Putting the sin into syncopation

Issue: 169

Ben Windsor

A review of Gerald Horne, Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music, Monthly Review Press (2019), £22.

Jazz has an unfortunate reputation these days.1 It is often seen as “high culture”, something to be respected rather than enjoyed, with its own canon; there is a widespread belief that it belongs in the concert hall rather than on the dance floor. It’s easy to forget that a hundred years ago jazz was insurgent, dangerous, sexy—and considered the lowest of low culture by its enemies.

Gerald Horne’s latest book is an attempt to write a materialist history of the genre, with a focus on the racism that shaped it from the very beginning. It is quite a challenge to write about the development of such a contested and contradictory phenomenon, and one so deeply bound up with the toxic legacies of slavery. Over the years, many prominent musicians have rejected the “jazz” label, feeling that it degrades their music. One of the most outspoken was Nina Simone, who argued, “Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.” The drummer and composer Max Roach was also unhappy with the word, arguing that it evoked “the worst kind of working conditions, the worst in cultural prejudice…and the abuse and exploitation of black musicians.” This distaste was not universal, but it reflected a fundamental ambivalence many performers felt about the way their music was presented to the world—and the circumstances that had forged it. As one commentator wrote, “‘Jazz’ was a double-edged term, sometimes representing black accomplishment and virtuosity, but sometimes a symbol of segregation and creative limitations”.2

Right back to its origins in late 19th century New Orleans, the genre—or what some have retrospectively categorised as such—has been stamped with the brutal character of the times that it has inhabited. There are few tendencies in music that have emerged and developed in such appalling conditions. Its history is inextricably entwined with that of organised crime, prostitution, gambling, narcotics, alcoholism and—above all—the ravages of slavery and racism.

Jazz faced harsh criticism from its early days. There was even an “anti-jazz” movement, following on from an “anti-ragtime” one. This brought together a wide array of forces that were terrified at the burgeoning popularity of this low and dirty music, pulsating with the experience of black America. The Times-Picayune newspaper, mouthpiece of the white New Orleans establishment, led the charge; one article described jazz as “a low streak in man’s tastes that has not yet come out in civilisation’s wash” and demanded that it be euthanised.3 This sentiment was echoed by the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. In 1921, a mass “crusade” was launched by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), whose president claimed the music “was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest deeds”.4 By the end of the decade, at least 60 communities across the US had enacted laws prohibiting jazz in public dance halls.5

The music conjured up all sorts of dark fantasies among the bigots, who sensed a carnivalesque element in it that threatened to turn their world upside down. Some denounced it as “musical Bolshevism, a revolt against law and order in music”.6 Others were more shocked by its tendency to induce sexy dancing. “Does jazz put the sin in syncopation?”, asked one article by Anne Shaw Faulkner, a leading member of the GFWC.7 The BBC was little better. Its first director general, John Reith, an admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler, described it as a “filthy product of modernity” and praised the Nazis for banning it.8 The corporation refused to broadcast jazz until the mid-1950s.

Horne rightly points out that “new musical forms are often pilloried, not least because they are misunderstood”, but jazz carried the added burden of being the music of freed slaves.9 This was music made by people whose very existence was taken as an affront by their old masters. It is thus ironic that one of the catalysts for the birth of jazz was the glut of instruments pawned by the marching bands of the defeated confederate army. Local musicians seized the opportunity to acquire these battered goods at knockdown prices.

Although several cities of the Deep South played a significant role in the development of the new music, it was in New Orleans that these influences converged and where jazz really took off. This major port at the mouth of the River Mississippi, the principal thoroughfare of the continent until the advent of railways, was a crossroads of many cultures. Despite—and even because of—its centrality to the barbaric slave economy, it developed a thriving musical culture.

