Why did jazz greats like Frank Sinatra thrive in mob empires

When jazz was born in New Orleans brothels in the early 1900s, her parents were musicians and gangsters.

Author TJ English’s latest book, “Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld,Released on August 2, explains why jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra It thrived within mob empires headed by the likes Al CaponeMayer Lansky, John T. diamond “legs” and Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

“Jazz started at the end of a long period of lynching after the Emancipation Proclamation,” English told The Post, speaking from his Manhattan home where he lived for 32 years. “Music seems to me an attempt to create a new reality,” he added. “The music says, ‘We are alive.’ I see jazz as a response to terror and violence.”

English, who has written several books about the criminal underworld, as well as episodes of “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” on TV, said the unexpected relationship between black musicians and Italian gangsters made sense in the context of the oppressive social order. turn of the century.

52nd Street is lined with clubs
And clubs lined up on 52nd Street in Manhattan, once a jazz center.
Library of Congress William P. Gottlieb . Collection

Jazz made its debut in New Orleans, where Sicilian and Black American immigrants faced the same predicament – they were excluded from the wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community and harassed by corrupt white police officers.

“Blacks had less fear of a mafia boss than a white police officer,” said English, a jazz fan. They saw the mob as their protection in the commercial market. This was very true of Louis Armstrong. He knew you had to have a gangster for protection. Lewis said, “Get the biggest gangster you can.” “

New Orleans recipe – where black performers allied with gangsters who oversaw one of the nation’s first legal acts Red Light Districts, Storyvillewhere brothels and bars flourished – spreading to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and then Las Vegas.

Louis Armstrong in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Ensemble in 1923.
Louis Armstrong in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Ensemble in 1923. The band often played at Mafia-run Capone Clubs in Chicago.
Hogan Jazz Archive Tulane University

In 1920, Prohibition ushered in a new era of nightlife when the white community began flocking to partying.

“They went where the wine was,” the English said. Nightclubs became socially acceptable, jazz entered mainstream entertainment even as society otherwise remained separate, and underworld soup became a business model.

And many mob bosses really appreciated jazz.

“[Al] Capone was the largest benefactor. English said he loves music,” adding that his followers once “kidnapped” New York native Fats Waller after a 1926 performance in Chicago to surprise Capone on his birthday. Waller was very relieved when he realized what was going on.”[Capone] He was good for musicians: he distributed money throughout the jazz world. “

Beyond just bombing for entertainment and liquor, the gangsters continued to stick to their part of the deal to keep the performers safe.

By the late 1920s, white performers had opted for jazz, and artists such as Bing Crosby popularized sound, perfecting vocal jazz. By 1932, Crosby was one of America’s biggest singing stars, and when a bad guy tried to take advantage by extorting Crosby for protection money – that is, protection from his fatal beating – the mob intervened.

Al Capone
Composer TJ English said Al Capone was “the greatest benefactor” to jazz musicians.
Library of Congress

“Crosby was battering at the dough at the time and his department, the MCA, had contacts with the mob,” English said. “MCA sent a gangster named Jack McGurn to deal with him. McGurn takes the guy and kicks him out and never blackmails Bing again.”

Bing and Jack – also known as “Machine Gun Jack”, who are reported to have participated in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, when seven Irish gangsters were murdered by Capone’s rival Italian crew – They became friends playing golf afterwards.

But “the biggest singer in the US playing golf with a gangster didn’t look good,” English said. “So Bing ended the friendship. Jack was actually killed eight months later, so perhaps it would have been wise to end it.”

Even as jazz became all-American music, and the genre accelerated into various styles, from Crosby’s croon to wild swing and then bebop, ties to the criminal underworld and gangs, be they Italians, Irish, or Jews, were tightly bound.

Bing Crosby
“One thug tried to blackmail Bing Crosby for protection money,” author TJ English told The Post.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

English recalls “The most popular club in New York City in the 1940s was Birdland, owned by Mo Levy, a gangster who sold heroin outside the club.”

Mo’s brother Irving ran the club, delighted with big stars like Marlon Brando and writers like Norman Mailer, who were regulars. One night in 1959Irving was stabbed and killed by a pimp while the band was playing. “It was exciting,” he said in English. One newspaper headline wrote, “Jazz serves as a backdrop for death.” ”

Then came Rat Buck and Old Blue Eyes, who have dominated the modern pop-jazz scene, and their headquarters, set up by the Las Vegas mob, has become the epitome of glamorous American nightlife and the “good life.”

Show at the Birdland Restaurant on December 16, 1949. From left to right, trumpeter Max Kaminsky, saxophonist Lester Young,
Show in Birdland on December 16, 1949 (from left to right) trumpeter Max Kaminsky, saxophonist Lester Young, Oran page “Hot Lips”, Charlie Parker on alto sax and pianist Lenny Tristano.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
The first Blue Eyes at the Westchester Premiere Theater in 1976. Top row: Paul Castellano, Gregory de Palma, Frank Sinatra, Thomas Marson, Carlo Gambino, Aladena 'Jimmy' Fratianno, Salvatore Spatola.  Bottom row: Joe Gambino and Richard Fusco
Old Blue Eyes (third from left in the back row) at the Westchester Premier Theater in 1976. Top row: Paul Castellano, Gregory de Palma, Frank Sinatra, Thomas Marson, Carlo Gambino, Aldina “Jimmy” Frattiano and Salvatore Spatola. Bottom row: Joe Gambino and Richard Fusco.
FBI pictures

“Sinatra’s relationship with the mob was very specific, very real,” said English. “Gangsters ran casinos and clubs and booked the music they liked.”

Which, by the 1960s, didn’t resonate with young men screaming for the British invasion or the anti-establishment hard rock of hippie culture.

Young people thought Vegas was fun. Music was the music their parents loved, he said. Jazz, once the music of rebellion, is starting to look old-fashioned in comparison to pop, rock and soul music in youth culture, and the mob’s control of the entertainment business is starting to show cracks. By the 1980s, the old gangster world had collapsed and jazz had lost its financial support.

By that time, however, jazz was recognized for its artistic merits and cultural institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center Intervened.

“[At the beginning] “There was no sponsorship from the institutions of culture and wealth,” English said. “Jazz wouldn’t have happened at this level. She had to earn her place at the table.”

This would never have happened had it not been for mobsters, and performers who had been silent for decades about what they saw.

The English said of the musicians: “They kept their mouths silent.” “They played, got paid, and didn’t talk outside of school.”

The English said it was ultimately because gangsters and jazz greats were united in the same goals, and that was all that mattered to them.

“It was really the same pursuit of the American Dream,” said English. “Just from rock bottom.”

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