Sunday, November 7, 2010

Racializing Jazz in the Swing Era: Culture and Commerce

          By the mid-1930s, the United States had passed through many crucial moments in its history. It had fought a World War, gave women the right to vote, battled corruption throughout Prohibition, and was recovering from the Great Depression. Throughout the 1920s, culture and commerce had been dominated by mobsters and speakeasies, but in the 1930s that was beginning to change. Regular people of all kinds were becoming more socially and politically active, finally able to realize their potential as citizens as the nation was becoming more progressive. As it pertains to jazz, this progressive attitude allowed for race to actually begin to be discussed in a serious manner, and more publicly than ever before. However, in my opinion, it was not solely progressive culture that brought this change, but also the pressures of a changing commercial landscape, where there were larger numbers of both black and white jazz bands vying for control of the volatile entertainment market. Closer together than ever before, black and white artists were simply unable to ignore the comparisons between the abilities and styles of their respective musical icons – comparisons that many believed correlated with race.
          It is where culture and commerce intersect that we find the most interesting examples of the racial discussion of jazz. Duke Ellington’s gig at the Cotton Club in Harlem lends us insight to a tough question that Ellington had to face: culture or commerce? As Professor Stewart explained, Ellington’s playing at the Cotton Club made his band elite, but the club’s racial policy didn’t allow black patrons in, which meant only whites could watch Ellington. Ellington mastered how a black band should play for a white audience (Lecture, Oct 26). It would seem that Ellington chose commerce over culture – he chose to survive the Depression while many other musicians failed by making music that a larger white audience would listen to – music that may not have always held to the unspoken standards of black jazz culture. As highlighted in David W. Stowe’s book, Swing Changes, white jazz critic John Hammond later called out Ellington, writing that Ellington “shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and original class” (51). Hammond is a quintessential example of the aforementioned growing progressive culture in mainstream America. He was descended from the wealthy Vanderbilt family and yet was incredibly devoted to the plight of the working class and an outspoken critic of the darker side of capitalist practices – and of Duke Ellington (54-55). However, Hammond’s point of view is not necessarily the most accurate. As Stowe points out, he ignores “the fact that Ellington came form a middle-class Washington family” (51). But class aside, race was still a big issue for Hammond. He also wrote that “the best of the white folk still cannot compare to the really good Negroes in relaxed, unpretentious dance music,” a view that was actually widely accepted by many: musicians and critics, blacks and whites alike (60).
          In my opinion, there is no possible biological or even plausible social explanation for why black musicians should be better at jazz than white musicians. However, from what we have read so far in class, I believe I have decided on my own explanation for the apparent differences. It was not the quality of the black or white musician, but who his audience was. White musicians could have played improvisational, “hot” jazz just as well as a given black musician could have, but their audience – a white audience – was not looking for that. It works both ways. People started to talk about race because there was this “color line” in developing jazz. There were differences: not natural, but man-made. Whites tended to choose to play a certain style that catered to their audience, and blacks tended to choose to play for their audience. It was this choice that was the difference, not differing musical quality. Forerunners like Ellington were not betraying their race as Hammond seems to imply, but were actually bridging the gap of racism through their art and thereby highlighting the necessity of future racial discussion.


  1. Interesting viewpoint. I had not thought about it that way, but I agree that catering to audiences of different races in a rapidly-changing commercial environment was a major factor in the development of jazz’s “color line”. It was each ethnicity’s background that dictated their preferred style and musicians had to choose a particular group to cater to.

  2. I agree that many of the choices made by jazz musicians during the swing era were based on who their intended audiences were. However, the audience and the money tied up there did not tell the whole story; other factors such as promotion and the choices made by booking agents also played a role in how well-known an artist got, and the choices record companies and agents made about who to promote were also tightly coiled up with racial issues.