Another historian of the genre, Charles Hersch, argues that jazz emerged in New Orleans because the city encapsulated the dual nature of this period in US history. Hersch observes that the music developed at the same time as a vicious counter-revolutionary wave that sought to wipe out the gains of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He writes:

Ironically, a music that represented a joyous assertion of black culture…arose during the nadir of post-Civil War racial oppression… But what if this simultaneity is not ironic? What if the birth of jazz was both a response to and result of such racial politics?10

For years the city had a large, confident and well-established population of free African Americans, and many were part of a militant working class—the “vanguard of US labor”.11 As early as 1865 dockworkers launched an interracial strike. This movement reached it peak in 1892 with a city-wide general strike that brought out 25,000 black and white workers. However, its defeat was a turning point. Jim Crow bit hard, shrinking the black share of the Louisiana electorate from 44% to 0.6%.12 As a wedge was driven between them and the poor whites, one response of the black population was to “assert their pride and identity, carving out their own cultural spaces”.13

Jazz alarmed the local ruling class. Its sexual energy threatened to undermine their authority and to seduce “their” women and “their” youth. The editorial of a New Orleans rag expressed these anxieties candidly, lamenting that jazz led “male and female, black and yellow, and even white to meet on terms of equality and abandon themselves to the extreme limit of obscenity and lasciviousness”.14

One enduring influence on jazz was the nature of the venues where it was performed. Alongside the new music a large sex industry flourished in New Orleans. As early as 1850, it was considered the “red-light capital” of the US. The brothels became the principal employer of the town’s black musicians, who were frequently shut out of more “respectable” jobs due to the colour of their skin. This shaped the performances (and the lives) of these artists in various ways. It meant difficult, dangerous and unstable working conditions, an intimate relationship with organised crime, the constant temptation of addictive substances, and an immersion in a particularly misogynist culture.

The popularity of jazz grew exponentially. It could thank some key technical innovations of the period for extending its reach—the juke box, the radio and the record player. Yet these developments were in themselves no guarantee that such a localised phenomenon could find a mass audience in the wider world. One of the theoreticians of the Harlem Renaissance, Joel Augustus Rogers, argues that something profound was going on, and that it was no accident that the music of freed slaves resonated with the oppressed and the exploited elsewhere:

The true spirit of jazz is a joyful revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man… It has been such a balm for modern ennui…a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid.15

As the music infected other states of the union, so did prohibition. In practice this meant that even when jazz clubs emerged in their own right, they were generally run by the mob, who favoured these establishments as a convenient way to launder money and sell alcohol. It was not much of a step up from performing in brothels. Some in the audience considered it sport to abuse—and even attack—the performers. Things got so bad that many carried weapons on stage for their own protection.

Musicians tried to organise to improve their lot, but they faced impossible odds, getting ripped off at every turn. When they turned to unions for help, they often found them to be corrupt, racist and mixed up with the mafia.16 Quite a few of the most famous names in the genre, who made a fortune for their managers, agents and publishers, were living in poverty. Some gave up in despair, opting for regular jobs that would at least pay the rent. Many others escaped abroad, especially to Europe, where the chances of finding both respect and a living wage were far higher.

For most of its early life jazz was primarily experienced as dance music, attracting massive audiences. We have seen how, from the very start, the authorities were terrified by its ability to get black and white people cavorting together. It aroused their deepest fears—that “desegregation” would quickly lead to “miscegenation”. This came to a head during the Second World War, when a debilitating tax on dance halls was imposed, driving many out of business.17 This had a major impact on the nature of the music, sealing the fate of swing and facilitating the rise of (experimental and undanceable) bebop.

One of the most bizarre episodes in jazz history followed soon after, as the US state entered Cold War mode and decided to enlist the music in its propaganda efforts. The once-scorned genre now received official sponsorship and was sent on foreign tours, becoming a symbol of American freedom.18 Willis Conover, the radio presenter at the forefront of this cultural offensive, reached a worldwide audience of 30 million listeners and was lionised as a celebrity when he visited the Eastern Bloc.19

However, the political highpoint for jazz came, appropriately, with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement. Although many musicians of earlier generations had been in awe of black singer, activist and Communist Party supporter Paul Robeson, few felt able to emulate him. Yet now, with the confidence that came from a movement on the rise, increasing numbers sought to turn the music on their oppressors. The likes of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach embraced the opportunity wholeheartedly, raising funds for combative organisations, composing fiercely political songs, hosting festivals, demanding more creative control, and setting up their own record labels.

