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7 Ways The Mafia Made The U.S. A Better Place: 'Renegade History' (PHOTOS)

Posted: 10/26/10 08:00 AM ET

Imagine an America without jazz. Imagine an America in which alcohol is still illegal. Imagine an America without Broadway, Las Vegas, or Hollywood. Imagine an America with no racial integration or freedom to be gay in public. In my new book, "A Renegade History of the United States", I show that all you have to do is imagine American history without organized crime ... Here are 7 ways that gangsters made America a better place:

Jazz
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By the end of the 19th century some 300 Sicilian mafiosi controlled substantial portions of the New Orleans economy, most significantly the many brothels, saloons, and nightclubs that defined New Orleans as the pleasure capital of the South. When respectable Americans shunned the new music called "jass" as black and criminal jungle music but many others demonstrated a willingness to pay to hear and dance to it, New Orleans gangsters happily made it their business. The first buildings in which the music eventually renamed "jazz" was played professionally -- brothels in the Storyville district near the French Quarter -- were owned by Sicilian mobsters. In 1917, a teenaged Louis Armstrong received his first wages for playing the trumpet at a tavern owned by Henry Matranga, leader of the Matranga family and arguably the most powerful criminal in the early 20th-century United States. Armstrong and the other black inventors of jazz such as Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, and Joe Oliver also received their first pay from George Delsa, manager of Anderson's Rampart Street café, one of the first clubs to feature jazz, who used his Mafia connections to protect the club and the prostitutes who worked there from the police.

In Chicago and New York, Italian and Jewish gangsters operated many of the most important early jazz clubs. Al Capone, who controlled several of the clubs in Chicago that introduced jazz to mainstream audiences, was an aficionado of the music and was the first to pay performers a better than subsistence wage. Mob-owned clubs on State Street in Chicago employed the musicians who made jazz a national phenomenon, including bands fronted by Armstrong, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman. According to one performer, "the worst places on State Street always had the best music." The same was true in New York City, where, according to one jazz musician, the clubs where the music was being invented rather than just performed for mainstream audiences were "run by big-time mobs not tramps . . . who had a way of running them better than anyone else."

According to the scholar Jerome Charyn, "There would have been no 'Jazz Age,' and very little jazz, without the white gangsters who took black and white jazz musicians under their wing."
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Gangsters didn't do that!
Way to go, gangsters!

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