“Can you Jazz?”: Interwar Culture and the Jazz Phenomenon

16 February 2022

Area Studies | Cultural Studies | History

This blog includes temporary free access to Femina, January-December 1926 and Woman’s Weekly, January-June 1919. Click on the images below to view the documents for free until 18th March 2022.

 

“The parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper.” So Nick Carraway once observed in that iconic love letter to the roaring twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was Fitzgerald, too, who coined the term “the Jazz Age” to describe this decade of flamboyance and excess – and it was jazz, in many ways, that characterised a young generation emerging from war with a desire to enjoy life more fully, more raucously and with more fervour than ever before. And while not everyone was rushing to learn the Charleston, jazz culture certainly made its presence known in the periodicals of Interwar Culture, published last week.

Jazz music and dance, the two main pillars of jazz culture, find their roots in African-American traditions – jazz music, for example, can be traced back to 1890s New Orleans and beyond – but the 1920s saw jazz take off like never before, vaulting the cultural divide between Black and White communities. The era of the radio saw jazz take hold of a much broader demographic, aided in no small part by the opening of jazz clubs and speakeasies that employed both Black and White musicians and occasionally allowed Black and White audiences to mingle socially (although White musicians and patrons were often heavily favoured). Venues like these quickly became known not only for racial mixing but also for a flagrant disregard for Prohibition, often being run by mobsters and bootleggers; as such, the jazz lifestyle became synonymous with rebellion, flamboyance and a new, modern youth.

As is often the case with cultural juggernauts, however, jazz also made its way into the more “respectable” mainstream of the 1920s, both at home in America and across the Atlantic in Britain and Europe. Evidence of the latter can be found in the April 1926 issue of exclusive French fashion magazine, Femina.

 

A young couple in fashionable dress, demonstrating a Charleston hold.
La Danse a la Mode: Le Charlestone. Femina, April 1926. Image © New York Public Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

A young couple beams out at the reader from a photograph, impeccably dressed of course – the gentleman in a loosely tailored suit and spats, and the lady sporting a cloche hat and bold modern print. Caught in a somewhat awkward dance hold, they demonstrate a freeze-frame of “the fashionable dance”, the Charleston, popularised in Paris by the scandalous Folies Bergère star Josephine Baker. Baker had travelled from New York to Paris in 1925 at the age of just nineteen years old, where she found almost overnight success with her American dance style and sensational costumes.

A much earlier issue of Woman’s Weekly testifies to the momentous influence of jazz across the Channel in Britain. Accompanying the sheet music for ‘The “Jazz” Fox-Trot, “Hawaiian Butterfly”’ (which you can listen to from a link below this blog), a writer asks: ‘Can you Jazz? Have you Jazzed? Will you Jazz?’

 

Sheet music for 'The
'How to "Jazz" Successfully'/'The "Jazz" Fox-Trot, "Hawaiian Butterfly"'. Woman's Weekly, March 15, 1919. © Future PLC. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Writer Herman Darewski proceeds to delight in the effect of jazz music and dancing on the stereotypically uptight British population:

‘As far as I can see, the only explanation is that there is something – something indefinable, something irresistible – in the movements of the Jazz roll that thrills and exhilarates… Perhaps the four years of war and worry through which we have just passed has made us serious and inclined to morbidness, and that may possibly be the reason why Jazzing is having such a startling effect upon everybody.’

And so began the Western love affair with “Jazzing” that would only grow and evolve throughout the twentieth century. Far more than just the latest craze, jazz came to epitomise a world shaking off the devastation of war and searching for the joy of life once more. In the wise words of Mr Darewski – ‘if you feel depressed and worried, go and Jazz, and keep on Jazzing. It’s a marvellous tonic.’

 

To hear a recording of the music referred to in this blog, ‘Hawaiian Butterfly’, follow this external link to Spotify.

For more advice on fashionable dance steps, inspiration for elegant dance frocks and prints of the latest jazz music, explore Interwar Culture, available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Lauren Clinch

Lauren Clinch

I joined Adam Matthew in February 2019, and since then have had the chance to work on some fantastic projects such as 'Ethnomusicology - Global Field Recordings' and 'Food and Drink in History'. I studied MA History & Heritage at Aberystwyth University and my academic interest lies in hidden histories, particularly race and gender history.