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What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

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Chapter 1

"A Marvel of Paradox"

Jazz and African American Modernity

Writing in Down Beat magazine in 1939, Duke Ellington defined his musical project in response to critical discussions that differentiated the "authentic" vernacular art of "jazz" from its commercial offshoot "swing": "Our aim has always been the development of an authentic Negro music, of which swing is only one element. We are not interested primarily in the playing of jazz or swing music, but in producing a genuine contribution from our race. Our music is always intended to be definitely and purely racial. We try to complete a cycle." Critics had recently taken Ellington to task for forsaking his "folk" roots and pursuing a watered-down, commercial music. Recognizing the impact that such viewpoints could have on his career, Ellington tried to undermine categories such as jazz or swing by defining his music as part of something larger. His expressed goal of creating an "authentic Negro music" that was "a genuine contribution from our race" also indicates that Ellington's musical project was consistent with some of the fundamental goals of the diasporic, black cultural renaissance of the early twentieth century. Like other artists and intellectuals of the period, he believed that the production and reception of black music would have an effect on the social standing of African Americans. In other words, Ellington tried to define a socially relevant black aesthetic under conditions that limited black creativity.1

Ellington was among the most prominent African American musicians in the 1930s. A familiar figure in motion pictures and radio and the subject of articles in music trade journals, the mainstream press, and black newspapers, he used his position to intervene in the nascent field of jazz criticism, which by the late 1930s was shaped by race, gender, and class relations; by modernist ideas about art, culture, and commerce; and by New Deal and Popular Front ideologies. Ellington gave his own meanings to an African American and American art form that was both an increasingly popular commodity and an object of growing debate. He described the self-consciousness of his approach at a time when many critics saw African American popular music as a product of instinct. He also passed judgment on a music industry in which commercially oriented white bands profited while most black bands remained marginal. And Ellington did so while engaging ideas of concern to white jazz critics and African American intellectuals, with a specificity rooted in his position as a musician laboring in the music industry.

Ellington's comments came at the end of two decades of public commentary about jazz by African American musicians, some of whom embraced the art form and some of whom did not. These discussions resonated with issues pertaining to the performance of this music and the state of African American society in the early twentieth century. Musicians understood that jazz had become a site for African American artistic achievement but that it was also symbolic of the restrictions that American society placed on their lives as artists and human beings. This chapter begins by sketching the social, cultural, and ideological context out of which jazz emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. It then discusses some of the reactions to this music by African American intellectuals, before launching into an analysis of what musicians themselves had to say about jazz. For James Reese Europe, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Dave Peyton, Duke Ellington, and others, jazz marked the contradictory position of black culture and black people in modern American life and anticipated numerous discussions about the music that continue today.

"A Marvel of Paradox"

"Jazz is a marvel of paradox: too fundamentally human, at least as modern humanity goes, to be typically racial, too international to be characteristically national, too much abroad in the world to have a special home. And yet jazz in spite of it all is one part American and three parts American Negro, and was originally the nobody's child of the levee and the city slum."2 Thus began Joel A. Rogers's "Jazz at Home," the only essay in Alain Locke's 1925 collection The New Negro to focus specifically on this music. This characterization, in which Rogers sought to plot jazz along the axes of geography and genotype, addressed a dilemma facing black intellectuals who were seeking to claim jazz as an African American creative force while making sense of its widespread appeal to nonblack musicians and audiences. The question of whether jazz was an African American birthright was just one of the paradoxes black intellectuals pondered. Was it folk culture, high culture, or a product of the rapidly blooming culture industry? And what was its ultimate social impact? Could it be used to highlight black contributions to American society? Or did it merely play into white stereotypes about black culture and behavior, beliefs that had been shaped by pseudoscientific racism, generations of minstrelsy, and other pernicious representations of black life?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, black and nonblack observers alike increasingly considered black musical accomplishment, both in the realm of European concert music and in the development of vernacular forms, as a means of improving the social position of African Americans. Thus the stage was set for a twentieth-century cultural politics through which black intellectuals and musicians tried to challenge social and cultural hierarchies, "vindicate" African American society, and dismantle notions of irreducible racial difference by demonstrating, in Jon Michael Spencer's words, a "two-tiered mastery" of European "form and technique" and Negro "mood and spirit."3

