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The Devil in Blues, Ragtime and Jazz

by Garin G. Webb

Bibliography and References

Part 4: Jazz; Conclusion


We have all been taught to believe that “music soothes the savage beast,” but we have never stopped to consider that an entirely different type of music might invoke savage instincts.

Those are the opening lines of Ann Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 piece in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” Ann Shaw Faulkner implicitly refers to blacks with the phrase “savage beast”; she was speaking predominantly to middle- and upper-class white women.

The author also warns that by listening to jazz one might turn into a savage beast, i.e. acquire Negro traits. This is a veiled reference to the meme that black men were thought to be prone to fits of violent rage and rape.

D. W. Griffiths’ popular silent picture The Birth of a Nation, a few years earlier in 1914, was a powerful stereotypical portrayal of the black man. Gus, a freedman and army captain, was portrayed as a black man “whose primary goal was to rape white women.”29

Faulkner goes on to blend high-minded musical morals with that of the authority of scientific language:

A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain of even a violent patient, the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong. Such music has become an influence for evil.30

Sam Lucas faceplate

By “inharmonic tones” Faulkner might be implying either the dissonance created during episodes of collective improvisation or the bending of pitch. Regardless of the meaning, her goal is to startle her readers with “scientific” proof of “evil” jazz. A claim such as this would elicit guffaws of laughter today; however, considering the popularity of phrenology and eugenics, it is not far-fetched to think that some of Faulkner’s readers were swayed. “With this evil influence surrounding our coming generation, it is not to be wondered at that degeneracy should be developing so rapidly in America.”31

While Faulkner never explicitly indicts blacks as evil, it was common knowledge — especially in the educated circles that Faulkner inhabited — that jazz had originated in African-American culture. therefore, by attaching “evil” to jazz she had linked an entire race of people, or at least its practitioners of jazz, to the devil.

Jazz musicians have a notorious legacy of drug and alcohol abuse and were not served any favors when Mrs. Max Obendorfer, president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, attempting to educate her readers in the origins of jazz, professed that “jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest of deeds.”32 And jazz was coming of age just as the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol.

A strange word has gained wide-spread use in the ranks of our producers of popular music. It is “jazz” used mainly as a adjective description of a band. The group that plays for dancing, when colored, seem infected with the virus that they try to instill as a stimulus for others. They shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return to the medieval jumping mania.33

Ellington, as well as many other American jazz artists, found welcoming, curious, and educated audiences during tours of Europe. Their positive reviews could be attributed to the long tradition of cultivated art music in Britain. While jazz had been firmly established in European countries by the time of Ellington’s 1933 England tour, American musicians — mostly African-American — benefited from the very exoticism they were trying to escape.

The warm receptions and favorable reviews were certainly due, in part, not only to the relative newness of jazz but also to the dark skin of the artists. Ellington may have blunted the references to his black savage ancestry by his “Europeanized features” and through his ability to “address people in a way that was very civilized for a black man.”34

While Max Jones happened to be a sympathetic journalist reporting on the group’s tour of England, the very idea that a black man such as Duke Ellington could inhabit polite company is further evidence of the systemic racism and stereotypes that shaped the music.

Even though Ellington’s 1933 tour of England brought all manner of accolades, he was still met with a write-up in The New Statesman that praised him on the one hand while resorting to stereotypical descriptions:

His jazz is complicated by all the refinements of modern orchestration; but this music, which is at once a challenge, an invocation and an exorcism, evokes the jungle, the heavy foliage, the night cries of preying or preyed-on beasts, the hovering spirits of the ancestors, which must be propitiated, the darkness round the torch-lit spaces, the throbbing rhythm, and wild zest of life [...] Once when the composer turned on his piano stool and sat brooding in the shadow of soloists, a vague smile on his lips, one could have sworn his soul was back where no doubt his body had never been in the square of an African Village.35

The reviewer begins by praising Ellington’s “refinements of modern orchestration.” However, praise is soon replaced with all too familiar stereotypical descriptions of his music. The writer transports the reader to a geographic setting with the phrase, “evokes the jungle, the heavy foliage...” Of course a scene in the jungle would not be complete without instilling a sense of danger from “the night cries of preying or preyed-on beasts.”

