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USF Libraries Exhibits

Early Jazz in Tampa


By: Sarah Cornacchione

     In the years surrounding World War I, jazz had secured itself in mainstream American society. There was a change in the leisure habits of people in the United States,. The imminent danger of war drove people to enjoy life to the fullest. As old ideas of modesty fell to the wayside, people gathered to listen to jazz and dance almost every night of the week. Jazz in its earliest years had been embraced as a way to let loose and forget about the world’s political troubles, but as World War I came to a close in 1918, the country turned its attention to domestic issues of morality. The prohibition of alcohol seems to be a huge factor in shaping attitudes toward an increasingly popular jazz culture. After World War I, there was already a tendency for some to try and eliminate the country’s vices. Once alcohol was banned, it must have seemed appropriate to try and treat society’s ills by banning other things, as well, especially jazz. Figure 1 shows that in 1922, the city Savannah, Georgia almost unanimously passed “an ordinance prohibiting jazz dancing.”  There is also record of an Asheville, North Carolina orchestra prohibiting its members from making any unnecessary or unusual noises not indicated in the music, or making movements conspicuously noticeable that would tend to distract from the dignity of the performance.” Whether Floridians agreed with these bans or not, they were entertained by them enough to feature the stories in their newspapers. The Ocala Evening Star may reflect one Floridian opinion on the matter, that there are many more “sensible” things a government could do.

     “With the passage of the Volsted Act of 1919, prohibition had come into force, outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol. But instead of eliminating consumption, Prohibition drove it underground, there nightclubs, cabarets, and speakeasies lured late-night crowds with the promise of illegal booze and unregulated revelry” (Hasse, Jazz: the first century, 2000, p. 26). Because of these and other circumstances, there emerged a complex relationship between the demand for illegal alcohol and the demand for venues featuring jazz music to dance to. This, coupled with the racial tensions of the time, made jazz the target of much judgement and criticism. Jazz was also providing a completely different kind of music than people were used to, and it is often the actual music— the sounds of jazz— which were criticized (see Figure 6). As the culture began to shift away from classical music, some believed that jazz, like ragtime before it, would destroy “American” families, morals, and psyche with its wild, irregular sounds. In his book, Jazz, Paul Whiteman, popularly known as the “King of Jazz,” recalls that “Ministers, club women, teachers, and parents have been seeing in jazz a menace to the youth of the nation ever since the word came into general use. They have claimed that it put the ‘sin’ in ‘syncopation’” (1974, p. 137). Whiteman’s perspective may remind us that, as often happens with the advent of new things, there was some disagreement about the nature of the influence jazz was having.

     Both sides of this issue are displayed in the article shown in Figure 7. Here, an opinion piece is taken from one newspaper, and commented on by a columnist with The Ocala Evening Star. Although the jazz is seldom celebrated in these columns, here we see the push-back from one Floridian who saw that some aspects of jazz culture were beneficial. It is unclear whether the author wrote their addition in support of women’s liberty but it does seem to dismiss the idea that jazz was responsible for destroying the country’s moral fiber.

     For better or worse all eyes were on jazz music during the 1920s, and according to Jazz: The First Century, “every major city in the country had one or more jazz bands, but aural documentation is sparse” (Hasse, 2000, p. 48). We do have extensive print evidence Florida was home to its own regional bands, and hosted visiting bands. Often advertisements and articles involving jazz ran in Florida newspapers in the early 20s. Although some opinion articles sought to challenge jazz culture, advertisements, of course, never showed any trace of these anti-jazz ideas.

Jazz Dances and Other Events in Florida Newspapers

     By the late 1910’s, no function would have been complete without a little jazz, and as Article 7 and 8 in the PDF file show, some events were organized for the sole purpose of dancing to this new, exciting music.

     There is an interesting trend in Florida’s newspapers (which most likely do not deviate dramatically from the norm) to list many, if not all, of the names of people who had attended a particular event. Article 9 in the PDF file, shows one such list, which seems to function much in the same way today’s social media does, by making public the attendance at social gatherings, and promoting the popularity of the event, the bands, the venue, and people, themselves. The article also preserves an account of the Ocala Women’s Clubhouse décor, and makes mention of the floors’ recent renovation, highlighting how vigorous and important the dancing portion of such events were. Because of the overwhelming popularity of dancing, jazz bands could be found playing in a variety of venues for a variety of occasions, clubhouses and casinos served as fine venues, and often organizations would hold dances as fundraisers. One American Legion held dances so frequently that it was referred to in many ads as “Top O’ the Town” (See Articles 12, 15, in the PDF file, and the first image displayed in the gallery).

     Jazz music was present at fairs and parades, sometimes providing music for dances at public events, like Labor Day festivities at Clearwater Beach, shown in an advertisement in Article 20 in the PDF file. Collins’ Jazz Band provided music for dancers “all day” starting at 10 in the morning.  Jazz bands were also hired to provide ambient music during dinners, holiday events, and other get-togethers. Article 22 in the PDF file shows an advertisement for the Daisy Tea Room holiday events, including a Friday night chicken dinner featuring music by Jimmie Collins’ Jazz Orchestra. This is also an interesting example of how a band might make little changes to their name for different venues.  

     Radio culture in the early 20th century helped spread jazz, so that even out-of-the-way areas, like Florida, began enjoying some of the same music as big centers of jazz like Chicago and New Orleans. By the middle of the 1920’s, radio was widely available, and even some rural populations were familiar with the popular tunes of the day. Listeners would gather in both private and public, to crowd around radios with enthusiasm. Article 23 in the PDF file, tells the story of jazz fans struggling to pick up the “radio concert” which they all had come to hear at a local pharmacy. In the article, an astonishing fifty people had turned out to hear the program, but many were skeptical of this new technology, and almost half the crowd left after there was some difficulty picking up a good signal. Those who stayed enjoyed a musical variety for almost three hours, and the program lasted until 11 o’clock in the evening.



The Ocala evening star. (Ocala, Florida.). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Palatka daily news. (Palatka, Florida). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Hasse, John Edward. "The Flourishing of Jazz." In Jazz: The First Century, 48. First ed. New York, New York: William Morrow, 2000.

Whiteman, Paul, and Mary Margaret McBride. "Jazz in America." In Jazz,, 137. New York: Arno Press, 1974.