Who’s Afraid of  Monsters?

All I knew was that if I stayed under the covers that thing under the bed or hiding in the closet couldn’t get me. It worked. In the morning when the sun would come in the window and through my blanket I knew  that I was safe and soon would be safely sitting at the breakfast table with my father and mother. Did they know how brave I had been all night, and did they appreciate that their son had outwitted the monsters that prey on little children? I never thought that much about what the monsters did all day and if they needed some love. I do think I liked being a little scared as long as I had a safe place to hide.


It was the forties, and we were at war. There were real monsters roaming the world and many people had to hide under their beds when the bombs came from the sky. There came a time when I risked not covering my head with my blanket, and life was never quite as rich after that. My thoughts then turned to real worries and threats, yet I was told not to be afraid. I understood what was in the newspapers and could see for myself the suffering and bloodshed of war on the newsreels at the movie theatre. Propaganda posters showed images of evil others pointing fingers at me and saying that they were coming for me, still I shouldn’t show any fear. Luckily, once a year Halloween came around and monsters would roam the neighborhood, and for that night it was OK to be childishly afraid.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. Plato

Who’s Afraid of the Jazz Monsters?

My parents played jazz on the RCA Victrola. It never seemed scary. It was light hearted upbeat music that got me moving. But for many Americans, jazz had been the music of demons, devils and things that go bump in the night. In the early 1920s, jazz was all the rage, bringing not only a new musical language, but a new way of life. The censorious public discourse connected jazz with insanity, drug addiction, chaos, criminality, infectious disease, the infantile, the supernatural and the diabolical. Writers, politicians, music educators, critics and ministers framed jazz as a monstrous threat.

Jazz music, vampires and America’s restless nature were blamed for the unease that they saw spreading across the country.

Jazz was considered immoral. Jazz was seductive and invasive. Jazz was associated with vampires and with  vamps who were dangerous, liberated women, who embraced the dances and  openly seductive behavior that critics associated with jazz.

Phillip Burne-Jones’ The Vampire

Katherine Willard Eddy of the Young Women’s Christian Association stated that ‘We are in deadly fear of the Jazz Devil, the demon which is consuming the country. The whole world is rising in arms against the monstrous jazz and its finish is not far removed’.

Jazz took this in stride and relished the notoriety. Songs of the day included a 1920 recording of ‘I’m a Jazz Vampire’ by Marion Harris, ‘Be My Little Vampire’ featuring a dark-haired woman partly obscured by a bat and the 1923 song ‘Come On Red, You Red-Hot Devil Man’, with a leering man on the cover. Two groups called themselves the Jazz Devils and the Black Devils Orchestra.

More insidious was the claim that jazz was not just immoral or unpleasant, but that it could be a source  of terror.

In 1925 the American music critic Carl B. Adams declared; “A jazz band formerly was a diabolic contraption for the production of weird notes and heinous discords,  a collection of sonic terrors before the bandleader Paul Whiteman removed the deadly fangs from the mouth of the monster jazz.”

It was, of course, the African-American roots of jazz that provoked the language describing the music as monstrous. Jazz critics of the 1920s saw the syncopated, danceable music as a  threat to traditional ways of life. In the end, the terror that jazz held for them says far more about those critics than about the music.


Like today we are too often scared of anything or anybody that is new or different, some foreign fanged thing from Transylvania, or jazz from the jungles of Africa.

And, just as the 19th-century Gothic imagination found terror in the attic, on the moor, the crumbling castle and the ruined abbey, 1920s’ critics linked the jazz threat to the swamp and the jungle.

Critics of 1920s’ jazz framed the music and its lifestyle as a hellish place populated by demons and vampires, they imagined themselves as part of a modern Gothic drama, with jazz a regressive monster haunting all of American culture.

In a widely published 1922 sermon titled ‘Is Jazz Our National Anthem?’ an Episcopal rector from New York stated: ‘Jazz goes back to the African jungle and is one of the evils of today with its savage crash and bang, it is retrogression”.’

Today the whole world  embraces the monstrous jazz rhythms of those primitive savages.

Our monsters always show us what we fear.

Many forms of music have been scary and threatening in their infancy. Baroque music had a caddish streak—“a most dangerous reef,” in the words of a prominent seventeenth-century German rector, “along which many a young soul, as if called by Sirens … falls into dissoluteness”. And then there is the polka, in the 1840s, it was labeled a serious Bohemian menace. In 1844, the Illustrated London News wrote that the polka “needs only to be seen once to be avoided forever!”.

Jazz had an especially difficult youth.

Unfortunately early on many musicians had to leave jazz’s birthplace, New Orleans. In addition to vile attacks by its critics, reliable venues for early jazz musicians had been outlawed and closed like the prostitution palaces of Storyville. The dreadful outbreak of the Spanish flu emptied the honky-tonks, country clubs, and dance halls. The musicians who remained found work as painters, longshoremen, or manual laborers. Kid Ory was a carpenter. Alphonse Picou, composer of “High Society,” was a tinsmith.

By 1918, Jelly Roll Morton had to move to San Francisco; Buddy Bolden, the founding king of New Orleans jazz, had by then  spent a decade at the state insane asylum in Jackson, a hundred miles away; his successor King Oliver, had fled to Chicago, where he was followed by many of his former bandmates including his eighteen-year-old student Louis Armstrong,

Jazz has always managed to stay under the covers and  has weathered the storm. Jazz just kept plugging away, creeping into the national consciousness. It headed north on steamboats up the Mississippi to Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit and then to New York and California, where it  gained popularity, social acceptance and critical acclaim. Fear of jazz has now mostly faded.

Near the end of his life, Louis Armstrong liked to believe that jazz dissolved racial boundaries, even though it would last only the length of a song. He felt that even white bigots could be romanced out of their hatred. “These same society people may go around the corner and lynch a Negro,” he told Ebony in 1961. “But while they’re listening to our music, they don’t think about trouble.”

It was trouble, though, that has always given the music its edge.


When a music loses its danger, it succumbs to nostalgia and imitation, qualities of diminishing potency. Later generations have reinvigorated the form and, at least for a time, have made it dangerous again. Miles Davis even scared himself; in his memoir, he wrote about what it was like when he first played with Coltrane: “Man, the s–t we were playing  was scary, so scary that I used to pinch myself to see if I was really there.”

Jelly Roll Morton once said that anything truly new puts a fear into the heart.One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween.

How wonderful it is to be a little scared, and to.get some candy and jazz on Halloween.

John Osler.



Will be celebrated Tuesday October 29 at the Dirty Dog.

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain  2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France,

This day marked the end of summer, the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

Celebrants at the Dirty Dog will be in costume, but there won’t be any bonfires, only hot jazz.

October 30 – November  2


A world-class musician, composer, arranger and educator, Diego Rivera has entertained audiences for over 20 years. Diego is known for his muscular tone and unique blend of straight-ahead mainstream jazz fused with music inspired by his Latino background and heritage. Diego’s bandmates will be Luther Ellison on piano, Brandon Rose on bass, and Ahmad Johnson on drums.

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