Jazz and cocktails rank high among U.S. cultural contributions
Of all the claims made about the United States over the years — Leader of the Free World, The Great Experiment or the Most Powerful Nation on Earth — there are two contributions to civilization that seem universally accepted.
Jazz and cocktails.
Certainly, jazz and cocktails are the most enjoyed in all the civilized world. That the two were joined in their infancy and grew up hand in hand only enhances their magic on world-wide infatuation.
Jazz, you see, began to take hold in American society a century ago, just as World War I ended in Europe. It had long been rooted in the African-American communities, especially in New Orleans, but until the war, its exposure was limited. The war broke many of those barriers as millions of soldiers discovered the seclusion of their pre-war lives. As the old World War II song asked, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm? (After they’ve seen Paree?)”
The tide gates unexpectedly were opened wide for both jazz and cocktails on Jan. 16, 1920, when at midnight the United States began the 13-year period called Prohibition.
It also began a period when Americans do what they’ve always done best — create a law and then find a jillion creative ways to get around it.
That talent is why within just a short time after the 18th Amendment went into effect, masses of people across the country went underground into secret clubs called speakeasies. It began the most inventive, imaginative and prosperous period in cocktail history. Thousands of new drinks appeared — mostly created to hide the taste of bad alcohol — and right along with them came new music and new dances. Nothing prompts doing more than being told to do without.
Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the time, “The parties were bigger … the pace was faster … and the morals were looser.”
Being illegal and prone to occasional police raids, speakeasies operated on the sly in basements, off alley doors and in hidden rooms. Their customers were wealthy, poor, male, female and, often, of all races. It wasn’t about exclusivity, but about flowing alcohol, breaking traditions and great parties.
Jazz musicians found crowds as thirsty for this hedonistic music as they were for the alcohol. New Orleans, the birthplace of it all, watched trainloads of its best jazz musicians headed north to Chicago, New York and Kansas City. It was this great awakening, in fact, that created the name jazz to describe the music.
“When Broadway picked it up, they called it ‘J-A-Z-Z’,” musician Eubie Blake once told an interviewer for National Public Radio. “It wasn’t called that. It was spelled ‘J-A-S-S’. That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn’t say it in front of ladies.”
The whole speakeasy period eventually became synonymous with being the Jazz Age in America. The Jazz Age lasted until the stock market crash of 1929. Prohibition lasted a few years longer.
Of course, while Americans were sneaking their drinks, Europeans, recovering from the war, began pouring in abundance, readily adopting the new concoctions being created across the Atlantic. And along with those cocktails came the new American music, jazz. The best artists for that music came with it, finding a new freedom from the racism and Jim Crow laws at home.
Back in Texas, gambling, rather than music, had more of the attention of the speakeasy crowds in Galveston and Houston. Galveston actually did so little to hide its nefarious doings, the places serving alcohol don’t quite fit the speakeasy definition.
Jazz Age cocktails began a life of their own.
Jazz as a music was filled with improvisation and experimentation, and it didn’t take much prompting to move those notes into the art of the cocktail. Within a few years, almost any person who had visited at least one speakeasy probably knew what an Old Fashioned, a French 75 or a Sazerac was. They could also deftly down a Manhattan, a Vieux Carre, a Bronx or, the most popular of all, a martini.
Some will argue what the most iconic Jazz Age cocktail is, but for the country as a whole, it’s probably the martini. Future President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a worst-kept-secret devotee during these years. The original martini recipes from the early 1920s call for equal amounts of gin (never vodka) and vermouth. These also use Italian sweet vermouth, but as time passed, imbibers began to prefer dry, French vermouth. As the times got more dizzying, especially in Europe, stirring gave way to the cocktail shaker, which certainly had more pizzazz, even if purists argue its benefits.
Similarly, this international cocktail sensation invented or reintroduced a bar full of specialty glassware, accoutrements and garnishing aids. Hot on gift and shopping lists were cocktail cabinets, shakers, suitable glasses, ice, cherries and olives.
The Bronx cocktail became popular nationwide, but its city of origin is obvious. It’s a simple martini with orange juice and both Italian and French vermouth. And for the record, it was named not after the borough in New York, but the zoo, which was either near the speakeasy of its invention or a description of the nightly crowds at the bar.
The Manhattan, made originally with American whiskey and bitters, was around decades before the Jazz Age, but as American bourbon disappeared during Prohibition, it was replaced with readily available Canadian rye, now required for the classic drink.
In the Galveston area, history doesn’t credit any lasting cocktails having been created on the island during the 1920s, but with easy access to Caribbean rum coming by boat, and other liquors flowing across the Mexican border, drinks undoubtedly had more of a tropical nature. Bathtubs in Southeast Texas were still used for just bathing rather than gin.
What did change, as it did all over the country, was the fact that women were becoming equally as open and enthusiastic about the cocktails as men. That is one more irony about Prohibition, considering it was organizations of women who helped force the amendment to pass.
Humorist, journalist and author Don Marquis wrote at the time, “They put a foot on the brass railing and tossed down the feminine esophagus the brew that was really meant for men. The last barrier is down; the citadel has been stormed and taken.”
As a result, a whole menu of sweeter cocktails appeared, including one called the Pussyfoot, made with egg white, grenadine, lemon and orange juice; the Mary Pickford, created in Cuba and made with white rum, pineapple juice, grenadine and maraschino juice; and the Alexandra, a mixture of crème of cacao, grenadine and cream.
Jazz and cocktails remain the perfect partners today, especially with their history of putting each other on the world stage. And there’s nothing like summer to celebrate the beginning of it all 100 years ago.
To add to the celebration, there are various jazz groups performing around the area, including at the 1888 Toujouse Bar at The Tremont House in Galveston’s downtown. In that appropriate setting, Trio du Jour performs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Friday and Saturday.
While Trio du Jour music is more 1940s than Jazz Age, the bar does offer an extensive list of signature martinis and other drinks. The music may be later, but the drinks are timeless.
Smoking Gun Martini
This is a signature drink at the 1888 Toujouse Bar at The Tremont House, 2300 Ship’s Mechanic Row in downtown Galveston.
11⁄2 ounces Tito’s Vodka
1⁄2 ounce triple sec
1⁄2 ounce lemon juice
1⁄2 ounce simple syrup
2 jalapeños slices
4 cucumber slices
1 scoop of ice
1 martini glass chilled
Place 2 jalapeño slices and 4 cucumber slices in a cocktail shaker. Add Tito’s, triple sec and lemon juice and muddle. Add a scoop of ice and shake. Strain into a cold martini glass and garnish with a cucumber and jalapeño slice.