One early-twentieth-century example of this cultural politics was W.E.B. Du Bois's discussion of spirituals in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois's treatment of this form of music anticipated future debates by situating music at the nexus of race and nation, by emphasizing the realm of spirit as a site of black achievement, and by simultaneously theorizing black musical culture as a gift to American society and as a vehicle for African American liberation. In the face of racist thought, social segregation, and racial violence directed toward African Americans, Du Bois challenged the exclusion of "black folk" from U.S. society and defined them as equal citizens by writing them into the center of the country's history, spiritual, and cultural life. During an age when social hierarchies were justified and perpetuated by marking black people as primarily irrational, emotional, and physical beings, Du Bois adhered to the logic of this discourse but inverted its hierarchical assumptions by validating the spiritual and the emotional over the material and rational. Similarly, he held on to the idea of a hereditary, racial community, while seeking to subvert some elements of biological essentialism. By virtue of innate racial characteristics and historical circumstance, he argued, African Americans had made a unique artistic and cultural contribution to American society. This contribution spoke of universal human values and stood in contrast and as antidote to the crass materialism of the age. While "the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty, . . ." he wrote, "so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song . . . stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. . . . it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people." 4

Du Bois's discussion of spirituals is also significant because he addressed issues of authenticity and hybridity, as he lauded the music's aesthetic beauty and transformative potential. Du Bois recognized that African American folk musicians drew from multiple musical antecedents and that for decades white audiences had consumed black music and white musicians had performed it. The roots of spirituals lay in Africa, but their development in America involved African Americans' synthesis of "Negro" and "Caucasian" elements into a musical hybrid that remained "distinctively Negro." Du Bois knew that if spirituals were to be considered a "gift" to America, then, clearly, whites would consume them. Yet he differentiated between appropriate and inappropriate uses of this cultural material, the latter occurring when a white-controlled music industry transformed the meanings (or spirit) of these folk materials and disrupted their liberatory potential. Although Du Bois celebrated the impact of "Negro" songs and melodies on American popular music, he decried "debasements and imitations" such as "'minstrel' songs, many of the 'gospel' hymns, and some of the contemporary 'coon' songs,—a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies."5 When Du Bois distinguished the authentic from the inauthentic in black musical culture, the distinction was based less on African American uses of European forms than on white appropriation and marketing of black forms. Du Bois thus anticipated another significant question in twentieth-century discussions about music: how does one come to terms with the role of black music in African American communities—the variety of functions the music performs and the array of meanings it contains—while also making sense of it in relation to its broader audience and the institutions and business interests that control its production?

During the 1910s and 1920s, elite "New Negro" intellectuals and artists raised similar questions about secular musical forms that seemed at once part of the black vernacular and the mainstream of American musical culture. Deeming themselves free of the "myth" of the "old Negro" and attuned to the "new spirit . . . awake in the masses," participants in the Harlem Renaissance and others sought to define the parameters of black expression, uncover an African American cultural past, and determine how black culture could be used as a tool for social change.6 As before, intellectuals and artists negotiated entrenched social hierarchies and racist discourses. But in the wake of World War I, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North, and the growth of pan-Africanist and black nationalist sentiment throughout the globe, they tapped into the energies of an increasingly urbane and militant black community as well.

African Americans' discussion of culture in the 1910s and 1920s resonated with some fundamental tensions in modernist thought and some specific questions about how black culture should be understood in relation to its social and political context, its cultural antecedents, its audience, and its position in the marketplace. Should one emphasize the characteristics that distinguished African American culture from European or Euro-American forms, or did that merely play into the logic of racism and segregation? Were rural African Americans the creators of the most important expressions, or did that honor belong to urbanites working in commercial entertainment? Should expressive culture serve as propaganda, or should aesthetics be the primary concern of artists and critics? If culture was a weapon, should the focus be community building in black communities, gaining entry into the larger American society, or both? What was the impact of the market on the production of black cultural forms? Did it somehow dilute racial or folk expressions? And what should one make of the growing attention that white consumers and cultural gatekeepers were paying to black culture? Would it reproduce stereotypes, or might it actually help to bury the stereotypical images from the minstrel stage, increase employment for black artists, and improve the position of African Americans in the process?

