Jazz Age

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JAZZ AGE. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term "Jazz Age" retrospectively to refer to the decade after World War I and before the stock market crash in 1929, during which Americans embarked upon what he called "the gaudiest spree in history." The Jazz Age is inextricably associated with the wealthy white "flappers" and socialites immortalized in Fitzgerald's fiction. However, the era's soundtrack was largely African American, facilitating what Ann Douglas has described as a "racially mixed social scene" without precedent in the United States. Postwar U.S. supremacy and a general disillusion with politics provided the economic base and social context of the Jazz Age. In his 1931 essay, "Echoes of the Jazz Age," Fitzgerald referred to "a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure," a rather glib exaggeration, as 71 percent of American families lived below the poverty line during the Roaring Twenties. Nevertheless, a young white elite put this pleasure principle into practice by embracing jazz. As the historian Lawrence Levine observed, many whites identified this black music as libidinal and "primitive," the liberating antithesis of main-stream, middle-class conventions. White New Yorkers went "slumming" at jazz clubs in Harlem. Boosted by the emergence of radio and the gramophone, black singers like Bessie Smith and Clara Smith became stars. The motion picture The Jazz Singer (1927) brought the music to the big screen in the first-ever "talkie," although the eponymous hero was the white performer Al Jolson in blackface.


Cowley, Malcolm, and Robert Cowley, eds. Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age. New York: Scribners, 1966.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. London: Picador, 1996.

Fitzgerald, F Scott. "Echoes of the Jazz Age." In The Crack-Up with Other Pieces and Stories. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.


See alsoFlapper .