Paris in the Northern Rockies 

After 80 years, the Jazz Age finally comes to the Garden City

It has always been the prerogative of the older generation to decide firmly that the younger one has gone astray. Parents of the 1950s, themselves raised on the comparatively wholesome sounds of the big bands, had plenty of reason to worry about what Elvis’ busy hips meant for their teenage children. Similarly, parents of today’s teenagers are quick to see the corrupted fruits of Babylon in the likes of Marilyn Manson—and quick to forget that their parents were likewise vexed by Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath and the KISS gatefolds that gave visual substance to their own youthful rebellions.

It all had to start somewhere. The first big generational overthrow of this century played out to the crazy sounds of jazz, that “deliberate vulgarity” and “willful ugliness” that scared the bejeezus out of conservative white America. The kids loved it, the parents hated it, and no one realized that, for the next 80 years, this pattern would basically become the norm—or that in jazz lay the musical seeds of revolutions to come.

But it didn’t happen all at once—nor did it happen everywhere at once. Jazz grew out of ragtime and African-American folk music in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta in the first decades of the century, but it didn’t find a permanent home in the U.S. until after it had exploded in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where the crazily syncopated rhythms were obviously telling a war-weary European capital something the United States just wasn’t ready to hear. Jazz music became the soundtrack for a cultural florescence that made Paris the cradle of a 20th-century renaissance that changed the way the world looked at art, dance, and music.

The glitz and glimmer of what came to be called the Jazz Age is the subject of a new traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Library Association with the financial support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Jazz Age in Paris will arrive in Missoula in two weeks, where it will be supplemented by a brace of locally-sponsored lectures, concerts, films, theatrical presentations and exhibits—some of them broadly topical, others musical and Francophone in nature, and even a few that examine life in Missoula and how it changed during the first anxious stirrings of the American Century, when a genuinely American art form—jazz music—caught the fancy of a European city several thousand miles away.

A Tale of Two Cities

With so many decades elapsed since the birth of jazz music, Missoula can now lay claim to as much of this particular cultural heritage as any other mid-sized city in America or anywhere else. Jazz is mainstream. You can go to school to learn about it. It’s never not on the radio. In Missoula, you can go out three or four nights of the week and see local acts—the Jodi Marshall Trio, the Tim and Lori Show, the Hip Strip*Tet—playing styles of jazz that range from the classic, eminently hummable standards of Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter to wild improvisational instrumental excursions. Missoula’s scene might not offer the same wealth of choices as New York or New Orleans or Paris, but jazz is a common language, however many its speakers may number in any given locale.

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case. In the years following the World War I, Missoula had no more in common with Paris that it did with Tokyo or Easter Island. Paris was a vibrant capital of 2.8 million inhabitants recovering from the economic ruin and human loss of Europe’s first experiment with total war. Missoula, on the other hand, with roughly 13,000 people, was a comparatively tiny and isolated community, one of a handful of Montana urban areas reporting a population of 10,000 or more in the 1920 census. And its inhabitants had other things to worry about, not the least of which was an uncertain economic future in the teeth of a postwar recession that lasted into the 1930s.

Paris, though—what was it about Paris that made it so amenable to jazz?

Harriett Ranney, a music librarian at the UM Mansfield Library who has coordinated the committee events for the visiting Smithsonian exhibit, suggests that musicians such as bandleader James Reese Europe, whose 369th Infantry Band was one of many military bands to perform in France during the war, benefited from a climate of greater artistic freedom than they were accustomed to back home.

“It was a kind of coming-together of a number of events,” says Ranney, “and the climate was an accepting one for new things. James Reese Europe’s unit brought ragtime and the beginnings of jazz, and they were just revered in Paris and the surrounding communities. I think in Paris, and everywhere else in Europe, there was and still is a whole different attitude toward the arts. There’s more validity and support given to the arts. The government supports them to a much greater extent, and there’s more of a sense that it’s good for society to support them, too.”

“And another huge part of it was the acceptance of African-Americans,” Ranney continues. “They couldn’t even go into restaurants in this country—they had to go in the back doors of hotels. But in Paris they could walk down the street, go anywhere and not have to face that kind of discrimination. It was like the difference between night and day, comparing France at the time and this country at the time.”

