Mob Music

T. J. English on the surprising relationship between two grand American traditions—jazz and organized crime

The St. Louis Cotton Club Bandabout 1925 (Block Brothers Studio)
The St. Louis Cotton Club Bandabout 1925 (Block Brothers Studio)

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.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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