THE JAZZ MOB
by Norman Warwick
When master pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines (left) was in the midst of a 12-year residency at the Grand Terrace nightclub on the South Side of Chicago, he worked for the mob. Everyone knew that the club was owned by a consortium that included notorious Prohibition-era mobster Alphonse Capone, who owned a piece of at least five clubs in and around the city.
As Hines achieved stardom at the Grand Terrace (his shows were aired on national radio) he adhered to a policy of the three monkeys, i.e., hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. He heard mob hits being discussed, held money for gangsters, and when the St. Valentine’s Day massacre was engineered by Capone (right) on February 14, 1927, Fatha Hines wondered if he was in business with mass murders. As he said years later in an interview, “There’s not a single big name of the show world—Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong—who hasn’t at one time or another had contact with the Syndicates,” adding ruefully, “The racketeers owned me too.”
The type of relationship to which Hines was alluding began in the earliest years of jazz and continued at least into the 1980s. Mobsters owned nightclubs and used them as money laundering operations. They sank their fangs into every aspect of the business: recording, jukebox concessions, promotion, and management. The business of jazz was one way the mob franchised itself around the U.S., operating not only in the legendary jazz cities—New Orleans, New York, Kansas City, and Chicago—but also in midsized cities like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Denver, and on the West Coast.
Many of the most renowned musicians became entangled in this historical narrative. Along with Hines and the musicians he cited, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller (left) , Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and others have written or spoken about their run-ins with gangsters. Throughout much of jazz history, managing the intersection of the criminal underworld and a career in jazz was a skill required of many of the biggest names in the business.
Over the years, jazz historians, educators, and critics have developed a myopic attitude toward this history. Though the subject has occasionally been broached in popular entertainment, most notably in movies directed by two of the 20th century’s most renowned filmmakers (Robert Altman’s Kansas City and Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club), in the jazz world it is mostly a topic that has been repressed. Starting in the 1980s, cultural mavens of jazz made a conscious effort to lift it from its shady business roots as “vice music” into more esteemed settings such as concert halls and museums. Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan (right), the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, and many other renowned institutions around the U.S. were designed to, among other things, elevate the reputation of jazz and save it from the gutter.
At the time, this arguably constituted a much-needed recognition of the music’s status as America’s most durable art form. But something got lost in the transition. Choosing to soft-pedal the history of jazz as a source of economic plunder by organized crime—and also, for a time, a source of patronage by underworld figures that allowed the music to evolve and grow—diminishes its role in the American saga.
Promoters of jazz need not be ashamed: Organized crime is as central to the American narrative as baseball and apple pie. The fact that jazz has been entangled with the mob is not incidental, it is central to the discussion. You cannot understand America without acknowledging this arrangement as part of a grand capitalist pact.
It’s a quirk of history that around the same time the music was first taking shape, organized crime in America was also in its incubation stage. In New Orleans, where jazz began (though today some jazz historians take issue with this fact), the Sicilian mafia emerged in the early years of the 20th century. The Matranga crime family, an offshoot of the Stuppaggieri, a faction of the mafia based in Monreale, Palermo, were among the first club owners to hire young Louis Armstrong. In his memoir, Armstrong describes working at a club called Matranga’s, located in Black Storyville, the city’s renowned vice district.
Armstrong preferred working in clubs that were “connected,” both to the underworld and the larger matrix of political and law-enforcement corruption that made the underworld possible. Satchmo believed that the mob provided protection for a musician. Once, he was told by an underworld figure he respected, “Louis, [to survive in the jazz world] you need to get yourself a white man that will put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘This is my nigger.’” Substitute the word “gangster” for “white man” and it’s clear where Armstrong stood on the issue.
Not all musicians accepted a mobster-controlled universe as the status quo. Jelly Roll Morton resented giving money from his music—including written compositions and, later, recordings—to what he called the Syndicate. Unlike Armstrong, Morton insisted on playing in clubs that were not mob-affiliated, which may have led to the unfortunate incident of his being attacked and stabbed while on the bandstand at Washington, D.C.’s Music Box in 1938. Had the club been protected by the mob, it is unlikely that such an attack would have occurred.