When the discussion turned to jazz, artists and intellectuals responded to the paradoxical position of this music. Jazz was indeed a complicated phenomenon by the 1920s. In Ted Gioia's words, it came out of the "dynamic interaction, the clash and fusion—of African and European, composition and improvisation, spontaneity and deliberation, the popular and the serious, high and low."7 As the growing body of historical writing on jazz illustrates, this idiom emerged in the first few decades of the twentieth century as a result of the choices musicians made in the context of the profound transformations affecting American society as a whole and African American society in particular. Urbanization; migration; race, gender, and class relations; communications technologies; and the growth of mass culture—all had an impact on the growth of jazz and the way people received it. In addition to being music, jazz was a business enterprise and a set of institutional relationships, a focal point for political and social debate, a vehicle for individual and communal identity formation, and, eventually, an idea.8

Jazz emerged when black musicians and other African Americans became immersed in modern life at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. A series of domestic migrations brought rural African Americans to urban areas and southerners to the North. In urban areas throughout the country, musicians of different social backgrounds encountered one another in formal and informal educational networks, where they built upon existing vernacular forms and transformed them with the tools of Western music.9 By the early twentieth century, black musicians had developed a dizzying array of secular, instrumental and vocal musical styles. Ragtime piano players, brass bands, string bands, popular tunesmiths, "serious" composers, performers in minstrel and vaudeville shows, and members of large orchestras and dance bands created music that included elements of syncopation, improvisation, blues harmony and melodic figures, and a variety of tonal effects (growls, melismas, and so forth). All these elements helped to distinguish this music from other popular and concert music. Although "jazz" initially signified an approach to interpreting a musical score or playing one's instrument, by the late 1910s musicians and observers alike increasingly saw it as a style of syncopated, instrumental dance music in and of itself, which was performed by barroom piano players, small combos in nightclubs, and larger "syncopated" orchestras holding forth in dance halls, theaters, and, occasionally, the concert hall.10

As jazz became part of the American "culture industry"—that is, the commodified conglomeration of leisure practices and entertainments developing alongside the Fordist system of mass industrial production in the United States—it was soon vested with a variety of often-contradictory meanings.11 In African American urban society, this hybrid art form served as a vehicle for community building and cultural identification. The growth of black entertainment districts in urban centers and the booming markets for player pianos, sheet music, records, and then radio expanded jazz's communal function in black communities and augmented its capital as a symbol of racial solidarity. During the 1920s, one of the traditional proletarian functions of black secular music was extended to middle-class audiences, when working-class and middle-class African Americans forged a sense of collective identity as they gathered in nightclubs, theaters, and dance halls (as well as at rent parties in private homes) to reclaim their bodies as instruments of pleasure after a day's labor and affirm communal bonds in the face of a racist society.12

The marketing of cultural commodities to black consumers augmented such feelings of racial community. By the early 1920s, both white and black entrepreneurs appealed to racial pride and authenticity as they marketed sheet music and phonograph records to black consumers. This was quite evident in the advertising and popularity of "race records," a phenomenon that began in 1920 with Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here for You" and by 1923 included instrumental dance music.13 The ability of the music to inspire racial solidarity was not lost on black nationalist political organizations. During the 1920s, the leftist African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) and Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) sponsored jazz and blues performances as a means of galvanizing support for their causes. Yet, in spite of its ability to draw people together, jazz could also serve as a vehicle for class distinction. Urban reformers, religious-minded folk, and certain members of the African American middle class frowned upon jazz and blues in general; others appreciated the tony dance music of a Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson but eschewed the frenetic polyphony and blues tonalities of a small combo from New Orleans. 14

Further complicating jazz's organic function in black communities was the fact that it was only one of a variety of musical products being marketed to these communities. In newspapers with working-class and middle-class readerships, advertisements for music shops, record companies, and sheet music suggest that African American consumers maintained a diverse musical sensibility in the early 1920s. People in Harlem and Chicago increasingly listened to jazz and blues after the advent of race records, but they also still enjoyed everything from Tin Pan Alley novelties to spirituals to light classical and operatic numbers to comedic minstrel tunes to marches.15 Urban black folk at large listened to an array of popular music, reflecting an interest in their vernacular music as well as their entry into a rapidly expanding American popular culture. Jazz and blues appealed to at least some working-class and middle-class people and were viewed as symbols of black achievement, as the appeal to racial pride in record company advertisements and newspaper coverage makes clear. Yet many urban African Americans also wanted the right to participate in American culture on their own terms, which could mean listening to music outside these genres. In a context where, as William Kenney notes, the production and marketing of race records were directly related to stereotypes about black behaviors and musical tastes, musical "authenticity" also symbolized the restrictions that segregation and racism had imposed on African American life.16

