[Dixielandjazz] dirty lyrics & sinful music

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Fri Mar 26 13:32:38 PST 2004

David Richoud wrote:

"I have read (in a history of British Brass Bands) of announcements from
the pulpit and in the newspapers in the 1840s about how listening to
Brass Band music on a Sunday afternoon would lead to dancing, and then
directly to Sin and Moral Degradation!

"The sensibilities of the middle class and upper class  population in
the USA in the early 1900s were shocked by even the "coded" language in
Jazz and Blues..."


This will be old stuff to many of you, but the sad story of jazz bashing by
gentlefolk was played out in few places as strongly as New Orleans. In
"Music in New Orleans" Henry Kmen wrote of complaints about the noisy early
brass & marching bands on Sunday in Jackson Square.

Donald Winston inferred that local papers were referring to jazz
disparagingly even before the music had a name. In reports on crime in
black night clubs after the turn of the century, the papers used phrases
like "discordant music". . . "disgusting". . . "with an "indecent ring."

In "Storyville, New Orleans" Al Rose speculated that a cartoon in the
sensationalistic weekly "Mascot" on November 15, 1890, was "the earliest
known illustration of a jazz band," and the earliest known condemnation.

The drawing and the description are blatantly 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, playing to attract customers.
Well-dressed whites are moaning and fainting in the street, pelletted by
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...if their object was to inflict torture upon this suffering
community...they are doing right well... 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

Then there's the classic "Jass and Jassism" editorial diatribe against jazz
in the June 20, 1918, "Picayune." Excerpts:

"Why is the jass music, and, therefore, the jass band? As well ask why is
the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut? All are manifestations of a
low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's
wash...in its youth, it was listened to blushingly behind closed doors and
drawn curtains, but, like all vice, it grew bolder until it dared decent

"On certain natures sound loud and meaningless has an exciting, almost an
intoxicating effect, like crude colors and strong perfumes, the sight of
flesh or the sadic pleasure in blood. To such as these the jass music is a
delight, and a dance to the unstable bray of the sackbut gives a sensual
delight more intense and quite different from the languor of a Viennese
waltz or the refined sentiment and respectful emotion of an eighteenth
century minuet.

"In the matter of jass, New Orleans is particularly interested, since it
has been widely suggested that this particular form of musical vice had its
birth in this city--that it came, in fact, from doubtful surroundings in
our slums. We do not recognize the honor of parenthood, but with such a
story in circulation, it behooves us to be last to accept the atrocity in
polite society, and where it has crept in we should make it a point of
civic honor to suppress it. Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities
of harm are great."

Bruce Raeburn discovered some letters to the editor favorable to "jass"
around that time. But in terms of editorial commentary, Donald Marquis is
right in stating that the "first nonderogatory statement about jazz in the
New Orleans press" appeared in April 1933 in "Louisiana Weekly."  The black
newspaper, which is still published, ran two articles called "Excavating
Local Jazz" by E. Belfield Spriggins."

The above is background material in my book on jazz in postwar New Orleans,
where I traced the tradition of Establishment jazz-bashing in the
"Picayune" and elsewhere into the late 40s and mid 60s. Recently Al Kennedy
found yet another gem from the "Picayune" in 1922, when the N.O. school
board condemned jazz and called for the genteel waltz.

Charlie Suhor

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