History Lesson // Crime and Jazz in 1920s America

Picture this: it’s around 1920, it’s the end of World War 1 in America, people are cheering in the streets, everyone’s in their local saloon having a celebratory snifter of brandy or gin cocktail or driving around in their brand new automobile with tin cans dragging behind, applauding the end of a tough decade. ‘Now,’ says the US Government, ‘Is the perfect time to implement a national ban on alcohol. Pour out your beers and put on your Sunday best: it’s time to go to church.’

Jokes aside, this is essentially the story of Prohibition in America. In early 1920, Congress (their version of the House of Representatives) approved a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, despite it actually being vetoed by then-president, Woodrow Wilson. The Prohibition movement had been building for the last few decades, predominantly spearheaded by White Nationalist and Evangelical Protestant leaders, who viewed ‘saloon culture’ as damaging to marriages and a source of crime and political corruption (which doesn’t seem entirely unfounded). Individual states had been laying down restrictions on sales and production of alcohol since the late 1800s, and National Prohibition was founded in the Wartime Prohibition Act from 1918, which was apparently implemented in order to save grain for the war effort, even though it was done so after the Armistice had been signed. Sneaky.

As one might imagine, a ban like this on a country that’s just dragging itself out of a war was comedically difficult to enforce, especially considering that though National Prohibition banned the activities listed above, it did not ban the possession or consumption of alcohol. This peculiar legal situation resulted in a plethora of effects that range from reducing alcohol-related deaths and arrests to the birth of the Black Market in the USA, and, of course, what we’re here to talk about: the conception of the American Gangster and their Jazz Clubs.

As soon as Prohibition set in, all bars, saloons, taverns and liquor stores on the corner became criminal organizations, and many of them simply ceased operation. But, see, just because the law said that it’s illegal to sell alcohol didn’t mean that America’s thirst was quenched, and so out of the ashes rose the Speakeasy. Also called Blind Pigs or Blind Tigers, establishments that sold illicit alcohol and allowed gambling sprung up in hotel basements and underground dens, some hidden so well that their remains are still being discovered now in cities like New York and Chicago. Due to the Prohibition Laws, getting alcohol to stock these illegal bars was not easy, and this is where people like Al Capone came in.

Capone was the head of the crime organization in Chicago known as ‘The Outfit’, and at one stage, was reported to have owned about 10,000 Speakeasies in the city. Most of his fortune – estimated to have been around $60 million per year – came from beer-running, but along with this came the standard mob procedure of charging Speakeasies for protection from the law, which was an area which Capone excelled in. At his height, he appeared to be completely above the law, having bribed, intimidated or simply killed enough judges and politicians to make a complete fool out of a Government who had implemented prohibition in order to lessen exactly this.

One of Capone’s most successful speakeasies was the Cotton Club in Cicero – if Chicago was his Kingdom, Cicero was his castle and the Cotton Club was his throne room. Al installed his brother, Ralph, to run the place and reportedly told him to only hire black musicians to perform there, as Capone apparently considered African-American people to be just as oppressed as his Italian Immigrant kin of the era, and offered this as a gesture of solidarity.

Speakeasies like the Cotton Club quickly became cultural hubs for the party-goers and night owls of the 1920s. One such person was a young man by the name of Louis Armstrong. Born in New Orleans, Armstrong grew to prominence in the 20s, playing trumpet and Cornet, and eventually moved to Chicago to play with his mentor, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, in his Creole Jazz Band. The two of them brought a New Orleans style of jazz, which was more improvisational and free-form, to an entertainment-hungry Chicago, and the town lapped it up. In Chicago, Armstrong built a reputation for engaging in thrilling ‘cutting contests’, which are essentially like rap battles, except with jazz instruments (usually piano). Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band became one of the most influential of the early 20s and provided a basis for Armstrong’s musical career that spanned five decades.

This era was predominantly black artists performing to all-white crowds, but as the years went by, people of all races apparently found a common enemy in the Prohibition laws, and so multi-racial clubs began popping up. These were known as ‘Black and Tan’ clubs. For 1920s America, this was a huge milestone – segregation was still common, socially and legally, and horrific race riots and massacres were still occurring around the country, so to see an African-American man like Armstrong have such success and be so widely appreciated was a big moment in American History. New York’s Amsterdam News said that “the [Black and Tan] clubs have done more to improve race relations in ten years than churches, white and black, have done in ten decades.”

Armstrong and King Oliver were just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re looking to do a deep-dive, I’d recommend names like Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke. Post-prohibition, you’re looking at such legends as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald (I highly recommend April in Paris, or songs like Summertime and Cheek to Cheek that she did with Armstrong, who came into his legendary singing voice in the 30s). We’ve so kindly assembled some of these names into a Spotify playlist so that you don’t have to go to the trouble of spelling ‘Beiderbecke’ on your own (you’re welcome).

In the end, National Prohibition was repealed in 1933. On March 22nd, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which, while not completely freeing its production, allowed for alcohol to return to everyday life in the USA. Upon putting down the pen, FDR remarked “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The states had evidently misjudged their own economic reliance on alcohol, and following the repeal, began to tax it heavily. The alcohol taxes put in place at this time helped the country’s economy to survive The Great Depression.

Despite there being over 500 mob-related murders in Chicago over the Prohibition decade, Alphonse Capone was only convicted of tax evasion in the early 30s and served just eight years. He died in the late 40s.

So, while you listen to our accompanying playlist and think about the Crime and Jazz of the United States in the 20s, crack open a beer and enjoy the words of Albert Murray, of Stomping Blues:

“The Saturday Night Function is a ritual of purification and affirmation. What the blue devils of gloom and ultimate despair threaten is not the soul or the possibility of everlasting salvation after death, but the quality of everyday life on earth.”