The coup de grâce comes when the writer combines the image of Ellington who “sat brooding in the shadow of soloists, a vague smile on his lips” with the “spirits of the ancestors.” The author has achieved a hybrid of stereotypes by associating his music — and Ellington, by proxy — with that of the exotic jungle and the supernatural. His music “an invocation” conjures up the magical realm while “an exorcism” suggests that demons lurk. Finally, Duke is fused with the mysterious image of that of a grinning black man in the “shadows.”

With the sight of an all-black band in a virtually all-white England, and when many of the songs were based on Latin and quasi-African rhythms with requisite percussion, coupled with Ellington’s innovative use of timbre and voicing, it is not hard to understand the reviewer’s choice of language. This article is evidence that that which is foreign needs to be explained in terms set aside by the interpreter. However ghoulish and stereotypical this depiction is, it is worded in a way that, in this author’s opinion, was not necessarily meant as derogatory. Rather, it was an attempt to describe the new sounds and the effects of Ellington’s music on a white audience.

While Ellington’s tour of England was overall a positive experience — they were allowed to stay at the Dorchester Hotel in London — the ethnic “jungle” sounds, along with the color of the band members, were difficult to take and were promptly met with derision. “Negroes Invade Our Theaters” was the subtitle in a British article lamenting Ellington’s 1933 tour. “A hundred years ago they would have been working in the cotton plantations with a white man cracking the whip over them.”36 The author seems to suggest that Ellington and his men should feel lucky that they are given the privilege of playing music for a living and not picking cotton.

Reviewers in America would use labels that equate Ellington’s music with that of lesser humans. One Detroit reviewer claimed that Ellington’s music, when it was hard-charging at fast tempo with multiple soloists, that “even an African savage” would find these types of performances “barbaric to the point of savagery.”37 A review from a San Francisco Examiner critic describes the music as containing “aboriginal voodoo throbs.”38

Much of Ellington’s early repertoire had been composed during a four-year stint at the popular and exclusive Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927-1931. It cannot be overstated what the significance of Ellington’s tenure at the Cotton Club meant to his career as a composer and bandleader. It was a career move that came with the benefits of steady employment and a chance to develop as a composer and bandleader. The very fact that he could offer steady employment to musicians of high quality allowed him the latitude to compose in a very personal way for each member in the band. Through nightly coast-to-coast radio broadcasts Ellington quickly garnered the name recognition he was so eager to have.

Ironically, Ellington developed his signature style as a composer under the auspices of a club that was whites-only and exploited the growing fascination with primitivism. The Cotton Club featured elaborate floor shows with scantily clad, light-skinned African-American dancers festooned in ornate costumes that portrayed African-Americans “as being one step removed (if that much) from a jungle civilization.”39 Duke was tasked with writing music that matched this exotic “jungle” atmosphere. Former Cotton Club dancer, Howard Johnson, describes these shows as:

sophisticated, but they were cloaked in primitive and exotic garb [...] designed to appease the appetite for a certain type of black performance, the smilin’ black, the shuffling black, the black-faced black, the minstrel, coon-show atmosphere which existed [...] And while it wasn’t stated as such, certainly the light color of the [female] flesh gave it a kind of exoticism and kind of forbidden-fruit quality.40

Duke defends his Cotton Club employment by defending those who worked with him: “The girl you saw doing the squirmy dance [...] in the middle of the floor, she was not in the throes of passion. She was working to get that salary to take home and feed her baby, who sometimes lived pretty well.”41

The Plays and Pictures article was describing the “jungle style” Duke Ellington composed in during his Cotton Club years. Ellington did not compose exclusively in this style during these years; he wrote popular tunes and arranged for others as well, but it was the most iconic of his writing.

