Glamour and Hedonism: Why the American Jazz Age Still Intrigues Us

Laura (Year 11) explores what makes the Jazz Age a significant time in America’s history and how it has been preserved through music and literature.

The American Jazz Age, or the “Roaring Twenties”, brings to mind many images of feathers, flapper dancers and flamboyance. As the 1920s were characterised by rapid stock market expansion, successful Americans spent more, and flaunted their wealth, throwing extravagant parties. Reminders of the era cannot be avoided, as it inspires fashion, films and music of today. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby captured the essence of the time and offers a paradigm of the jazz age. When Baz Luhrmann took on the challenge of adapting it for film, it made $353.6 million at the box office, as audiences were captivated by the romance of the period.

Whilst the 1920s saw people move away from the austere and unpromising life during the Great War, they also brought new changes and difficulties with them. This new America had lost faith in its organisation and structure, having become disillusioned by war and patriotism. The parties and indulgence reflected newfound individualism as traditional values were left behind. Many were critical of the more frivolous lifestyle in cities, as ideas of morality seemed to shift. Prohibition, the 1920 ban on alcohol, seemed to only encourage more drinking in the clandestine speakeasies, and organised crime and bribery were rife. But the era was also characterised by modernisation and greater liberation, especially for women. The 19th Amendment was changed in 1920, giving women the vote, and social changes followed as women in the workplace became more of a norm and gender roles were questioned. Even fashion became more liberating as short skirts and hair became popular.

The jazz music that fuelled the parties of the rich and powerful in 1920s America first came from the African-American communities of New Orleans and had its origins in blues. With a more free, improvisational style, it broke musical norms whilst social conventions were being dismantled in America. With better recording of music during the mid-1920s, this new style spread quickly, and radio broadcasting allowed more rapid popularisation of the genre, as it reached people of all ages and classes. Although the US was still a place of deep-rooted racism and xenophobia, and many conservatives feared the influence of “the devil’s music”, jazz’s popularity was a step towards better inclusion in American society. When Luhrmann made his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the music was a key element of the film. Modern hip hop and traditional jazz were both a part of the soundtrack. It cleverly blended music that evoked the era with new music that allows the modern audience to experience what it was like to listen to something completely new and unheard. Luhrmann said that “the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop”. Check out the Jazz Spotify playlist on the Music Department Spotify here.

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are among the authors that have helped to preserve the excitement and intensity of the Jazz Age in their writing and are part of the “Lost Generation” writers, who came of age during the Great War. Main themes in their writing included the opulence and wealth of the 1920s, but also the damaging effects of hedonism and disillusionment. Idealised versions of the past are often seen in writing of the era, reflecting on how the indulgence and enjoyment was overwhelming and even put individuals out of touch with reality. Fitzgerald describes one of Jay Gatsby’s parties:

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”

The giddy description shows an uncomfortable confusion of the senses, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, discovers the exciting city life. However, Fitzgerald also reveals a world damaged by war, as the “valley of ashes” in the novel represents the effects of industrialisation and modernisation on the less wealthy, and the social inequality of the time. Carraway, having served in the First World War, notes that Jordan Baker had an “erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet”, his vision is clouded by experiences of war. The literature of the jazz age endures because it shows not only the glamour and thrill of the period, but also offers sobering reflections on the price of the new lifestyle.

The sparks of wealth and excitement of the Roaring Twenties were stamped on by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and were extinguished abruptly. As the terrible poverty of the Great Depression began, Fitzgerald wrote “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, recalling the earlier, more prosperous times.

“It bore him up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.”

It is no surprise that the Jazz Age has aged so well. The excitement and romance of the period has captivated readers and audiences, and this formative period of American history is not forgotten.