Long before Wynton Marsalis arrived in the plush halls of Lincoln Center, jazz was often performed in far more dangerous venues. Greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday found their footing on the stages of America’s most notorious vice districts, where big players in the mob, such as Al Capone and Mickey Cohen, called the shots. In his new book, Dangerous Rhythms, journalist T. J. English explores the complexities of this corner of the underworld, where venues like the Cotton Club explicitly upheld the racial dynamics of Jim Crow America while simultaneously providing Black musicians with otherwise unavailable opportunities. But the emerging civil rights movement disrupted this “glorified plantation system,” as English calls it, just as it eventually upended both the music and the mob.
Go beyond the episode:
- T. J. English’s Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld
- Peruse his back catalog of books on organized crime
- You can still have a drink and listen to some tunes at Chicago’s Green Mill, which has a shrine to Al Capone
- Other surviving clubs include the Village Vanguard in New York City and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit (though beer is no longer 26 cents!)
- Listen to Louis Armstrong playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band on “Canal Street Blues,” recorded in Richmond, Indiana, on April 5, 1923—and listen to more early jazz recordings now in the public domain
- The song featured in this episode is “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” recorded by Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars in Chicago on December 9, 1927
Listen to a playlist of songs to accompany the episode, and the book:
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