Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » And All That Jazz

And All That Jazz

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 15, 2010

(Further to our discussion of Sax Education the other day:)

There is no shortage of anti-rag and anti-jazz material in Church sources from the early 20th century. Here are two samples: one is from a lesson to be discussed by the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums, and the other is a personal contribution from a member – it strikes me as the effort of someone writing an essay for his school newspaper, or perhaps the text of an MIA talk (I know nothing of Bennett and the circumstances of his writing this article, though). These two samples are followed by a goodie from 1966.

Joseph M. Tanner, Improvement Era, 1918:

Jazz. – There is perhaps no more sinful temptation among our young people today than the insinuating sounds that come from the siren voice of a license-loving age. The thoughtful world is just beginning to realize how far the Jazz and kindred music is carrying us from the moorings of our moral safety. I quote from a writer in the Chicago Herald, of November 4,1917. There the celebrated violinist, Isador Berger, says:

The white man took the negro’s ‘Jungle time’ and ‘ragged’ it unmercifully. It was a great success among people who preferred not to consider the moral phases of the question. Clergymen and social service forces over the country stormed against this kind of music, calling it ‘obscene, indecent, demoralizing, etc.,’ but the world that loved amusement for its own sake went on acclaiming ‘jazz’ tunes as the acme of entertainment.

But when America went into the war the song writers turned to patriotic tunes. They began to turn out marching tunes in the hope that the soldiers would seize upon one for their favorite and make for its authors the amount of money which the British ‘Tommies’ made for the writers of ‘It’s a Long, long Way to Tipperary.’

Cafes, tea dansants, dancing pavilions, are tingling now with these stirring martial airs. Some of the old ragtime tunes still ‘hang on,’ but half-heartedly, as though they knew it, like other soft, luxurious things, they must disappear before the strident note of war.

‘War music arouses the best in man, while “jazz” music appeals to the lowest elements in his nature,’ says Louis Guyon, a dancing master of Chicago who has won great prosperity for himself by refusing to permit the modern dances to be performed on his mammoth floor. ‘I Have always fought the “ragtime” dance as immoral, indecent and vulgar, and I have found that thousands of people still felt that the old-time waltz, two-step and polka were totally different from the “jazz” measures.

‘Marching tunes and martial music are written in a tempo that does not lend itself to syncopation.’

Legitimate music appeals to human feeling and soulful appreciation. It makes the mind ‘dreamy’ and imaginative. it does not excite base thoughts. it may develop abstract love and the spirit of sacrifice for a loved one, but it does not fan the flame so physical passion as does the music which accompanies the one-step and the fox trot. These qualities make it permanent and enduring, while the ‘jazz’ tunes are reliant upon qualities that make them valueless tomorrow. Their fleeting nature is a proof of their deficiency in meritorious characteristics.

A great German painter, Alois Kolb, with the Teutonic artist’s love of the gross and grotesque, once painted a picture of profane music which modern moralists insist describes the spirit of the modern dance as it was before the sterner music began to crowd it out. he pictured Satan playing a violin from the pedestal from which the Sphinx, symbol of cruelty and lust, looked down upon a maudlin world.

Human beings made mad by the debased music of Satan danced below in an orgy of indecency. At the bottom of the picture Kolb placed the snake-haired head of Medusa, the mythical goddess one sight of whom would turn a human being to stone. Medusa stood for vice in the mind of the primitive man; the writhing reptiles that were her hair symbolized the ghastliness and repulsion of crime, and the ruination of the man who looked upon her personified the deadening effect which familiarity with wickedness produces in the human being.

Music has sometimes been classified according to the society it keeps. Even in ancient times this classification prevailed. its appeal is directly to the feelings, and it is perhaps true to say that it touches the passions more strongly than even the spoken or written word. When such music is applied to the dance, it brings to its aid the baser imaginations which give thoughts and feelings of the most degenerate character. It is a powerful truth, and yet we have scarcely begun to sense it, that there is an evil music to be shunned, just as there is an evil companionship.

Fred L.W. Bennett, Improvement Era, 1926:

Wherefore jazz? I have asked myself this question many times, but so far have been unable to answer it. To me the deliberate discords which musicians must make int heir playing to get the jazz effect are as inexcusable as would be the slinging of mud on a work of art. I am not a musician myself, but I love music, and, if I may be permitted another comparison, I feel somewhat like a lover of flowers must feel when he sees a lot of dandelions growing in a flower garden. But, let me modify this. Dandelions are after all beautiful to one who can appreciate them, and I doubt if they are as much out of place in a flower garden as the vulgar discords necessary to produce jazz in music.

Jazz is one of those things one defends by ridiculing those who do not like it. You never hear any one seriously defending this extraordinary departure in music by attempting to point out its good qualities. About as far as its most enthusiastic supporters go is to describe the”pep”: they get out of it, an argument that has always been used in favor of intoxicating liquors by those who enjoy getting drunk.

The other day press dispatches told of a Provo band of many years’ service to its credit that disbanded rather than degrade itself by supplying the popular demand for jazz at dances. All honor to these musicians! They have set an example of which all real lovers of music should be proud. Would that more would follow them, fir I cannot think any musician likes to play compositions that require him to make deliberate and senseless discords with his instrument.

