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The Prohibition Age: An Era that brought with it Soulful Jazz

I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was riding down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and wept at the loss of what in his opinion was an enchanted era.

Prohibition brought with it the Soulful Jazz Age. Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael said it best when he described how the 20s came in “with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals and wild weekends.” On a similar note, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said that during Prohibition, “The parties were bigger…the pace was faster…and the morals were looser.”

Rewind back to January 16th, 1920, at the stroke of midnight America went dry. There wasn’t a place in the nation where anyone could legally have a glass of wine accompanied by dinner without being considered an outlaw. The 18th Amendment forbade the production, sale and possession of alcohol in America.

An era that lasted for thirteen years, the reason behind Prohibition was to diminish delinquency and poverty, and improve the general quality of life in America—by making it impossible for people to consume alcohol. This supposed ‘Noble Experiment’ was one huge fiasco. Ironically, people drank more than ever during and there were more deaths related to alcohol during this period.

A thriving black market economy was created thanks to mob-controlled liquor. Neighbourhood saloons were replaced by Gangster-owned speakeasies. By 1925 there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Plush nightclubs accentuated with exotic floor shows and the best bands were controlled by mob bosses. Famous celebrities like Fred and Adele Astaire performed at The Trocadero. At the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington led the house band as tap dancer Bojangles Robinson and jazz singer Ethel Waters brought in hordes of people. On Midwestern college campuses, in rural America, youngsters drank ‘bathtub gin’ and boogied to jazz tunes of Bix and the Wolverines in lakeside pavilions.

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrated the high-flying party music of the prosperous ’20s—with tunes from the playing of soulful jazz violinist Joe Venuti, bandleader Duke Ellington and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Women sporting short skirts and bobbed hair, flappers were conspicuous. They turned down their hose, powdered their knees and painted their lips bright red. They were even audacious enough to smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails in public. Speakeasies and nightclubs were the hangout spots, where they danced the Tango, the Black Bottom and the biggest dance craze of all—the Charleston—with bare arms and legs flying.

The real problem seemed to be that jazz dances encouraged young women to leave their corsets at home—and let loose. Prohibition broke down deep-rooted social barricades. Rich people and ordinary folks, men and women all had two goals in common—getting their hands on the best prohibited liquor available, whilst avoiding a visit to the police station ridden in a paddy wagon.

Romanticizing or oversimplifying the affiliation between jazz and prohibition in easy, but the banning of alcohol and the successive rise of speakeasies visibly played a role in the music’s evolution during its early days. Jazz musicians had abundant employment opportunities in the several new nightclubs, created friendships with gangsters, and benefited from vital scenes that flourished in cities prevalent with corruption. For better or worse, the Prohibition years also branded jazz with a mark of misbehaviour, which for many only ignited the music’s sense of genuineness and exhilaration.

Countless bars around the world try to evoke that jazzy feel the 20s brought with it. The Thirsty Barber prides itself in being the only bar in Malta that manages to rekindle said atmosphere so eloquently. So if you’re a fan of soulful jazz music and want to be transported back into a time of soulful songs, make sure you come to St Julian’s for a great night of tasty drinks, great music within a genuine 1920s milieu.

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