Jazz in the United States emerged in the dark-lit clubs of New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, New York City and other cities. It’s popularity exploded during Prohibition, boosting its intersection with underground bars. Jazz also became the sound of Prohibition for another reason: As T.J. English shows in Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, nearly every leading jazz star was funded by Al Capone, the NYC Mafia, or other organized crime figures.
Mobsters owned the leading jazz clubs. They controlled the performance schedules of jazz icons like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. No jazz star was more mob-controlled than Frank Sinatra. I am surprised that English’s revelations about Sinatra’s mob role have not become recent news stories. English shows Sinatra was not simply singing for the mob but was a financial partner of organized crime.
How the Relationship Worked
Prohibition was great for gangsters. It vastly expanded the market for illegal transactions, as much of American was eager to drink booze. Underground bars fit the sounds of jazz. This led mobsters to purchase and/or control nearly all the jazz venues in the above cities and more (San Francisco was not among them. I describe in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco how San Francisco mobsters kept national gangsters out of the city).
This forced jazz musicians in most cities to work for mob-owned venues. English shows how this left many jazz stars well paid but completely subject to the whims of mobsters. If they wanted Louis Armstrong or Lena Horne to play at their venue, they played. Armstrong tried to resist mob control by leaving America to spend two years in Europe at the height of his popularity. Horne’s stepfather was beaten by mobsters for requesting the singer be paid more. Horne recounts that she had to be “kidnapped” in the middle of the night in order to leave the city for other venues. Horne had been told that “Nobody leaves the Cotton Club until we say so.”
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English puts the mobster-musician relationship in the racial context of the time. The leading Black jazz musicians could not be customers in many of the venues they played. Their legal options to challenge racial barriers and mob-control were nonexistent. Armstrong decided that he could only come back from Europe if he signed a mobster as his manager; he needed the protection.
Las Vegas and Cuba
The film Godfather 2 highlights how the mob funded nightlife and clubs in Las Vegas and Cuba. English spells out the precise nature of mob control of both venues. Kickbacks to Cuba’s corrupt Bautista dictatorship gave the mob complete control, and jazz musicians new audiences. It took Fidel Castro to lead a Cuban revolution to end this corrupt relationship; this completely shifted the mob’s focus to Las Vegas.
That’s when Frank Sinatra enters the book. I found English’s revelations about Sinatra’s mob role surprising. I thought that there was some uncertainty as to the level of Sinatra’s involvement with organized crime (for example, Sinatra backers denied that the scene in Godfather 1 where the producer’s horse is killed to ensure an Italian actor gets a movie part had anything to do with Frank).
English provides the receipts on Sinatra. Sinatra got the mob to assault rival Buddy Rich. He got out of his management contract with Tommy Dorsey after three mobsters pulled a gun on Dorsey and told him to sign the release. Dorsey did. Sinatra was partners with mobsters and got rich from the relationship. All while the singer got glowing coverage in the media, with his mob connections ignored.
Dangerous Rhythms is a must read for jazz fans and those who love reading about the urban vice world of the 1930’s through 1960’s. English’s findings should be included in future accounts of these years.