In 1920, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the bottling and consumption of alcohol, and for the next 13 years Prohibition would be the law of the land. But in Chicago, as elsewhere, many people ignored the law, and entrepreneurs and criminal gangs often joined forces to open nightclubs called speakeasies, where liquor, gambling, dancing, and jazz were the attractions, and where money was spent at a dizzying pace. In the end, Prohibition didn’t do much to curtail drinking and criminality in America—by many accounts it made things worse—but it turned out to be a boon for jazz musicians, who were suddenly more in demand than ever.
A Prohibition-era plea for alcohol, c. 1924.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Among the groups that developed and flourished during Prohibition, in the Midwest and elsewhere, were larger ensembles that featured as many as 10 musicians and that played both jazz and other forms of popular music in dance halls, speakeasies, and restaurants, bringing jazz to entirely new audiences. Two of the best-known large groups during this era were the bands of Jean Goldkette, who was born in France and raised in Chicago, and Paul Whiteman, a symphony and dance band violinist born in Denver. Audiences were especially charmed by the Whiteman Orchestra’s ability to blend European string-orchestra music, African-American jazz, novelty songs, and exotic tunes. Whiteman had great ambitions for his music and talked about “making a lady out of jazz.” He walked the line between high and low art, between classical and popular music, and when he premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in a New York concert hall in 1924, the message was clear: The world of jazz would one day have its place in American culture alongside the polite, segregated world of classical music.
If bands like Paul Whiteman’s can be said to have opened the door to a wider audience, then Duke Ellington simply knocked the door down. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and began piano lessons as a young boy. He soon learned ragtime piano and began his professional career organizing bands to play for dances and social gatherings. In 1923 he moved to New York, where an African-American cultural revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance was under way. Ellington immersed himself in the musical life of the city, playing and studying alongside many of his heroes, including composer Will Marion Cook and pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Johnson and Smith played a style called stride: a complex, often rapid form of piano playing in which the left hand quickly moves between bass notes and chords while the right hand creates a series of variations on the melody. Drawing on these and numerous other influences, Ellington fashioned his own distinctive piano style, a rich blend that went beyond anything that had come before.
In 1927, Ellington’s ten-piece outfit landed the important job of house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where he developed skills as a composer and arranger that would lay the foundation for his legendary swing orchestra a few years later. “The music,” Duke said, “must be molded to the men,” and, accordingly, the Cotton Club band’s handpicked members each had an immeasurable impact on the group sound In his compositions for the nightly floor shows, Ellington drew on every type of music available, from sentimental songs and classical melodies to the blues and West Indian folk dances.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
It was Duke’s special ability to create utterly new music from these traditional forms that set him apart from the other musicians of his time. The celebrated African-American writer Ralph Ellison, still a high school student in the 1920s, recalled the Cotton Club days: “It was as though Ellington had taken the traditional instruments of Negro American music and modified them, extended their range and enriched their tonal possibilities. ... It was not until the discovery of Ellington that we had any hint that jazz possessed possibilities of a range of expressiveness comparable to that of classical European music.” Indeed, over the next 40 years Ellington would reach audiences around the world, filling concert halls and ballrooms alike, playing music that was as popular among the masses as it was revered by great musicians. He had created a music that was, as Duke himself would say, “beyond category.”