Let The Good Ole’ Times Roll

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On January 17, 1920, America went dry. Overnight, bars closed, breweries shuttered, and distilleries went quiet as the country attempted to go cold turkey. As often happens with radical social change, Prohibition was rife with unintended consequences, many of which reverberate to this day. Organized crime flourished as gangs quickly took control of beer and liquor supplies in the cities. In turn, alliances between bootleggers, legitimate businessmen, and politicians fed into a culture of corruption. The number of drugstores in some cities tripled as whiskey prescriptions rose and physicians lobbied for the healing effects of alcohol.

Oh, and lest we forget, Prohibition bequeathed onto the American body politic an American art form: jazz.

Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael put it perfectly: The 1920s came in “with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals, and wild weekends”. Prohibition made nightlife “dangerous” and thus more alluring, just as a booming economy was transforming the American city. Americans, rich and poor, were now elbow to elbow in speakeasies all over the country, and in urban America, that often meant listening and dancing to jazz. To listen to jazz was to rebel against previous generations, a rebellion that included a prominent switch in the fashion and attitude of young women who flouted gender and class norms. Jazz came of age during a time of flux for African-Americans, as the Great Migration transfered much of their population from the rural south into the urban north. They brought with them the musical traditions of the blues, ragtime, and swing, which laid the groundwork for what would become known as jazz. Of course, the lustrous sheen had worn off of the Prohibition Era by the end of the decade as public backlash grew and crime became endemic. The stock market crashed in 1929, and with it, the Jazz Age came to an unceremonious close.

The music never left, of course, but the bombast and style of that time is a thing of the past, unless you are on New York City’s Governors Island in the summer. A Jazz Age prohibition-style lawn party hosted and conceived by bandleader Michael Arenella has been bringing that good jazz feeling back to the public since 2005. Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra play hot jazz dance music entirely transcribed by hand from original era recordings.

Arenella began playing music at a young age and like many of the jazz musicians in the 20s, sought out a big city to develop and nourish his talents. He is a composer, musician, troubadour, and all around lover of everything Jazz Age. He is a large, dapper fellow with a curly top and a perfect mustache representative of the period. Not only in music, but his everyday life is immersed in past times. As the party’s host, one can immediately see Arenella’s dedication to the authenticity of the event. What began as a small party of about 50 has grown consistently over the last 12 years to now more than 20,000 period-dressed folk enjoying the warm, breezy lawns of what was formerly a Coast Guard base. Unlike Prohibition Era parties, you needn’t “see a man about a dog”—there are inspired cocktails aplenty and in the open. The party hosts tappers and vaudeville, foxtrot lessons, and a Charleston competition. There are prepared era picnic lunches to eat while watching costumed folk play croquet. The party is a day to be transported back almost a hundred years, revel in, and kick your feet to that hot jazz sound.

Myra Musgrove is a writer and artist working and living in Brooklyn, New York.