Night Lights Classic Jazz

The Big Speakeasy: Jazz And Prohibition

America in the 1920s: Wall Street was on the rise, cops were on the take, jazz was in the air, and alcohol had been banished—but it certainly hadn’t vanished.

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Jazz musicians at Gennett

Photo: Flickr

Catching the buzz: Bix Beiderbecke and musician friends (including the young Tommy Dorsey on Bix's left) at a Gennett Records date in 1925. The session, fueled in part by bootleg gin, produced the first-ever recording of a Beiderbecke composition, "Davenport Blues".

On January 16, 1920, alcohol became illegal in the United States of America. The same year, Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues,” which would sell a million copies and help pave the way for the music-media explosion of the 1920s—a decade often called the Jazz Age, but one you could simply call the Age of Sound, because suddenly sound was everywhere, in the form of radio, phonographs, and by 1927, talking pictures.

Jazz was indeed a big part of that sound, and with the coming of Prohibition it flourished in the underground bars known as “speakeasies” around the country—a new music born in a time of complexity and change, and now aligned, for better or worse, with a culture of forbidden liquor that also gave rise to organized crime.

Historian Michael McGerr, author of A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, joins the program this week to discuss jazz and Prohibition, offering his view that the relationship was more complex and nuanced than we’ve been led to believe. We’ll also hear Prohibition-era jazz from Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, Bessie Smith, and more.

Another Round

Music Heard On This Episode

Hotter Than That
Louis Armstrong — Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Sony, 2001)
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Hotter Than That
Louis Armstrong — Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Sony, 2001)
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Just a Little Drink
Paul Whiteman — Jazz Age Chronicles V. 6: (Van Up Records, 2010)
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Davenport Blues
Bix Beiderbecke — Bix Restored V. 1 (Origin Jazz Library, 1995)
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Grandpa's Spells
Jelly Roll Morton — Jelly Roll Morton 1926-1930 (JSP, 2000)
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Black and Tan Fantasy
Duke Ellington — Best of Early Ellington (GRP/Decca, 1996)
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Knockin' a Jug
Louis Armstrong/Jack Teagarden — Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Sony, 2001)
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Too Tight Blues (midpoint music bed)
Johnny Dodds/Kid Ory — Devilin' Tune V. 1 (Music and Arts, 2006)
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Me and My Gin
Bessie Smith — Essential Bessie Smith (Sony, 1997)
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Prohibition Blues
Missourians — 1925-1930 (Vintage Music Productions, 2007)
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In the Bottle Blues
Clarence Wiliams/King Oliver/Eddie Lang — Quintessential Eddie Lang (Timeless Holland, 1998)
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Moten Swing
Bennie Moten — Band Box Shuffle (Hep, 2000)
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Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer
Bessie Smith — Essential Bessie Smith (Sony, 1997)
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Happy Days Are Here Again
Casa Loma Orchestra — Casa Loma Stomp (Hep, 1997)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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