The New York Times

Jazz on the Edge of Change


The armistice to end World War I brought elation and a sense of relief to millions of Americans, but also a jolt of reality. The country had only been in the conflict for 19 months, but it had already adjusted to the rhythms and strictures of a society on a total-war footing. When it ended so abruptly, the result was a sudden permissiveness in the culture, a weakening of social rules and an opening for new ideas, creating a fertile atmosphere for America’s new, unruly musical child: jazz.

What was jazz? It had no real definition; it referred to many things. The year 1919 is usually not considered an important marker on the jazz timeline, but that year subtle yet compelling forces took hold that would turn this invasive novelty into something with far more clarity and promise as an art form. It was the year jazz came into its own.

Feb. 17, 1919, was a cold, overcast New York day that threatened snow. Tens of thousands of people had come to the streets of Manhattan for a victory parade. At the corner of 60th Street, a crowd packed the sidewalks and clustered onto a grandstand, vying for a glimpse of the returning heroes parading northward.

Along the route marched the 369th Infantry, a highly decorated all-black regiment that

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