David Brent Johnson
It's easy to romanticize or oversimplify the relationship between jazz and Prohibition, but the banning of alcohol and the subsequent rise of speakeasies clearly played a role in the music's evolution during its early days. Jazz musicians found ample employment opportunities in the numerous new nightclubs, formed friendships with gangsters (who were sometimes their biggest fans and occasionally their foes or protectors), and benefited from vital scenes that flourished in cities rife with corruption. For better or worse, the Prohibition years also stigmatized jazz with a mark of transgression, which for many only enhanced the music's sense of authenticity and excitement.
It wasn't just Prohibition that helped spur jazz's popularity; the 1920s were a period of profound transformation in American life. The nation's population continued to shift from rural areas to cities, and more and more people embraced the automobile as a new and independent mode of transportation. At the same time, the template for our modern media culture began to form, with phonographs, radio and talking pictures connecting Americans through an increasingly electronic network of sound. Jazz caught the buzz, in more ways than one. With filmmaker Ken Burns' three-part Prohibition documentary on tap for PBS starting Oct. 2, here are five sides for imbibing the high-and-not-so-dry spirits of the age.