Jazz, as has already been pointed out by others, came from the Jungle. It belongs to the savage who cannot produce or appreciate the beauty in music as we of the cultivated and enlightened races are supposed to be capable of doing. If jazz is to be continued because it gives “pep,” let those who want that kind fo pep hie themselves to a place where they can indulge in it without annoying others who do not like it. no one appreciates a lively, stirring tune more than the writer, but there is a great difference between the banging, rasping sounds associated with jazz and the invigorating airs that might be placed. Music can be lively and still possess harmony and rhythm.

Perhaps the writing of this article is a waste of time that could be profitably spent in other work, but the writer has long felt that he must say something on this subject. The pity of it all is our younger people seem to delight in jazz because of a notion that it is offensive to the conservative, and they are never so happy as when they feel they are in revolt. I am convinced that it is this that has sustained jazz so long; surely, surely it cannot be due to a genuine love of it; if so, what are we coming to, or rather going back to? But I have already given a hint as to this!

I cannot see much use in trying to inculcate in the people a love of the beautiful in music whilst jazz is tolerated at the theatres and public dance halls, and even in the amusement halls controlled by the church people. As far as the Latter-day Saints are concerned, why cannot we maintain the excellent standards set up by the recreation committees? Why insist upon music that has been copied from savage tribes? Following the announcement of a dance in the amusement hall of a certain Salt Lake City Ward the other night, a sister who was present enquired if there would be jazz, and the reply was that there would be, but that the following week there would be a married folks’ dance.

A love of jazz is not a sign of vigorous youth, but of decay, for jazz is retrogressive, not progressive. its introduction in certain classes of our music is not a forward step, but a compromise with an instinct in man that is not in sympathy with “the concord of sweet sounds,” a phrase which applies just as much to music as it does to poetry.


But times do change. The chart below recommends artists and genres to the youth of the church in 1966. After all, the accompanying article ends, “No one wants to listen to Debussy all day any day … nor the Beatles!”



  1. There is so much here. But I’ll pick just one.

    “War music arouses the best in man”
    I know Berger (and Tanner by quoting him) was trying to describe something about the type of music usually associate with war, not about war itself. But if “Music has sometimes been classified according to the society it keeps.” then why stop with Jazz.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 15, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  2. “That’s all–the rest are shirttailers!” — Awesome.

    The anti-Jazz sentiment is disconcerting. I don’t remember the anti-round dancing comments that came before them having anything like this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 15, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  3. Ah, good to see Don Giovanni among the list of approved Classics! But I suspect it’s his fall into the abyss at the end, and not all his conquests, that saves the opera. Here’s an English translation of Leporello’s description of his master’s exploits:

    Pretty lady, here’s a list I would show you,
    Of the fair ones my master has courted,
    Here you’ll find them all duly assorted,
    In my writing, will’t please you to look,
    Here is Italy, six hundred and forty,
    France is down for five hundred and twenty,
    Only two hundred the Rhineland supplied him,
    But mark the climax, Spain has already one thousand and three,

    And “courted” I think we can safely assume is a euphemism, chosen to fit the English rhyme. (The original Italian is “che amò”, which I suspect means “whom [he] has loved.”) Not exactly the role model for the youth of the church!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 15, 2010 @ 8:58 am

  4. This is great! I wonder why McConkie didn’t quote any of this in Mormon Doctrine. It seems right up his alley.

    I find the racial overtones in the Bennett article quite disturbing. I wonder what he’d say about the music the “cultivated and enlighted races” listen to today. I suspect all of them would be rolling in their graves if they knew what was going on at stake youth dances.

    For whatever reason, Church bans on certain music types go WAY back. In the middle ages, for instance, major and minor keys were banned for being “too appealing” as was a steady tempo (think gregorian chants like O Come O Come Emmananuel.) After the Reformation, composers rebelled with music marked by regular key signatures and steady tempos (Think Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring). And so, 500 years later, the fight continues…

    Comment by Clark — July 15, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  5. Yes, the references to “negro’s ‘Jungle time’” is disconcerting.

    Comment by Mark Brown — July 15, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  6. I agree that the anti-Jazz stuff, with its racial overtones, was hard to read. Ugh. So, it was nice to see jazz music recommended in that 1966 chart.

    (But I’m confused, in which publication did the chart first appear?)

    Comment by David Y. — July 15, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  7. Sorry, I didn’t say, did I? It was in the Improvement Era, in an Era of Youth section.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 15, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  8. Of course, all the new music that kids listen to these days really is of the devil and atrocious, etc. etc. Not like the popular music that we listened to in our younger days!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 15, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  9. Exactly. Earlier generations were just plain wrong with their condemnation of then-current music and dance. We, however, are right on target.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 15, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

  10. Discord, dissonance, and syncopation seem to be, along with the racial overtones of the earlier articles, among some of the things that the writers most disapproved of. Interesting to compare that with a hymn by Bach that we were practicing for the ward choir a few weeks back. I had remarked that a particular measure seemed out of step and a different rhythm than where the same phrase appeared in other parts of the composition. I was immediately and gently corrected by some very knowledgeable folks with more musical education than I have ever had that the variations of rhythm and the occasional altering of chords is what made it such a great composition.

    Certainly Bach’s dissonance and syncopation is not in the same category as John Coltrane, for example, but Coltrane only took what was an established practice and pushed the outside of the envelope, really, really far.

    Jazz persists as an art form, as do the best tunes of the Beatles and some other significant rock and blues artists. It will certainly be interesting to see what has staying power out of the current crop of popular musicians.

    Comment by kevinf — July 15, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

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