Sex, drugs and jazz during the Roaring Twenties in Austin
Escapism. Hedonism. Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll.
“I had a fabulous time in Austin during the 1970s, believe me” author Richard Zelade says. “This was the Garden of Eden.”
Switch out “jazz” for “rock ’n’ roll” and you would have Austin in the Jazz Age, the subject — and title — of Zelade’s most recent book about the city’s louche past.
“Part of the jazz lifestyle was escapism,” says Zelade, whose previous books include “Guy Town by Gaslight,” which maps out Austin’s famous red light district (1865-1913). “Paris was the place you wanted to escape to — in theory — during the titillating, titubating, tumescent ’20s.”
Between World War I and the Great Depression, the Jazz Age picked up where Guy Town’s vices left off.
“It was a reaction to World War I’s misery, destruction and waste,” Zelade says. “As well as the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed millions of mostly young people, and the conservative moral values that brought on Prohibition and frowned on sexual freedom.”
Of course, jazz music provided the fast, intoxicating beat of this new, rebellious youth culture, prominent in Austin mostly because of the University of Texas student body.
Jack Tobin, 18-year-old son of a respected Austin family, put together Shakey’s Jazz Orchestra in January 1919. Others — the Moonshiners, Sole-Killers, Fire House Five, Band-Its, Hokum Kings, Apaches — followed in the established traditions of African-American jazz and blues.
Zelade’s lively, loosely organized book is splendid at drawing cultural comparisons to later youth rebellions, such as the one he experienced firsthand 40 years ago.
“Jazz was a lifestyle,” he says. “Music is just what we think of most. In the early days, jazz music was very dada. They’d do anything — bang cans, jump on pianos.”
Along with the music, of course, came a new style of dance.
“A sexual revolution was getting its start here,” Zelade says. “Dancing as if you were glued together to hot, stimulating music was like foreplay. Although most students stopped short of actual intercourse, in favor of petting — any movement, caress or touch short of intercourse — boys and girls reveled in their promiscuity. One guy claimed to have kissed 88 girls in one school year.”
Zelade mines newspapers and magazines but also UT’s half-forgotten humor publications, which poked fun at “co-eds” and “eds” who were experimenting with drink, drugs (morphine and marijuana mostly) and sexual liberation, the last mostly but not entirely confined to “necking” and “petting.”
“The jokes and cartoons in the college humor magazines were all about sex and booze,” Zelade points out. Outrageously talking, scantily clad co-eds drinking moonshine — much of it distilled in the rough hills and hollows to the west or down in Prohibition-unfriendly New Braunfels — filled up many pages.
“This Prohibition gets worse every day,” the Daily Texan reported dryly about the spread of bootleg liquor. “But we’ve reached the limit when our sweet little grind illustrator wheezes around for a couple of days, and then turns up with a bottle of cough medicine with a kick stronger than any East Texas Corn or Tequila we ever met. Give us back the old days!”
The college cartoonists for the Scalper, Coyote and Ranger magazines were pretty risque. Among the most prolific was Joe Steiner, whose brother, Buck Steiner, was best known as the owner of Capitol Saddlery.
It was a liberating time for women, who had won the right to vote and serve on some juries.
“They were drinking, smoking, wearing men’s clothes, playing men’s sports,” Zelade says. The flat-chested, short-cropped, short-skirted flapper ideal — who liked swanning around in men’s pajamas — was just one manifestation of the age’s gender-bending. One cartoon shows a confident, muscular woman smoking in the foreground while a willowy male student swoons coyly behind her.
Women, especially, aspired to “it,” or universal sexual appeal. Movie star Clara Bow, the quintessential “It Girl,” visited the UT campus while filming “Wings” in San Antonio. While scouting a location for a movie about an unhinged college party, she met up with UT President William Splawn before attracting crowds across campus.
The UT administration, including Dean of Women Helen Kirby, fought in vain to tame the fizzy hormones, especially at the popular costume parties, which allowed all manner of dress — and undress. One cartoon image of a Shakey’s Orchestra dance shows officers with machine guns keeping young people apart while spying on them from a observation tower. The jazz combo is transformed into the Salvation Army band.
There were other options.
“The automobile changed dating behavior forever,” Zelade says. “It gave you the power and authority. On campus, they had you locked down. In a car, you went out to Pease Park or Lake Austin to pet. In 1923, they banned students from having cars or going out to the lake.”
One odd historical note: Instead of just engaging in sex, Jazz Age youths tended to marry right away, then follow up with a quickie divorce, until lawmakers put time limits on both institutions.
Here is a sample of the lax attitudes from a college cartoon:
He: “It wouldn’t be much trouble for us to marry, my father is a minister you know.”
She: “Well, let’s have a try at it anyway — my dad’s a lawyer.”
As with other youth cultural movements, the Jazz Age came with its own vocabulary.
“You spoke a language that you understood but your elders didn’t,” Zelade says, as much to anger them as to talk to friends.
For example, in an orientialist mode, men were “Sheiks” and women were “Shebas.” UT males shunned movies starring Rudolph Valentino, thought to be effeminate, but they ended up dressing as “Vaselinos.”
“They might not have liked Valentino,” Zelade says. “But if the girls liked him, they followed the trend.”
What about African-Americans, who, after all, inspired so much of jazz culture? Zelade found that mainstream newspapers covered black gospel music and that local black bands played at UT dances. Poet Carl Sandburg and folklorist John Lomax visited the Silver King club in East Austin to collect songs.
“Austin was one of the most conservative, segregated cities in Texas during the Jazz Age,” Zelade postulates. Yet two pieces of evidence for this proposition involve not Austin but Dallas, which was home to a Ku Klux Klan-based charity and exhibited discrimination against jazz bands.
He mentions Austin’s six-square-mile Negro District, proposed in an 1928 urban plan, but doesn’t add that virtually every town and city in the South — and many in the North — were also strictly segregated at the time.
At the end of the book, Zelade profiles some movie stars, musicians and singing cowboys who came out of Austin during this era.
“We didn’t produce a Louis Armstrong,” Zelade admits. “But we did a Tex Ritter and a John Lomax.”
Lomax, who collected and recorded folk tunes, influenced Ritter, who was devoted to singing and preserving cowboy music.
By 1930, the Jazz Era had fallen out of fashion in Austin. Economic ruin made it untenable.
“When the bubble burst, it went down into the Dirty Thirties,” Zelade says of the Dust Bowl days. “Hemlines went back to the ankles. They fell by two inches in one year. The jazz lifestyle was dropped like a hot coal on campus.”