Musical forms have the life cycle of carnivorous beasts: clumsy in infancy, terrifying in adolescence, fearsome in maturity, fangless in old age, and pitiful in senescence, before the inevitable silent death. Their life spans tend to be longer than ours, so it can be difficult to recall that some of the more geriatric genres were once vital and fierce. But even Baroque music had a caddish streak—“a most dangerous reef,” in the words of a prominent seventeenth-century German rector, “along which many a young soul, as if called by Sirens … falls into dissoluteness”—and polka, in the 1840s, was a venal Bohemian menace (in 1844, the Illustrated London News wrote that polka “needs only to be seen once to be avoided forever!”). Jazz, now well advanced into its second century, had an especially violent youth. It was more than merely dangerous—it was homicidal.
Jazz, to be precise, was never extraordinarily ferocious. “Jass” was. The soft sibilant turned heavy at around the same time—a century ago—that the music crossed over in the national consciousness, rumbling north on steamboats up the Mississippi and on the northbound Illinois Central to Chicago, then to New York and California, where it swiftly gained popularity, social acceptance, critical esteem. To do so, it had to leave New Orleans, its native home, behind. This was understandable, given the treatment it had received. Read More