Halfway around the world, Missoula was considered a fairly cultured locale for its size and location, but—subsequent appellation notwithstanding—hardly qualified as the “Paris of the Northern Rockies” in the early 1920s. Apart from the presence of its university, it resembled a lot of other towns scattered along the Northern Pacific railway, the commercial and industrial lifeline to which Missoula owed its continued existence.

“In a lot of smaller towns like Missoula, the Jazz Age went largely unnoticed,” says Jane Richards, senior curator of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. “People were largely preoccupied with the economy.”

In contrast to many other parts of the country, Missoula was actually more depressed economically in the early 1920s than during the Great Depression. Continuous labor unrest was one factor—in the late 1910s, labor unions and the arguably overestimated menace of the Industrial Workers of the World continued to bedevil industry and transportation—and postwar economic recession hit Montana especially hard.

“People were waiting for a building boom that didn’t materialize,” says Richards.

By the 1920s, the horseless carriage had begun to make its presence felt as well, which had two important repercussions for the retail industry in Missoula. While national mail-order had been a primary supplier of retail goods for rural dwellers, the increase in car ownership ran concomitant with an overall decline in mail order sales as people invested more of their income in vehicles, which in turn allowed them to purchase and transport goods directly from area merchants, rather than wait for products to come to them.

And with supply came demand, says Hester Miller, curator for the Historical Museum’s Missoula Jazz, Mainstreet, MT exhibit. As access to goods improved, more Missoulians started following the fashions of the day.

“The newspapers at the time have a lot of advertisements for the Missoula Mercantile,” says Miller. “It was pretty common for people to update their seasonal wardrobes at area retailers—children, men, and women as well.”

Missoula Women in the Jazz Age

“The Missoula Sentinel had a ‘women’s interest’ section that ran for several years before disappearing in the ’20s or ’30s,” Miller continues. “I forget exactly when they stopped running it, but it was definitely there in 1918. Appliances and clothing, mostly, and odd panaceas for weight loss and things like that.”

The number of Montana women enrolled in the labor force increased during World War I, and with their greater numbers came a greater economic profile. More young, single women were living outside the family home, often in boarding houses and women’s dormitories, and they had more disposable income. Although a modified adherence to the traditional, domestically centered model of “true womanhood” still dominated middle-class culture, the new economic stature of women had some interesting repercussions for ideas of public morality in Montana’s small to mid-sized cities.

The image of the “flapper,” with her bobbed hair, plunging neckline and seemingly yards-long string of baubles, is one of the most enduring icons of the Jazz Age, but in Butte and Missoula and, for that matter, most of the rest of small-town America, it seems to have little or nothing to do with the everyday reality. It’s true that women’s fashions changed with the times—resulting in, for example, eveningwear that was daring by conservative standards—but the loosened state of public mores hinted at by the cigarette smoking, liquor-drinking flapper of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels was hardly a threat in communities that were too small to afford the marginality and anonymity of the vampish lifestyle. Missoula undoubtedly had a fashion-victim flapper or two, curator Miller reckons, but it’s doubtful they were three-deep on Higgins Avenue.

“If anything, I think that after World War I people were anxious to re-establish social patterns they’d become accustomed to before the war,” Miller says.

As for flappers and loosened public mores, especially those concerning women and alcohol, Miller says that Missoula probably wasn’t much different from other strongholds of small-town, middle-class values. The idea of dating, if you can imagine, was still a rather new one, but Miller posits that the presence of the odd flapper was more a matter of fashion and hardly indicative of a sexual upheaval.

“I think it was there,” she ventures, “and I don’t want to say it was frowned upon—but I don’t think it was exactly embraced, either. I don’t think the flappers were very common. That sort of ‘looser lifestyle’ was enjoyed more by the railroad men and soldiers stationed out at the fort. For everyone else it was a little more straight-laced.”

As further evidence of Missoula’s moral tenor at the time, Miller cites “The Flapper Wife,” a serial written by Beatrice Burton that ran in the Missoula Sentinel from April to June of 1925. The serial’s protagonist was a “modern young wife” who—to the predictable apprehension of her husband— didn’t want to waste her time working or having children.

“She was pretty up-front about that,” laughs Miller, “right on the first day of the serial.”

