Once again, I'm exploring the factors that caused jazz to fall out of favor with mass audiences in the mid-1950s and 1960s. If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 in this series, go here and then here. The last time I tackled this topic, I received an email from a reader asking why I failed to include race as a factor. The reader suggested that jazz's decline in the 1960s was partly due to increased hostility by black artists toward their white fan base, causing them to embrace the blues, folk, r&b, rock and friendlier forms of music.
While I'm sure some white club-going fans were put off by unreceptive black jazz artists, I don't think being snubbed at the doors of backstage dressing rooms played much of a role in jazz's fading popularity. In fact, I don't think race played much of a factor at all. While rising racial and political tensions in the late 1950s and 1960s certainly influenced how jazz was created and expressed by artists, I don't believe that jazz and jazz artists were spurned by teens (white and black) for reasons related to race.
Instead, I believe there were three more significant cultural factors: First, cheap technology put other forms of music on par with jazz nationwide. Second, jazz did little to hold or attract women. And third, jazz's public image took a beating during the government's early aggressive street-level crack down on drugs flowing into the U.S. from Communist China. Let's look at each of these briefly:
ROAR OF THE CROWDS. In the late 1930s and 1940s, jazz was the music that moved a nation. Heard through small radios late at night across the country in both rural and urban teenage bedrooms, jazz and swing motivated an entire generation. But by the early 1950s, jazz was less and less relevant because audiences had more and more types of music to choose from.
After 1949, new technology and lower costs led to a rapid rise in the number of independent record labels, more powerful radio signals, and new recording formats—most notably the 45-rpm single. In addition, the emergence of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), a rival of ASCAP's, allowed less established songwriters to have their songs recorded and be compensated for their efforts.
All of these trends paved the way for rock, r&b, country and bluegrass. Once the orphans of major labels, these genres were able to move out of the small towns, hollows and homesteads of the South and West in the 1950s and into mass markets nationwide, especially with the onset of television.
JAZZ QUITS THE MOON. If jazz made one fatal error, it was alienating female audiences in the early 1950s. Jazz's popularity in the 1930s and 1940s was as strong as it was because it addressed female needs. In addition to providing dance music, jazz also embraced love songs, largely through the use of vocalists. When jazz began abandoning its social role in the late-1940s and early 1950s, the music became more male-driven entertainment—focusing on technique, prowess and cool rather than as an enabler for pitch and woo.
By the mid-1950s, jazz no longer provided young girls (black or white) with what they truly wanted: Music that made guys want to ask them to dance or fall in love. Jazz was a solitary affair, an art form that increasingly was meant to be enjoyed alone by men—like a cigar, a beer or a baseball game. Women may have been along on jazz nights out during these years, but most found that jazz distracted dates from their own agendas and aspirations.
Jazz lost its yearning feeling and, in the process, lost its lock on American teenage girls. Eventually, it lost its grip on teenage boys as well. With young people struggling for an identity in the mid-1950s, the sexual energy and beat of rock 'n' roll and r&b were better equipped to capture the drama of youth. With the onset of car radios and cheap portable record players, music didn't require much detail, just a beat and basic lyrics. Jazz simply abandoned the boy-girl songs that got under your skin.
For teens in the early 1950s, cool increasingly was personified by Dean Martin, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. The look soon was adapted by musicians who combined country, bluegrass and the blues. Chet Baker was the closest jazz had in this department, but by 1956 he was a fey offering compared to the larger-than-life personalities of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry [pictured], Bo Diddley, Little Richard and other black and white rockers and blues artists.
JAZZ GETS BUSTED. Jazz's sophisticated image also suffered repeated blows during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations as Washington stepped up its attack on drug use. With drug traffic increased in the late 1940s, Washington struggled to contain the scourge by linking the rise to a Communist China conspiracy with strident efforts to stop it at the street level.
Jazz's reputation began to take a beating as Washington put pressure on state and local law enforcement to crack down on drug dealing and use among role model entertainers. Cabaret cards in New York were confiscated, drug busts increased, stories were leaked to the press and columnists and drug plants were par. Hollywood users during this period could afford lawyers to keep them out of trouble. Jazz musicians weren't so fortunate. Charlie Parker's and Billie Holiday's drug problems were widely known by the public by the early 1950s.
But the drug problem among jazz musicians wasn't restricted to race. There were just as many white jazz addicts as there were black jazz users, and the West Coast white jazz scene was rife with addicts, geniuses though they may have been. Little by little, jazz became equated in the public's mind not with brilliant entertainment and art but with self-destructive addicts who wore sunglasses at night.
How did this come to be? Washington played a big role. From 1930 to 1970, Harry Anslinger [pictured] headed Washington's various narcotics bureaus and was an active lobbyist shaping narcotics policy on the federal and local levels. Anslinger was something of a moral entrepreneur, insisting that drug consumption, production and traffic could be erased through strict enforcement policy and mandatory prison sentences.
"Jazz entertainers are neither fish nor fowl. They do not get the million-dollar protection Hollywood and Broadway can afford for their stars who have become addicted—and there are many more than will ever be revealed. Perhaps this is because jazz, once considered a decadent kind of music, has only token respectability.
Jazz grew up next door to crime, so to speak. Clubs of dubious reputation were, for a long time, the only places where it could be heard. But the times bring changes, and as Billy Holiday [sic] was a victim of time and change, so too was Charlie Parker, a man whose music, like Billie's is still widely imitated. Most musicians credit Parker among others as spearheading what is called modern jazz."
Once you get beyond the non sequiturs, you start to imagine what his views on jazz and jazz musicians were 10 years earlier. As we know, drug busts among black and white jazz musicians on both coasts increased significantly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I spoke with a white jazz musician recently who recounted a story of Los Angeles detectives kicking in the door of a hotel room shared by him and a musician roommate in the late 1940s in a frenzied effort to find drugs. They came up empty but both musicians had feared that if they hadn't been as polite as they were, narcotics would have been planted to make the bust.
There's a whole book waiting to be written on the FBI's war on jazz and drugs during this period. The irony, of course, is that by the mid-1960s, rock would become saturated with drug use—by the genre's artists and its listeners. By 1967, drugs were a vital part of rock's culture, message and promotion, from record covers to concert posters. All of which rendered jazz's drug issues of the 1950s kid stuff in retrospect. The threat existed only to the jazz musicians themselves, not teens and society at large. America is still recovering from the drug epidemic enabled by the record companies and their executives in the 1960s.
IN SUMMARY, Jazz's declining popularity in the 1950s was a natural course
of events for any great art form. By definition, fine art isn't meant to be consumed by everyone, only by those who can feel the artist's message, understand its point, and be transformed by it. [Pictured: Untitled, crayon and collage on paper, Willem De Kooning]
Attempts to link jazz's decline to racial hostility or black rage fail to account for the culture's shifting dynamics and the artists' own evolution and creative struggles. Both transcend race. Trust me, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman and others were much more concerned about receiving the proper level of respect and remuneration for their efforts than the color of a backstage fan's skin.