The mob wasn’t made up solely of Italian mafiosi. In the case of its association with jazz, it also involved club owners, managers, business agents, record company representatives, and more. It involved people within the system—political bosses, elected representatives, and cops—who were “on the take” in one manner or another, so as to facilitate the relationship.
The dynamics of all this spread from New Orleans to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and other places where the business of jazz took hold. As has been widely covered in books and movies, this relationship reached an apotheosis of sorts during the years of Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties saw the rapid ascension of jazz in the culture. There were small jazz groups in virtually every speakeasy and large bands in mob-owned clubs such as the Sunset Café in Chicago, Cuban Gardens in Kansas City, the Plantation in St. Louis, the 500 Club in Atlantic City, and the Midnight Ranch in Denver.
The Cotton Club in Harlem, owned by notorious Irish American gangster Owney “Killer” Madden, is remembered not only for its floorshows (which were spectacular) or its Jim Crow door policy (which was deplorable), but for its music. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra took over as the house band in 1927, and jazz would never be the same. In the Ellington era, the relationship between jazz and the underworld moved from being solely a business accommodation to being a seductive and naughty cross-pollination at the heart of the music.
“The episodes of the gangster era were never a healthy subject for discussion,” Ellington wrote in Music Is My Mistress (1973), his charming though elusive memoir. When it came to the mob, Ellington preferred to let his music speak for him. Throughout his career, but especially in the 1920s and 1930s, he wasn’t just creating music from the underworld, he was making music that commented on the underworld—music that reveled in the rapscallion nature of human beings vastly enjoying their time in Sodom and Gomorrah, while he, the artist, brought meaning to the existing condition through his art.
In 1930, Ellington published an essay expressing ideas that were the culmination of his time at the Cotton Club. The composer noted that he was working on a project (eventually to become “Creole Rhapsody”) that would chronicle the history of his race in sound, explaining that he was “engaged on a rhapsody unhampered by any musical form in which [the intention is] to portray the experience of the races in America in a syncopated idiom.” The work, he added, would consist of “four or five movements… I am putting all that I have learned into the hope that I will have achieved something really worthwhile in the literature of music, and that an authentic record of my race written by a member of it shall be placed on the record.”
Many believe that the period of intermingling between jazz and the underworld ended with the eradication of Prohibition in 1933. This is most definitely not the case. Technology played a major role in the relationship. Radio and phonograph recordings had been a source of economic plundering by the mob, but by far the most lucrative racket was the jukebox business. A major player in this regard was gangster Meyer Lansky, who, in the early 1940s, negotiated a deal with the Wurlitzer jukebox company. The country’s leading producer of jukeboxes, Wurlitzer had recently invented a new model that was lighter and had the capacity to hold twice as many 45s as previous models. The mob saw the value in these machines not only as money makers (the nickels and dimes added up to millions of dollars) but also as a way to promote musicians (like Frank Sinatra and others) who were, to coin a phrase, in their pocket.
You might now want to take your diary out of your jacket pocket and write into it a reminder of an interesting upcoming jazz date, shared by Jazz In Reading
John Etheridge & Christian Garrick
& Stéphane Grappelli)
Wednesday 8 March
The Crooked Billet, Newlands Lane, Stoke Row RG9 5PU
Arrive 6.30pm, 7pm latest | Music 7 – 10.30pm
Full regular menu, £28 music cover charge
John Etheridge – guitar
Christian Garrick – jazz violin
This world class duo provides a feast of interplay, improvisation and eclectic repertoire with music ranging from Peter Gabriel to Richard Rogers via Dollar Brand and Alison Goldfrapp. Both players make extensive use of looping and other effects, creating exotic tapestries of sound, almost orchestral at times, yet they can switch seamlessly to a pure acoustic sound with rolliking renditions of Hot Club swing evoking the spirit of Reinhardt and Grappelli as they do. Atmospheric, hypnotic, humorous and entertaining. They can roar, seduce and whisper.
John Etheridge and virtuoso violinist Christian Garrick have been associated for many years starting with the Grappelli/Reinhardt-based Sweet Chorus project and concurrently in duo format.