There are several features of this writing style that make it “exotic.” Ellington frequently mixed Latin rhythms and grooves with the characteristic swing of jazz. Ellington departed from the standard “section against section” style employed by most other popular bands of the time. By combining voices from each of the sections he was able to create a vast palette of possible tone colors. This “voicing across sections” style would set Duke apart from many bands until the 1950’s with Stan Kenton’s “symphonic” style.

At its heart, quite possibly the most identifiable aspect of this “jungle style” is the virtuoso mute playing of trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonists “Tricky” Sam Nanton and Juan Tizol. These players would place mutes into the bells of their horns to create even more timbral variations. The use of mutes wasn’t a new thing in jazz or other genres; orchestral brass players, though not as often, also utilized the timbre-altering effects of mutes. What was new was the way Ellington’s members used it. They would often couple mutes together — typically straight and plunger mutes — which created an especially covered and tinny sound.

Miley, Nanton, Tizol, and later Cootie Williams would include the technique of “growling” and other vocalisms with these timbral alterations so as to mimic the human voice. Occasionally these timbres became so alien that they obscured the identity of the instrument.

A sampling of tunes that are evocative of this “jungle style” include “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Mood Indigo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Koko.” Each features the virtuosic mute playing from members of the brass section and the arranging style that serves to evoke particular moods or scenes.

Play “Black and Tan Fantasy

As mentioned earlier, many white Americans were living with the reality of a changing urban demographic. They were being exposed on a daily basis to a culture that had always been out on the margins. America was now inventing new ways of playing instruments, new dances, new songs, and much of it through African-Americans.

While racism had the most potent effect of labeling these genres and people as evil, this invective could be traced to an esthetic angst that had been eating at the cultural soul of America’s musical elite since its founding.

Composers like those associated with the New England School had been in search of an American musical voice for nearly a century before Jazz came into its own. American literature was hardly taught in American universities until the 1930’s, and American orchestras were typically led by European maestros and musicians.

Conductor and pedagogue Frank Damrosch, while not busy looking for European musicians to staff his orchestras, stated that “we are in a state of unrest, of social evolution, of transition from a condition of established order to a new objective as yet but dimly visualized.”

In true turn-of-the-century style, Damrosch claimed superiority over a terrorized and oppressed people:

Jazz is to music what the caricature is to portrait. If jazz rhythms originated in the dance rhythms of the negro, it was at least interesting in the self-expression of a primitive race. When jazz was adopted by the highly civilized white race, it tended to degenerate towards primitivity.”42

Damrosch feels that white people only lower themselves to “primitive” status when they play jazz, while lamenting the unknown American aesthetic “as yet but dimly visualized.”


The explosion of popular music in the 1910’s and 1920’s shows that America was indeed “in a state of unrest, of social evolution” and demographic change. The long history of violence and terrorism against Southern blacks fueled their migration into the burgeoning industrial cities of the North, where they were looking for better-paying jobs and seeking to escape the oppression in the South. They brought with them music and dances that were born from work and other folk songs, blended with the hymns from the Christian church.

Myths and legends become part of the cultural fabric either by the power of their story — that they explain the inexplicable — or because they fit the narrative of the dominant class. “These stories (some fact, some folkloric that people nonetheless give credence to) give meaning and shape to the world.”43

Jim Crow established rituals where blacks were expected to step off the sidewalks to make room for whites, and never to look white people in the eyes. “It enforced the idea of black subservience.”44

Irony plays a twist on the Devil here: the evil perceived to inhabit the canon of African-American music by its “savage,” “exotic” and inferior practitioners — the people — was in reality the evil of intolerance and racism manifest in the words and images of its most ardent critics.

Copyright © 2013 by Garin G. Webb

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