The Jazz Age

Some no doubt find themselves enormously annoyed at the rise of flat earth ideas. I find flat earth theories fascinating, though in no way do I profess belief in a scientifically measurable flat earth. The Earth is round. But, I confess, I would find it hilariously fun if indeed the Earth was physically flat, probably because I am not a scientist.

I find the recent appearance of these ideas intriguing not because I find them convincing, but because of what it says about our cultural moment. In other words, the “physical” part of what flat-earthers say might amount to nothing. The fact that they say it, and that many seem to agree, surely evidences a general weakening of the center in our culture–a signal amidst the noise. We no longer trust even the most basic of assumed narratives.

Traditional authorities and traditional ways of creating meaning in our culture no longer work. Many loaded criticism onto the CDC for how they handled COVID. I have no great love for the CDC, but one could view them not as the main character in a tragedy, but almost as a minor player in a much larger narrative. This breakdown of trust in the central narrative has happened in other areas as well, in elections, in the media in general, and so on.

But, while I have a large amount of trust that we live on a round earth, we all know that experientially we live on a flat earth most of the time. We do not experience the rotation of the earth–we see the sun move. Our senses are not lying to us. Here the bare facts of the Earth’s rotation matters much less than our experienced reality. Our experience shapes reality more so than the other way round.

On his Marginal Revolution blog Tyler Cowen posted an amusing link to every problem laid at the feet of jazz in the 1920’s and 30’s. If one takes the time to peruse, we see jazz blamed for

  • Warts
  • Small family sizes
  • Indigestion
  • Difficulties in college athletics

and so on. The natural reaction for us moderns typically involves a bemused smile at the obtuseness of panicky fools in the past. Perhaps we imagine that we ourselves would never react in such a way. The key here for historians at least, involves seeing if any signals exist amidst this mishmash of chatter.*

Most every western culture experienced profound shifts after W.W. I. One can argue that such changes had their roots in developments decades earlier, in the Industrial Revolution, or centuries earlier with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. One can go back further if you want. Making connections like this has its place, but we also need to separate, to delineate, as well as join together. Acknowledging the myriad of forces that drive change, we should ask if Jazz in the 20’s and 30’s stands out in any particular way.

Many have remarked how W.W. I destroyed the last vestiges of aristocracy in Europe, both physically and culturally/spiritually. This brought about more democracy politically, but perhaps more importantly, also culturally. Now the “bottom,” or “low” culture would have more prominence. I do not use these terms in a derogatory way. High and Low culture both have their place–the question involves what place, exactly. Perhaps one could argue that

  • Beethoven (maybe Mozart?) helped start this downward movement by using emotional themes and motifs heavily starting in the middle of his career. This has significance because of the place of emotions in the structure of the body, which reflects in certain respects the structure of the cosmos. Appealing to the emotions meant appealing to our bellies, what lays “lower” in our being.
  • With Franz Liszt, we see a mixture of high and low culture (‘high’ skill with ‘low’ folk motifs) with a ‘low’ reaction to him (ladies swoon and scream–he’s a rock star).
  • At the turn of the century Mahler (whose music I neither like nor understand, so take this with salt) completes the destruction of the classical forms, paving the way for something else. Maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring worked in a similar way upon the world.

The visual arts mirror this trend in music, starting with Turner as early impressionism, down to Monet, Van Gogh, and then finally Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, London 1775–1851 London) The Lake of Zug, 1843 British, Watercolor over graphite; 11 3/4 x 18
Nude Descending a Staircase

This progression towards less fixed form and more loose, popular expression up until W.W I certainly took place, but the dam had not burst, so to speak, however many cracks any perceptive observer might have noted at the time.

But with the breakout of jazz and swing. suddenly popular, “low” culture became the dominant culture, flipping things from a top-down/old-to-young to the reverse. Now the young grabbed the throne, and culture obligingly followed. The manic way people took to this new form should indicate that something was not quite right. Clearly, something happened in how we viewed the world, something throttled us, in a sense, and made us into something new.

Marshal McLuhan has the fascinating idea that the switch to electricity primarily drove this change, which began in earnest just before W.W. I. His complex argument can get boiled down to his belief that

  • The culture of ‘printing press’ man would lend itself to a filtered experience of the world. We gained the ability to separate our experiences in a detached way. For example, any selection from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier has emotional content, but that comes later in the listening experience and not right away.
  • The electric age would thrust western man back in time, to a more tribal mode of culture, where sensory experience integrates and brings everything “all at once.”
  • Whichever culture we prefer, this sort of culture will not facilitate the “cool” detachment needed in a linear print culture. We would now run “hot,” experiencing culture When listening to, for example, James Brown, the impact is immediate, and does not lend itself to analysis as does Bach.

Again, whether one regards this shift as good, bad, or indifferent, it represents a massive psychic shift in perception, which would lead to a new way of life.

I do not suggest that we should adopt McCluhan’s thoughts whole hog. Exploring religious factors would also yield interesting results. But culture stands right next to religion, and I find his lens a good one. The music of jazz, appearing right at the advent of radio and electricity, fits into this shift. The experience of early swing music at least has an immediacy, and totality of effect.

The linked post from Marginal Revolution about the impacts of jazz show lack of thought, some stabs in the dark, and some panic. But those early worry-warts had an intuitive insight–they knew that something big was afoot that would alter everything.

In its modern incarnation, democracy arose from the pinnacle of the print age in the late 18th century. Our political practice, and our rights, such as freedom of speech, require a certain amount of practiced detachment. This posture now runs in short supply in certain aspects of our culture, and we may soon experience a seismic shift akin to what took place in the 20’s and 30’s. So, when we poke fun at the past and assume our own superiority, we should pause. Our modern world might resemble chickens without their heads soon enough. If the bare facts don’t tell that story, our experience might. Historians should look in both places.


*None of what follows should be seen as disparaging to jazz. It is one of my favorite musical genres. I regard Count Basie (more than Louie Armstrong or Miles Davis, though obviously they are all magnificent), as one of the great emblems of American culture of the 20th century. No one managed such a distinctive, punchy, groove for longer. Miles Davis had more intellectual inventiveness, and John Coltrane played with more rich emotion. Neither of them have nearly as much fun as Count Basie. Likewise, Basie could never be considered the best piano player, and maybe not even a “great” piano player (though I would say so, but admittedly in a certain sense of the term). But he was always the most fun, as this little moment at the 4:05 mark attests.