Jazz,Band,Performs,At,The,Club

"TONIGHT — TONIGHT”

The headline’s boldface capital type seems to shout from the ad in The Bridgeport Telegram, urging readers to step along with the “jolly throng” at a concert featuring the “eight marvelous music men” who made up Kregling’s Melody Boys.

It was 1924 and cities across Connecticut were roaring to the new music of jazz. The decade began on the heels of the great pandemic of 1918 and the wounds and loss of World War I still fresh. The 18th Amendment had recently banned the sale of alcohol, and Coast Guard boats prowled Connecticut waters in search of bootleggers, but enough booze got through that the party kept going.

African American-led jazz bands like Kregling’s Melody Boys were everywhere. “In this nation syncopation simply is our meat. Most of the people that I know would rather jazz than eat,” read a national column printed in The Bridgeport Telegram in 1922.

Yet not everyone was dancing to the tune of the modern world. Bordering the advertisement for the Kregling’s Melody Boys performance on Oct. 18, 1924, is a menacing ad that jumps like a dissonant chord from the page. “Join The Ku Klux Klan” the ad says, above an address in Fairfield where interested readers could write for more information.

“The 1920s are this really fascinating decade,” says Ilene Frank, chief curator at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. “When we look back, a lot of people think about flappers and the music and Great Gatsby-type feelings and vibes, and that was absolutely part of it. But it was also, in our country, a time of really great change.”

She adds, “There’s grief and sadness, having come out of World War I and then having the Spanish flu devastate the country. And so, while it is easy for us to focus on the Roaring Twenties’ good times, like any decade there are definitely pros and cons. And there are absolutely tensions that are existing in society.”

Some of that change was positive. The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, and women began to take a more direct role in political life. Mary Townsend Seymour, a civil and women’s rights activist from Hartford, became the first African American woman in the U.S. to run for state office in the 1920s. “She is defeated, of course, but she is standing there making her claim to political office,” Frank says.

Immigration also picked up in the state, and during the 1920s nearly 30 percent of the state’s residents were not born in the U.S. “The Northeast had the highest proportion of foreign-born residents anywhere in the country and sometimes double the national average. So, anyone who’s living in Connecticut and in New England in the 1920s is seeing these waves of immigrants come in from new countries like Italy, Russia and Poland,” Frank says.

Not everyone was happy about the state’s increasing diversity. Tapping into racism and fear of immigrants, the Ku Klux Klan gained a foothold in the state, and by 1926 they claimed to have a membership of about 65,000 people. “In the 20s in Connecticut, they had racist views against Blacks, but a lot of their movement, and their protesting is really anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic,” Frank says. Their advertisements from the time targeted Italians, Jews and others with negative stereotypes.

Despite this dark undercurrent, there were also aspects of 1920s Connecticut that fit our vision of the Roaring Twenties, including, as already mentioned, the nation’s newfound love of jazz. “The ’20s is the height of the Harlem Renaissance, so there is this whole burgeoning artistic and literary culture that’s happening from this really great collection of artistic and intellectual African Americans in Harlem, and those writers and those performers are coming here,” Frank says. “Jazz just becomes the pulse or the sound of urban centers.”

The wild parties and decadent side of the decade were also on full display in Connecticut. The wealthy began buying up more property on Connecticut’s coast, and walls around private communities and the state’s beaches went up. Extravagant parties were thrown for elites, and some of them may even have inspired one of the best-known novels about the time period. “Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda, rented a house along the Sound in the early ’20s in Connecticut, and some people think that that was part of the inspiration for writing The Great Gatsby,” Frank says.

This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.