There is a lot to enjoy in Horne’s book, but it is ultimately a frustrating read. His shepherding of resources is half-hearted and, after a promising introduction, the book becomes increasingly incoherent and repetitive. Unfortunately, the thematic chapter titles—“Haitian Fight Song”, “Song for Che” and so on—promise far more than they deliver. It feels as though the author and his editor lost interest. Nevertheless, Horne’s ambition is admirable, and he has clearly read widely and sympathetically, assembling a wealth of material.

Ben Windsor has worked as a graphic designer for the SWP since 2004. He is also an activist with the SWP in South London.

1 Martin, 2018. Thanks to Richard Donnelly and Dave Randall for their comments on this review in draft.

2 Gibb, 2002.

3 Rich, 2018.

4 Ford, a raging antisemite and fascist sympathiser, believed that jazz was a Jewish plot to infect the States with racially inferior “musical slush”. In response, he poured a fortune into the promotion of country music and square dancing, which he mistakenly believed to be instrinsically “white”. He had considerable success, getting almost half the country’s schools to adopt it as part of their curriculum—Pennacchia, 2017.

6 Street, 1922.

7 Quoted in Horne, 2019, p42.

8 See the BBC website’s own biography of Reith—www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/research/john-reith/corporation-man

9 It is perhaps more accurate to say that it was the music of the descendants of freed slaves, but this was a minor detail in the eyes of the planter class.

10 Hersch, 2007, p24.

11 Sustar, 1994.

12 Disfranchisement was aimed at white farmers and workers as well. During this period the white vote in Louisiana dropped by 60 percent—Sustar, 1994.

13 Hersch, 2007, p24.

14 Quoted in Krist, 2014, p81.

15 Rogers, 1925.

16 As late as 1943, only two out of 673 branches of the American Federation of Musicians admitted black people to full membership. Horne, 2019, p25.

17 It seems likely this was in part motivated by a fear of what the wives of absent soldiers might get up to—and its potential effect on the “morale” of troops.

18 Horne, 2019, p242. This was a fate it shared with Abstract Expressionist painting, which received considerable backing from the CIA.

19 Outrageously, Conover claimed that the flowering of this music in his homeland “corrects the fiction that America is racist”—Horne, 2019, p243.


Gibb, Ann, 2002, “African American Musicians Reflect on What is This Thing Called Jazz?”, University of California Santa Cruz (3 March), https://bit.ly/36lq0iG

Hersch, Charles B, 2008, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press)

Horne, Gerald, 2019, Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music (Monthly Review Press).

Krist, Gary, 2014, Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans (Broadway Books)

Martin, Rachel, 2018, “Jazz In The 21st Century Is All About ‘Playing Changes’”, NPR Music (14 August), https://n.pr/33EUZ7L

Pennacchia, Robyn, 2017, “America’s Wholesome Square Dancing Tradition is a Tool of White Supremacy”, Quartz (12 December), https://bit.ly/3lD4jPq

Rich, Nathaniel, 2018, “When Jazz was Dangerous”, The Paris Review (24 January), www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/01/24/when-jazz-was-dangerous

Rogers, Joel Augustus, 1925, “Jazz at Home”, Survey Graphic Harlem (March), volume 6, number 6.

Street, Julian, 1922, “The Jazz Baby”, Saturday Evening Post (15 July).

Sustar, Lee, 1994, “The Roots of Multi-Racial Labour Unity in the United States”, International Socialism 63 (summer), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1994/isj2-063/sustar.htm

Watson, Amy, 2019, “Music Album Consumption US 2018, by Genre”, Statista (9 August), www.statista.com/statistics/310746/share-music-album-sales-us-genre