glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Bookmark and Share
page: 1  2  3  

The relation of jazz to homosexual and experience has varied enormously over the course of its history since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, African-American music and dance provided homosexual subcultures with expressive styles and social rituals. In the 1930s, swing and the big bands took jazz out of the speakeasies and small clubs, and popularized it with a national American audience.

However, the increased popularity of swing and big band jazz, which introduced jazz to college dances, ballrooms, and the airwaves, and thus into the mainstream, meant that homosexuals became a smaller and less significant group of jazz fans than in the past.

After World War II and the emergence of bebop, jazz lost its connection to the dance hall and ballroom, but without developing a larger gay and lesbian audience.

The postwar jazz scene, dominated by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, also grew increasingly macho and even misogynistic, while the postwar urban gay bar culture created its own style of entertainment around female impersonators and singers such as Judy Garland.

By the end of the twentieth century, jazz and homosexuals seemed to have little in common. In his novel, Significant Others (1987), Armistead Maupin writes that "Surely there were gay men somewhere who revered jazz, but Michael"--a gay man living in San Francisco--"didn't know any."

Early History

New Orleans, the busy port city on the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, was probably one of the first places in America where jazz, homosexuals, and transgendered people came together at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Many of the earliest and most celebrated jazz musicians were born in and around New Orleans. Early jazz grew out of the fusion of disparate sounds in New Orleans--marching bands, ragtime, spirituals, blues and other forms of African and Anglo-American instrumental and vocal music.

From the beginning of jazz, there was also a close association between jazz and the seamy side of New Orleans nightlife. Early jazz pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and James P. Johnson were often employed to play in the brothels in Storyville, New Orleans' fabled red light district.

There and in the sex districts of many other cities--many of which were located in or near African-American neighborhoods--both jazz musicians and homosexuals found niches and a degree of acceptance.

One gay man served as the mentor to Jelly Roll Morton. Pianist-singer-songwriter Tony Jackson was probably the most accomplished of all of Storyville's entertainers. He played and sang everything from opera to blues in their authentic idioms. As Morton recounted to music historian Alan Lomax: "Tony happened to be one those gentlemans that a lot of people call them lady or sissy--I suppose he was either a ferry or a steamboat, one or the other."

Jackson was the author of the classic "Pretty Baby," which was originally about a man. In 1906 Jackson left New Orleans for the relative freedom, as a black gay man, of Chicago. He died from alcoholism at the age of 44 sometime during the 1920s.

In addition, the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras and carnival provided the opportunity for homosexuals, drag queens, and transgendered people to engage in prohibited sexual activities under the guise of masquerades and cross-dressing.

By the end of World War I, most large cities also saw the emergence of annual drag and costume balls where homosexuals danced the cakewalk, two step, and Charleston--all dance forms that had emerged from and along with African-American music.

The 1920s and 1930s

In the 1920s, Harlem was a flourishing enclave of jazz and gay life. The Harlem Renaissance was, according to literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these." Many of the Harlem Renaissance's leading figures were either homosexual or bisexual, including such literary figures as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes.

Among Harlem's most prominent performers, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, George Hanna, Moms Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters were bisexual or homosexual. They sang songs with sexually explicit lyrics, incorporating homosexual slang terms such as "sissy" and "bulldagger," as in the lyric "If you can't bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man."

One well-known homosexual haunt in Harlem was the Clam House on the stretch of 133rd Street known as Jungle Alley. There openly lesbian Gladys Bentley was the headline singer. "If ever there was a gal," noted one journalist, "who would take a popular ditty and put her naughty version to it La Bentley could do it."

Despite the existence of these overlapping subcultures, however, homosexual life in Harlem remained marginal. As historian Kevin Mumford notes, "the more visible and accessible a Harlem club was the more heterosexual its patrons."

The overlap between homosexual life and jazz survived the repeal of Prohibition and continued into the next decade. According to Kevin Mumford, one University of Chicago sociologist studying homosexuals in the 1930s reported in an unpublished ethnography that at a party the men "played pornographic records sung by Negro entertainers; a homosexual theme ran through all the lyrics." He observed the men at the party "swaying to the music of a colored jazz orchestra . . . [with] two young men in street clothes dancing together, cheek to cheek."

    page: 1  2  3   next page>  
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts
Popular Topics:


Williams, Tennessee
Williams, Tennessee

Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer

The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance

Romantic Friendship: Female
Romantic Friendship: Female

Feminist Literary Theory

American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969
American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Erotica and Pornography
Erotica and Pornography

Mishima, Yukio
Mishima, Yukio

Sadomasochistic Literature

Beat Generation
Beat Generation




This Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.