‘Dangerous Rhythms’, a new book about jazz and the underworld, spends too much time with familiar names

We often gets relegate jazz to background music at cocktail parties or as evidence of snobbery, but for a long time people considered it edgy and risky, and associated it with unsavory company. Emerging from the deshabille brothels of New Orleans to take hold in corruptly thriving cities-on-the-make like Chicago, Kansas City, and New York, jazz was the wise guy’s music of choice.

In his new book Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, bestselling author T.J. English digs into the historical connections between jazz and organized crime. There’s plenty of colorful storytelling about the ways in which various mobsters did their business, and English is very conscious of the way that their clubs exploited the talent who often had nowhere else to go. The book’s weakness is that while he delivers the mobster stories we all enjoy, he doesn’t have much to say about the music itself.


He divides the book into two sections, the first focusing on New Orleans and Louis Armstrong’s coming up from the grimy streets in what they called “Back O’ Town” and having to make deals with different shady characters in order to ply his trade in their clubs. Ebullient Armstrong really did manage to pull himself up out of nothing through sheer brilliance and his flair for showmanship, and literally changed the history of music in the process, by splitting the atom of popular song.

Whether or not you’ve already heard the genuinely Dickensian story of how Louis overcame poverty and racism to be a star, it’s worth remembering wasn’t just a corny rags-to-riches story. Streetwise Louis knew exactly what he had to do in order to get paid. “Armstrong often remembered—and quoted—the words of Slippers, the hoodlum and bouncer at Matranga’s in Black Storyville where he got his start. Said Slippers: ‘Be sure and 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 is clear where Armstrong stood on this issue.”

Thus even an undeniable genius like Louis, who could play like none other and didn’t mind entertaining audiences, found himself in the same anguished position as so many of his fellow Black musicians, in Nola and elsewhere. If they wanted to make a living, they often had to work within a blatantly rigged economic structure that some, quoted by English, compared to a planation system.

Jazz was married to the mob

Mobsters—usually meaning Sicilians in New Orleans, the Prendergast machine in KC, and the Italian or Irish mob in Chicago—would alternately pamper and threaten their star attractions, who were never making anything near what they were worth and were often innocent bystanders and whose need to keep mum while all hell broke loose around them kept their already tenuous liberty at risk. Contracts and residency gigs could change at a moment’s notice, often under the duress of gunpoint.

English tells some pretty entertainingly funky stories about what life in the underworld was like for the capos and the various “entrepreneurs” who were hustling to make an off-the-books buck. Of course, private enterprise went hand in glove with political corruption. The authorities liked to wag their Puritanical finger at the tawdry fun the lower classes were having, and gangsters are in many ways a manifestation of the American id. English isn’t naïve about these people’s true intentions. It’s just that the stories about the mafia end up being more interesting than the music it sponsored.

This is most obvious in the second half of the book, which explores the many mob connections of Frank Sinatra. It makes perfect sense that English would include it in a discussion of jazz and the underworld, but it didn’t really need to dominate half the book.

The culture has already done to death the story of Ol Blue Eyes’ rubbing elbows with cosa nostra kingpins. There have already been tons of documentaries, feature films, biographies, podcasts, song lyrics, and jokes in The Onion about Sinatra being fairly openly and gleefully mobbed up. We already know plenty about the singer’s various connections to Las Vegas, pre-Castro Cuba, the Kennedys, the Rat Pack, and so on. We didn’t need yet another tour of Sinatra’s wise guy club house, and Dangerous Rhythms doesn’t really tell us much more than what’s already in the well-thumbed record.

For a work of popular history the book is informative, lively, and casts a fairly wide net. But did English write it for curious newcomers, or those already familiar with either the milieu or the music? There were a few interesting stories about jazz and the mob that I had previously heard and was disappointed not to hear more about. Some of the ones that English tells, such as the after-hours rowdiness of Kansas City, have been told more vividly elsewhere. I’m not sure I got as much as I would have liked about the people who aren’t already household names. Everybody already knows plenty about Frank Sinatra, probably more than we really need to know.

It would have been more interesting to have told a more compelling social history. So much of what eventually becomes American culture first bloomed in the dark. Harold Rosenberg once said that “American life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.” Jazz is much like film noir, beat poetry, rock and roll, hip hop, and abstract expressionism in that it had to gradually overcome the official disdain of the mainstream before finally assuming its centrality in American culture. The story of how that happened, and what actually made jazz such a complex and alluring art form, would have been a much more interesting story.

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Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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