Perhaps most important in making jazz a "paradox," at least in the eyes of African American intellectuals, was the impact of white consumers and white musicians on the development and reception of this music. Not only was jazz clearly a hybrid art form in terms of its musical components, but it soon inhabited a complicated position vis-à-vis its multiple audiences and practitioners. Although rooted in African American society, jazz quickly found itself at the center of American popular music and the subject of a volatile debate. Whites had long viewed African American secular music with a combination of fear and fascination, and this continued in their reactions to jazz, which they celebrated and condemned for similar reasons.

According to Lawrence Levine, jazz developed during a period when Americans were redefining their ideas about "culture." Jazz was "almost completely out of phase" with a late-nineteenth-century concept of culture that was synonymous with "refinement." The participatory qualities of the music and the exchange between performer and audience, as well as the blurring of the distinction between composer and interpreter, threatened the aura of a "highbrow" musical culture based in European concert practices. The threat was also rooted in race. Levine points out that the very ideas of "highbrow" and "lowbrow," which entered common parlance at the turn of the century, originated in nineteenth-century phrenology. Highbrow culture, then, was often coded or explicitly defined as white or Anglo-Saxon.17

Jazz received a fair amount of negative press in the late 1910s and then became the object of a moral panic during the 1920s. Some whites feared jazz because it was rooted in black culture, because it played a role in facilitating interracial contact, and because it symbolized, in racially coded terms, the intrusion of popular tastes into the national culture. Such responses to the music should be understood both in the cultural context discussed by Levine and in relation to the rapid changes in American life in the wake of World War I. Not only were African Americans becoming more visible members of American urban society, as a result of the Great Migration, but they were becoming more vocal in their political demands as well. Moreover, the success of Jews and other white ethnics in the genre made it symbolic of the influx of immigrants into WASP communities. Jazz rhythms also seemed to represent an unwelcome mechanization or speeding up of modern life, along with accompanying alienation and neuroses.18

Much of the outcry over jazz had to do with sex. The rhythmic qualities of jazz, the participatory elements of its performance, and the physical aspects of the dancing associated with it spoke of unrestrained sexual energies, which had long been projected onto black bodies by Europeans and white Americans. At a moment when many young people (and young women in particular) were throwing off the constraints of Victorian sexual mores, anxieties over white juvenile sexuality dovetailed with fears of black sexuality and, especially, of the impact black culture might have on the sexual behavior of young whites. Nevertheless, many whites embraced jazz as they sought refuge from Victorian restrictions, a manifestation of the way jazz quickly became a vehicle for challenging cultural norms.

Even if the majority of cultural gatekeepers condemned or were ambivalent about jazz in the 1920s, some whites, whether they simply liked the music or were influenced by Freudian ideas about repressed libidos or a liberal egalitarianism, embraced African American music as they rejected the constraints of Victorian culture and challenged an elitist Anglo-Saxonism. Many of the most enthusiastic responses to jazz and blues were colored by a primitivist belief that black people possessed a vital quality that was missing from rational, "civilized" European American culture and society. Still other observers saw in jazz, and in African American vernacular music in general, the potential for a homegrown American musical expression that might challenge the supposed superiority of European music. Whatever their reasons, white fans bought race records, flocked to black Broadway productions such as Shuffle Along, and explored black entertainment districts in various urban areas for a taste of "authentic" expression. Jazz also became the basis of a white youth subculture, in which fans and musicians alike rebelled against the banality of their Babbittish, middle-class backgrounds or against the provincialism of their immigrant parents by developing an affinity for black music and musicians. 19