“One of the most potent relationships in European Jazz”. “Superb interplay – gorgeous stuff” The Times
John Etheridge (far right) is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest guitarists known for his eclecticism & broad range of associations in jazz, classical & contemporary music. At 75, he has recorded & performed with many including Stéphane Grappelli, Soft Machine, Frank Zappa, Hawkwind, Dizzy Gillespie, John Williams and Nigel Kennedy. Sting said of Etheridge ‘I’m not bothered about fame, I just want to be remembered as a great musician like John Etheridge’.
Christian Garrick, (near right) gypsy jazz violin maestro is usually found touring the globe fronting his Budapest Cafe Orchestra. Whilst recognised as the world’s foremost jazz fiddler, his talents extend to all genres, recently lead violinist with Brighton Philharmonic performing Mendelssohn. You might have caught his recent solo spot of Strictly Come Dancing. Christian has performed with Van Morrison, Cleo Laine, Wynton Marsalis, Bireli Lagrene and Bryan Ferry.
For further information, tickets & table reservations contact the Crooked Billet on 01491 681048 / 682304 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Winston Byrd Quintet
Saturday 11 March
Doors 6.45pm | Show 7.30pm.
Tickets – £15 (£5 concession, details below)
Visiting from the US for only a couple of short weeks, we are very lucky to welcome the incredible powerhouse of trumpet wizardry that is Winston Byrd (left) to Crowmarsh Jazz. Inspired by former jazz trumpet greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and others as early as in the seventh grade, Winston Byrd had firmly established himself as a young rising force in jazz to be reckoned with.
Since the age of 17 Winston has been on the road with, recorded and toured with a wide-variety of highly acclaimed recording hit musical groups and artists, such as The Stylistics, Patti Austin, The Dells, The Grateful Dead, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Michael Bolton, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Lionel Hampton, Mary Wilson (of the Supremes), Usher, Pieces Of A Dream, Claudio Roditi, Larry Coryell, Carmen Lundy, James Moody, Paquito D’ Rivera, Clark Terry, Lucky Peterson, Molly Ringwald, Bernard Purdie, Diane Schurr, Shirley Horn, Chucho Valdes, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Annie Lennox, David “Fathead” Newman, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Black-Eyed Peas, to name a few.
Winston Byrd has diligently honed his playing skills the hard but sure way, through the test of fire in performing live, recording and touring with the very best of the cutting edge in musical talent today. In so doing, Winston Byrd has appropriately earned the recognition and increasing number of accolades from his peers, he so rightly deserves as a rising dynamic trumpet super talent in his own uniquely original playing and composing style and direction.
Winston will be joined by a stella band featuring Nick Blake (sax), Maff Potts (piano), Raph Mizraki (double bass), and Charlie Stratford (drums). You can expect an evening of exciting high energy, groove fuelled jazz. One not to be missed!
There will be a bar and stoned baked pizza on offer from local pub the
Doors open at 6.45pm and the show starts at 7.30pm.
Venue: Crowmarsh Village Hall, Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford, OX108ED.
£15 standard ticket price. Tickets are reduced to £5 for anyone living
or working in adult social care and anyone in receipt of benefits from
DWP – please get in touch for details:
Email – email@example.com Phone – 07795974223.
Crowmarsh Jazz pays all musicians properly and supports the campaign for fair pay for musicians.
If you can´t manage to get to live gigs at the moment remember you can always tune in to the Hot Biscuits jazz programme, presented by Steve Bewick, a friend and occasional presenter to these pages. Next week Steve will end the month with a further live session of vocalist and story teller Pete McSloy & his Sextet. telling tales of Manchester and Italia. Also taking carrying Hot Biscuits into March will be tracks from Grace Black talking of that Old Devil Called lLove. There will also be a tribute from guitarist Tommy Emmanuel to Jeff Beck. Ryan McCaffrey will introduce Congfusionjazz whilst Tasos Gkoumas re-sets the world on his recent single. Steve will close the show with Debs Hancock in a spot of rain in September. If this looks interesting then please share with your friends and listen in 24/7 to Hot Biscuits jazz broadcasts at Steve Bewick’s Shows | Mixcloud