Players Mix with Gansters as the Speakeasies Become Second Home to Many Jazz Musicians.

posted February 23rd, 2010

Danny joined the Whiteman band on their recording trips to Chicago throughout the nineteen-twenties.  This was a time of unbridled nightlife and abandon.  He writes in his book about one wild night at a speakeasy on State Street known as the Three Deuces, named after the notorious brothel and gambling spot created by Johnny Torrio, known as the Four Deuces.  Torrio was a graduate of the famous “Five Points Gang” in New York, and had moved west when police sought him for the murder of Herman Rosenthal in the sensational Becker case in 1912.

In the early days of prohibition, in 1920, Torrio saw that there would be enormous potential for money in illegal alcohol if he could find a way to eliminate the competition.  For that he called upon the talents of another “Five Points” debutante, Alphonse Capone.

Torrio offered Capone half of the profits from the new venture if he could take control of Chicago.  Capone opened a modest office for appearances sake, at 2220 South Wabash Avenue, and on his card it said that he was a “second hand furniture dealer.”

Within three years, he had an army of seven hundred men, with sawed-off shotguns and Thompson sub-machine guns.  Eventually Capone acquired more skill in working with the political element, and by the mid-twenties, he controlled the suburb of Cicero and had his own mayor and police chief.
Rival gangs such as the O’Banions, the Gennas, and the Aiellos all offered resistance, but none seemed to have Capone’s combination of organizational skills, abject ruthlessness, and luck.  More blood flowed in the streets of Chicago than had accompanied any struggle since the Civil War.  After Capone had eliminated most of the figures of the opposition, including one of the strongest threats, Dion O’Banion, others of that gang sought to carry on the struggle.

On February 14th, 1929, at half past ten in the morning, seven of the O’Banions were at the S.M.C. Cartage Company on North Clark Street, waiting for a shipment of hijacked liquor.  Three uniformed police showed up accompanied by two plain cloths men.  This was not too disturbing to the gathered gang members, since most of the police were ‘friends,’ and even if they were arrested, they could expect to be released in a matter of hours.

As the police asked the men to line up against the opposite wall, the two plain clothed men opened fire with machine guns.  Gruesome photos accompanied the news stories that evening, and the story spread to most of the country.

The “St. Valentine’s Day” massacre, as it came to be known, was maybe the most colorful of the incidents that occurred, but during that decade in Chicago, there were over five-hundred murders.  Prohibition, or you might say, the public’s refusal to abide by it, had created a monstrous syndicate of crime.

There were ten-thousand speakeasies in Chicago alone.  And although it’s strange to admit it, they contributed to the rise of the musical form that we had all come to call “Jazz.”   It was said that many of the gangsters loved the music, and had their favorite performers.  Some offered protection and career advancement, and there are several very well-known entertainers who would have to admit to their embarrassment, that they might not be where they are without the help of a powerful mobster.  But then, they might not be anywhere if not for that special protection.

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