By June, though, the woman had “come to her senses” and opted for a more traditional family life. The serial was immensely popular with Sentinel readers and even inspired a sequel, “Footloose,” but the object lesson of the quickly-rehabilitated heroine indicates that—for whatever hijinks her New York or Paris counterparts got up to—the Missoula woman was squarely within the traditional, rather conservative framework.

Miller’s studied conclusion is that the majority of unmarried Missoula women took part in the typical weekend activities: church-sponsored card parties, church socials, and dances held in wholesome places like Missoula County High School and the Greenough Park Pavilion. The Pavilion was a popular meeting spot for young people where they could mingle with the opposite sex and pursue courtship opportunities along the more socially-sanctioned channels. The venue ceased to be, incidentally, when the benevolent Mrs. Greenough—incensed at allegations that she was turning a profit on the Pavilion—closed it down at the end of 1925.

All That Jazz

Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric peoples to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.
—Ladies Home Journal, August 1921

Not that Missoula was above the occasional indulgence, as confirmed by the shadowy history of downtown brothels and speakeasy joints. It’s important to bear in mind that more that half of the Jazz Age in Missoula played out against the backdrop of Prohibition—from 1919 to 1933, Missoula, like the rest of the country, was officially dry.

Rent parties were very popular, says the Missoula Cultural Council’s Mark Martin, as was bathtub gin and all manner of other homebrewed libations. And if you were keen on hitting the town, muses historian Jane Richards, there were plenty of options.

“The more adventurous types went to honky-tonks on Front and Railroad streets,” she says. “They were ‘legal,’ because for it to be legal, the law had to be in on it. There you’d find that they were more than willing to take your money and sell you liquor. For railroad workers and soldiers from the fort, things sometimes got kind of rowdy.”

A honky-tonk was where you’d have likely found a flapper, Richards ventures. And if there was jazz to be heard, the right place to hear it would have been a downtown hole in the wall. But, same as today, Missoula was home to proportionally few African-Americans, and so in the early days of the jazz age, the people most likely to have had any familiarity with jazz music were predominantly white soldiers returning from overseas.

“There were a lot of white players,” Richards says.

Mark Martin agrees: “A lot of our boys came back from the service,” he says, “And Europe was their first exposure to jazz.”

Jazz music didn’t make significant inroads to western Montana until relatively late in the game. It’s not that anyone set out to protest its presence, as the above excerpt would suggest; it’s just that comparatively fewer people in Montana knew what it was. It also had regional competition to contend with—young people recreating themselves at dances and socials in the Garden City of the 1920s were more likely to hear traditional country and western music.

Still, Missoula was considered something of a cultural hub by regional standards, thanks in large part to the University, and that made it a popular stop for national touring acts. Mark Martin describes a highbrow performance by no less a jazz persona than Al Jolson, whose satin tones graced the Wilma Theatre in June 1921, with the entire touring cast of the popular musical Sinbad:

“He didn’t sell out the house,” says Martin. “And he got up between the halves and said, ‘That’s the last time you’ll see me in Missoula.’ The next day, the Missoulian printed a lengthy editorial scolding him for charging New York prices for a Missoula performance.” Martin chuckles. “They used to do that kind of thing all the time. You never see it anymore.”

Western Montana also received some prestigious literary envoys of the Jazz Age, including the poet Rachel Lindsay and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who included scenes of Montana in at least one work:

“Fitzgerald visited Montana several times,” says Martin, “And his story ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ was set on a ranch somewhere very close to Missoula. These aspects of the Jazz Age in Montana weren’t the same as in Great Gatsby country out east, but at least there were some connections.”

Jazz enjoyed some lip service in Missoula, but compared to Butte at the time—to say nothing of Harlem or New Orleans or even Kansas City—the curators of the exhibit at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula aren’t far amiss in their assertion that the Jazz Age came and went largely unnoticed in the Missoula hinterlands.

Nevertheless, Martin is looking forward to the Smithsonian exhibit and its many adjuncts as a study in differences as well as similarities between two cities connected by the barest of cultural bonds.

“It offers tremendous possibilities,” he enthuses, “just tremendous possibilities for comparing Missoula and Paris at the time.”

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print
Today | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed
Big Brains Trivia Night

Big Brains Trivia Night @ Brooks and Browns Bar

Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation