Tension and Release:
A History of Jazz and Sex

Tension and Release:
A History of Jazz and Sex

Herina Ayot takes a look at the sensual (and controversial) history of America's "original art form"

by Herina Ayot, February 27, 2013

Tension and Release:
A History of Jazz and Sex

Duke Ellington

Jazz, at its very core, is sex. The one begs the other. Harmonic tension, rhythmic tension, and even melodic tension, followed by release matches the feel of the moment, passion and unrest bent up inside a person before the ultimate and sudden exhale.

The New York American had this to say of jazz music in 1922, "Lights were lowered, and to the strains of syncopated music, actions that are indescribable took place. This is the full flowering – the fruition of modern erotic music, which has so crazed and befuddled the moral make-up of young people…."

And while media and politicians have more recently fingered rap and hip hop for the moral decline of America’s youth, condemning a genre of music, particularly one birthed in Black culture is an idea that has persisted for over a hundred years. The earliest forms of jazz, the music, can be traced back to the early 1910’s in the saloons of New Orleans, but the term “jazz” far precedes that.  It’s a word that means a lot of everything and nothing much at all. Spunk and spontaneity. Candor and uncontrollability. Sex is all about this tension followed by release and the very word jazz once was a verb synonymous with the act, a kind of slang too vulgar to be printed or spoken in public replaced in more recent years with a similar term rhyming with “luck” and for the gentlemen seeking a release, meaning the same.  Trombonist Clay Smith said “If the truth were known about the origin of the word 'jazz,' it would never be mentioned in polite company.”

Before jazz was at the Lincoln Center, it was in Storyville, New Orleans’ infamous red light district in operation between 1897 and 1917. The bordellos there boasted of mixed race women known as “Octoroons” and Creole women available for the use of White men. It was a culture with a “foreign feel” with influences from French and then Spanish colonialism that did not officially legalize prostitution but tolerated it. The ordinance that birthed Storyville sought to contain the vices of the city discreetly, but inadvertently made promiscuity and sex across the color line more visible rather than less.

Pianists got their start here in the brothels behind a curtain on the ground floor, playing tunes to occupy johns before they occupied women on the upper levels—women labeled “W” for White, “C” for Colored, and “Oct” for Octoroon in Storyville’s Blue Books. The job of the “professor”, or pianist was to create a mood that induced fervor and arousal and served as a kind of aphrodisiac. Storyville music, a reference to jazz before it was “jazz” was a genre rooted in improvisation and was what could be heard downstairs when men released their passion into women. Spunk, semen…jizz was the going name.  

The etymology of the word jazz is controversial, some saying its origin is Creole, but the sexual nature of the word is in accord with other words of the times. Jelly roll was a slang term referencing a woman’s secret place; soft, pink, and virginal; or a man obsessed with the same. Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe adopted the name Jelly Roll Morton and rose to fame playing in Storyville in his teenage years. He claimed until his death in 1941 that he invented jazz. But he didn’t invent jazz any more than Trey Songz invented sex. The two existed even before they had a name. And just as the creation of Storyville sought to accomplish one thing and failed, the demise of the district, sought to end both jazz and sex, in its crudest sense, and failed again.

The decline of Storyville was due largely to its tolerance of prostitution and racial integration. There was a train route completed in 1908 which ran directly past the Basin Street Bordellos to reach its terminal one block from Storyville. Women, bosoms exposed or even completely nude, hung outside of balconies waving to train passengers. To some, Storyville represented a threat to young women, to others, a threat to the racial order. Politicians and citizen’s groups urged the mayor to abolish the district. In 1917, after an unsuccessful attempt to segregate the brothels, he did.

But the story of Storyville was merely the first chapter in the book of jazz. Musicians packed up their instruments and exited due north to New York City and the windy city of Chicago where the music flourished in nightclubs and changed some…both lives and in composition. But the music’s reputation clung like a dirty stench on a homeless man. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 banned the sale of alcoholic drinks, resulting in illicit speakeasies becoming lively venues of the "Jazz Age” once again associating the genre with taboo vices of the city. The 1922 Illinois Vigilance Association report declared that jazz was “ruining girls”:

"Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras."

"In Chicago alone, the association's representatives have traced the fall of 1,000 girls in the last two years to jazz music."

"Girls in small towns, as well as the big cities, in poor homes and rich homes, are victims of the weird, insidious, neurotic music that accompanies modern dancing."

"The vigilance society has no desire to abolish dancing, but seeks to awaken the public conscience to the present danger and future consequences of jazz music."

Later years saw a change in the genre’s shadow and the very word “jazz” took on a new connotation.  With the introduction of European influences and Duke Ellington’s term “American music” jazz earned its favor and made its way to respected venues like Carnegie Hall and the world renown Lincoln center where it can be enjoyed publicly by all races, colors, and creeds.  It is yet another example of a persisting phenomenon in American culture that screams “if it’s Black, its whack, but if it’s white, it’s alright.”

U.S. poet and playwright, Imamu Amiri Baraka, may have captured the lost essence of jazz in its purest and unadulterated form when he said, “The further jazz moves away from the stark blue continuum and the collective realities of Afro-American and American life, the more it moves into academic concert-hall lifelessness, which can be replicated by any middle class showing off its music lessons.” 

Herina Ayot is a freelance writer in the New York Metropolitan area. Follow her on Twitter @ReeExperience.

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