The Great Gatsby, New Money, and Jazz

The Great Gatsby, New Money, and Jazz

The Great Gatsby offers critiques of many things; automobiles, white supremacy, religion, and the American Dream. But perhaps the most critiqued subject in the book is the Jazz Age. Both set during and roughly about the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby spends a lot of time setting up backgrounds as containing musicians, dancers, composers, and patrons, only to say that they are foolish, or hedonists, or undeserving of their wealth. See, this critique of the Jazz Age is a consequence of the time frame of the novel and Fitzgerald’s overarching theme throughout many of his works, that being that you can’t change your social class. See, Fitzgerald is very critical of the new rich, or, as they are traditionally known, nouveau riche. New rich is a concept of somebody that becomes rich during their lifetime rather than someone that is born rich. Those that express disdain for the new rich are not critiquing economic structures because they allow some people to have better access to healthcare or food security than others, but because they allow new people to get things previously reserved for only them. Fitzgerald in many novels is critical of the new rich, be they successful due to psychiatry, such as in Tender is the Night, due to the movie industry, like in The Last Tycoon, or jazz artists like in The Great Gatsby. There’s debate whether Fitzgerald’s criticism comes from a place of disdain for opulence in general or disdain for the shifting of the socio-economic classes by low-class individuals. On the one hand, Fitzgerald himself was not personally a fan of lavish parties or flamboyant displays of wealth, only resolving to those in interest of pleasing his wife Zelda. Perhaps his hatred of new money just happened to overlap with his hatred of money in general. On the other hand, there’s little critique of old money or those that inherit their wealth in The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald himself came from an upper-middle class family. Most importantly, though, regardless of whether Fitzgerald was a classist or revolutionary, his personal opinions no longer have an impact on the book. Wealthy white Americans still have their lavish parties and flamboyant displays of wealth, even at an award show congratulating the works of people involved in an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But here’s the thing. Intentionally or not, The Great Gatsby is disproportionately focused on criticizing marginalized individuals for participating in extravagance than privileged people. You could argue that this is because, as he was critiquing jazz, it was just coincidental that he complained mostly about black people, Jewish people, and Romani people. But to talk about that, we have to talk about the history of jazz. Almost all American music of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries can be traced back to one source: black slaves. While classical music continued to be produced, the majority of popular music owed much of its content and subsequent success to spirituals, music made by enslaved Africans and African-Americans. This music was an important aspect of preservation of culture and mental awareness. Not only was it emotional and sorrowful, it contained hope, trust in God, and messages of perseverance. Frederick Douglass once said of spirituals, “Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere occurrence even now afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling. To those songs, I traced my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me to deepen my hatred of slavery and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.” Spirituals were not just important because they maintained emotional strength. They were made with musical traditions from West Africa, including the use of syncopation, shuffling of feet, instruments like the Mandinka kora, the Susu balafon, and clapping of hands. At the same time as encouraging solidarity, spirituals provided slave owners with a false sense of ease, believing that their slaves were spiritually complacent, happy with their situation, when in fact, spirituals often reflected the opposite. In fact, many believed that several songs included instructions on how to find the Underground Railroad. Spirituals led into many genres of music as emancipated individuals and their children performed variations on the traditions. Jubilee, barbershop, even banjo music was adapted from African instruments. But perhaps the most adaptive and influential genre that has its roots in spirituals is blues. Blues are undeniably seen in most popular music today, and its origins are undeniably black and poor. Of course, though created by poor black people, the blues saw success in many audiences, including rich white audiences, willing to listen to black artists. And while many black musicians did see financial success, the success of the few did not lead to enfranchisement of the many. Segregation and systemic oppression did not magically end as a result of WC Handy’s successful career. But just as the spiritual was adapted, so were the blues. Ragtime, country, rock and roll, jug band, and soul are all derived from blues. But of course so was jazz. Jazz took the country and the world by storm. Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans were suddenly cultural hubs of music famous across the globe, and again, mostly black, initially poor, artists pioneered the art to great success. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton, cornetist Buddy Bolden, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, lyricist Eubie Blake, band leader Jim Europe, and singer Ma Rainey were just a few of the many incredible pioneers of jazz, successful well before the start of the Jazz Age, and not just for black audiences. Papa Jack Laine, an early white jazz artist, employed both white and black musicians in his band, an uncommon practice in postbellum south. In fact, while institutions still worked in favor of white Gentile non-hispanic Americans, early jazz saw success for many people that weren’t black or non-hispanic white. Hispanic-American clarinetist Alcide Nunez, Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol Martinez, Black Jewish-American pianist Willie Smith, and half Black half Cherokee bassist Pops Foster were all successful, alongside many other Hispanic, Jewish, and Native talents. Now, though many saw financial success, even with white audiences, it would not be until the Jazz Age that it became popular for white audiences to invite black people and other minorities into their circles to be celebrated, and it was the celebration of jazz by rich white Gentile non-hispanic audiences that formed the image commonly associated with the Jazz Age, and the one that is presented in The Great Gatsby. But it wasn’t the white partiers that received the brunt of the disdain from this novel. It was the newly successful Black and Jewish people. One year ago, I discussed how The Great Gatsby is virulently anti-semitic. But it’s also anti-black. Black people riding with a white chauffeur is deemed as modish, as if it’s an affront to nature, and is followed by the statement that, “Anything can happen now.” The two black men in the limousine are described as “bucks,” a sexually charged slur used in post-reconstruction South to describe supposedly violent, lecherous black men, and to dog whistle for execution. The great crimes committed by these black men? Having a white driver. Given the context, it can be presumed that these are jazz musicians, Yet somehow, despite their only action being riding in a car, they’re demonized to the point of racial slurs. And even the musicians at the parties are separated based on their backgrounds. The successful opera singer is described as celebrated. The successful jazz singer is described as notorious, and throughout the novel, jazz, an important musical genre with cultural significance, is rreated as the new-money of the music world, undeserving of its status, sure to be stripped away, eventually and, in Fitzgerald’s opinion, rightfully so. But of course, therein lies the catch. Jazz wasn’t to be replaced. It continues to thrive to this day, and its variations and related genres are pretty much the entire market of popular music. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., when you look at the blues and jazz, “You will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.”

1 Reply to “The Great Gatsby, New Money, and Jazz”

  1. I misread the seven on the calendar for a one, so this is actually not a one-year anniversary to the day video. Off by one week. Sorry.

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