University of Georgia. Donald Winston’s study (“News Reporting of 
Jazz Music From 1890 to 1927”) was a 1996 Master’s thesis at the 
University of Oklahoma. My work was funded in part by a grant from the 
National Endowment for the Humanities. Possibly, there are other 
writings that deal with press coverage of early jazz.  The common 
pattern in this tale of three cities, alternately horrifying and 
gratifying, is that the newspapers moved erratically from flouting to 
flaunting the “newer, ‘hot’ forms of music.”

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