The Effect of Advertising on the Formation of Jazz Culture
Jazz, a form of music birthed in America in the late 1800s, has roots as a form of entertainment for slaves working on plantations in the South. Since the 19th century, the genre has evolved and become an entire culture complete with its own form of dress, drink, and dance. The way these elements are visualized in newspapers, magazines, and advertisements is particularly notable because although rich, luxurious tones come through in the sound and look of jazz, this form of music and entertainment was still widely accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status and the way it was portrayed. Through reading articles and analyzing images both from and about the early 1900s, a pivotal time in jazz, I aim to uncover how a style of music was translated into a culture still available to people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds despite the luxurious way it was depicted.
Jazz as a style of music is a combination of both African and European rhythms and harmonies. African American slaves in the South drew inspiration from slave songs and spirituals that had been around for years and developed jazz around similar melodies. The slaves would sing these songs while they worked to help the time pass by and at the end of the day, would sing celebratory songs to rejoice that their work was done. It was these celebratory songs that led to jazz becoming a form of entertainment, not just a way to pass time or get by. The style of music began spreading quickly from plantations to America’s urban centers, such as New Orleans and then up the East coast to Philadelphia. After the abolishment of slavery, slaves who had sung jazz on the plantations were now free to go to cities and sing as a new profession, forming the earliest barbershop quartets and lining the street corners to entertain the general public.
After jazz became an established form of music; newspapers, magazines, and periodicals began promoting the latest jazz clubs and singers. Not only were the musicians themselves important, but additionally, so was the environment in which they performed. Textures such as velvet, sparkling crystal, and brass took center stage in photo advertisements most commonly seen in daily newspapers. Jazz clubs began springing up everywhere from New Orleans to New York and everyone from the lower to upper class attended shows to listen to the quickly emerging subgenres of jazz music (Peretti, 1994). The interior of these constructed environments very closely mirrored what was taking place inside of them. The clarity and velvety smoothness with which singers such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday sang resembled the couches that listeners sat on and the glasses they sipped their Sidecars out of. Advertising in the 20th century was successful at capturing and bottling the essence of a jazz club and representing it in a visual way, attracting crowds from all socioeconomic background into the cozy halls of jazz clubs.
Not only did depictions of jazz clubs and other performing environments cast the jazz scene in a luxurious light, but so did the way clubgoers dressed. Author Alphonso McClendon (2015) states “The influential apparel and accessories that were displayed equated to youthful aspirations, organized music tradition, upper-class lifestyle and wealth” (56.) This quote illustrates the way that young people presented themselves and how closely a form of dressing was associated with this style of music. As jazz grew to split off and form subgenres such as ragtime, cabaret, and big band; each form of music became associated with its own form of easily identifiable dress. The use of sequins, tweed, silk, and long swaths of draped fabric were most commonly pictured in advertisements in magazines such as the Elgin Silk Waist Company advertisement in a 1917 copy of Women’s Wear. The juxtaposition of these elegant and high class textiles featured on something as simple, inexpensive, and accessible as a pattern only further proves that although jazz dress was depicted in a lavish way, it was more accessible than it was portrayed initially.
Popular artists at the time included the likes of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Both artists chose black life in America as their subject matter and rendered this topic in dramatically lively and colorful ways to draw viewers into their work. Some famous scenes represented in their art are jazz club scenes with trumpeters and bassists playing their instruments in iconic locations such as the Savoy. Texture was remarkably important in Bearden’s work as he used paper, fabric, and other alternative found materials layered on top of each other to create an almost topographic image of life and luxury. It was precisely the materials that he used and the way he treated them that attracted both upper and lower class people to his work (National Gallery of Art, 2016). Jazz was a cultural phenomenon that most people could relate to and in his simple paper cut collage depictions of identifiable jazz scenes, he brought fine art to an accessible level.
While effective advertising may have brought people of different socioeconomic backgrounds together to enjoy the same kind of music under the same roof, advertising also played a role in the major commercialization of what was once a simple form of joy and entertainment. Visual culture turned jazz into more of a consumer culture, as alcohol, clubs, and lavish outfits that contained elements of fur and silk (both very expensive textiles), became even more heavily advertised, pressuring jazz listeners into adapting to this new complex lifestyle and culture that surrounded listening to music. What was once a simple relief for slaves working on plantations quickly became a lucrative way of living for singers, club owners, and fashion designers in just a few short decades. The purity and simple joy of jazz was arguably diminished by the middle of the 20th century as many famous and successful singers used their earnings to partake in drug use and abuse (McGee, 2010). Billie Holiday is one of the most notable examples of this decline from health and success, but many singers followed a similar path, letting the financial success dominate their mental stability and wellbeing.
Despite the eventual negative effects that advertising began to have on jazz culture toward the end of the 20th century, it was advertising that played a relevant role in bringing diverse subgroups together to enjoy jazz music. Whether it was an advertisement for a clothing pattern in a women’s magazine or the popularization of Romare Bearden’s paper cut collages of iconic jazz scenes, visual culture determined every aspect of the success of rising jazz culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. Through textures and textiles, both jazz clubs and clothing were promoted as lavish and expensive, when the reality was that anyone could go to a jazz club and objects like clothing patterns could be easily obtained as well. Visual representations provided a link between all the necessary elements that made up jazz culture. Advertising proved that every element was contingent upon the others, meaning that often the clothing that arose from this culture was informed by the environment in which it was worn which was informed by who inhabited and performed in that environment. This narrative thread remained present throughout the entirety of popular jazz culture until its decline, coincidentally due to the same thing that caused the rise of the movement: visual culture.
The two most important elements that I want readers to glean from reading the above research is that jazz was both accessible and commercial, both due to visual culture and the way it was depicted. To combine these two important elements, I propose a vending machine to be installed in Village Vanguard, New York’s most well-known and loved jazz club.
What is inside the vending machine is just as important as the vending machine itself. This monument is fully functional and can be used by whoever attends shows at the jazz club, the Village Vanguard. Inside the vending machine is a plethora of useful, everyday, mundane objects such as Band-Aids and toothbrushes. These everyday objects represent the kind of accessibility that advertising provided during the rise of jazz culture in the early 20th century. The interesting twist is that each of these mundane objects are reimagined in a lavish and luxurious way, similar to visual representations of jazz. Picture a velvet toothbrush with gold and silver cast bristles, silk Band-Aid, or bottle of sequin painkillers in place of a typical toothbrush, bandage, or bottle of medicine. Each item will be wrapped up and sold, prices relevant to what the original object is, not the luxuriously reimagined prices to further emphasize the idea of socioeconomic accessibility.
An additional element that would be installed inside the vending machine or projected above is a short video advertisement promoting the objects inside the vending machine, convincing jazz club-goers to purchase these everyday items. The video advertisement shows the velvet toothbrush being used, except instead of using water to wet the brush, champagne pours out of the faucet. Instead of water sounds, the smooth vocals of Billie Holiday on vinyl plays. This video will succeed in glamorizing and making the act of brushing teeth more luxurious than it actually is, drawing people in and enticing them to buy the toothbrush.
Elgin Silk Waist Co. Advertisement. Women’s Wear. 30 August 1917: 22. Print.
McClendon, Alphonso. Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity, and Subcultural Improvisation. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Print.
McGee, Kristin A. Some Liked It Hot. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. Print.
Peretti, Burton W. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Print.
“The Art of Romare Bearden.” National Gallery of Art, Washington. Web. 15 Mar 2016.