The popularity of jazz with white audiences validated the work of African American musicians and aestheticians and eventually called into question the distance between elite and popular culture. Yet this visibility was a mixed blessing. White audiences often insisted that black music conform to their primitivist and stereotypical demands, as the common references to plantation life and African jungles in nightclub names, costumes, staging, and composition titles make clear. The culture industry played a contradictory role by sometimes making jazz visible as a black cultural form, while at other moments erasing black contributions to the genre. The music industry, in particular, did a much better job producing music performed by white musicians. In the 1920s, race records aside, many white fans probably knew jazz only through the work of white musicians. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), for example, a white ensemble from New Orleans, made the first jazz recordings in 1917 and soon inspired an array of imitators, many of whom emphasized the humorous potential of the new music in novelty tunes. Among the biggest acts in the early 1920s were Ted Lewis, Paul Whiteman, Eddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker.20 Some white musicians took it upon themselves to distance jazz from its African American origins as a means of popularizing the music or securing more prestige for it. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, for example, the self-professed "King of Jazz," attempted to make jazz more respectable by constraining its syncopated rhythms and tonal embellishments and fusing it with popular song and classical music. He presented what was billed as the first jazz concert at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924. He traced the development of jazz from the ODJB's "Livery Stable Blues" through George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (he actually ended the concert with a version of "Pomp and Circumstance") in an attempt to demonstrate the music's development from its humble roots to its concert hall possibilities. Whiteman paid scant attention to the role of African Americans in the development of jazz, describing the music in a press release for the concert as an art form "which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular."21

Jazz and New Negroes

In the late 1910s and 1920s, African American intellectuals tried to make sense of the liberating power of jazz, its role in black communities, and its position as a commodity in a broader American society. Although references to jazz and blues abound in Harlem Renaissance fiction and visual art, critical commentary on the music is relatively sparse. Some have argued that the dearth of celebratory, critical writings on jazz and blues reflects the elite class and educational backgrounds of New Negro intellectuals, as well their inability to speak to the African American working class. 22 Thinkers such as Du Bois and Alain Locke, at least in the 1920s, turned more of their attention to spirituals and especially to the "elevation" of this music to the concert stage. Even those who did write about jazz and blues often maintained a belief in a "two-tiered mastery," viewing jazz and blues as stepping stones to more sophisticated expressions.

Although the highbrow cultural tastes of many of the leading lights in the African American community must be recognized—even Marcus Garvey was said to prefer classical music—this dearth of writing and the ambivalent attitudes about jazz were at least in part a product of the paradoxical position of this music in American society. Some black intellectuals embraced an early-century modernist aesthetic sensibility, which, influenced by Boasian cultural relativism, diminished the distance between "fine art" and "folk art" but positioned both as superior to mass-produced culture.23 Thus the disdain for jazz was sometimes less a rejection of working-class culture per se than of the music's status as a commodity. Additionally, as discussed earlier, the culture industry tended to erase the accomplishments of black musicians or to reproduce racist stereotypes when marketing their work. In other words, jazz was simply difficult to celebrate as an important African American cultural expression for much of the 1920s because of its status as a popular music. Not only was it seen as less artistically "authentic" than spirituals, but it was also clear that whites controlled the music industry, were highly visible as practitioners, and as an audience demanded that black artists conform to their expectations. Similar tensions are evident in those writers who celebrated jazz and other commercial forms of music. And it is their work that raised a number of important questions regarding the paradoxical position of jazz in African American and American society as well as some of the contradictions inherent in a cultural politics that sought to promote a commodified black expression in order to prove African American worth in a society structured by racism.

Author, composer, diplomat, and field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), James Weldon Johnson devoted much of his energy during the 1910s and 1920s to promoting black culture. Like Du Bois, he attempted to subvert racist thinking and social exclusion by placing black people and black folk art at the center of American life and culture. In the preface to his 1922 collection The Book of Negro American Poetry, Johnson argued that racist ideology could be challenged through intellectual and artistic work: "The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art." African Americans could succeed in this enterprise because they possessed, in his words, "the emotional endowment, the originality and artistic conception, and, what is more important, the power of creating that which has universal appeal and influence."24

Johnson's primary concern was the cultivation of African American poetry, but he believed music already displayed this "power of creating." Johnson did not mention the term "jazz" in his preface, but he did discuss spirituals, dancing, ragtime, and the blues as African American achievements. Adhering to the logic of primitivism, he described ragtime as a black contribution to American life that "jes' grew" out of "natural musical instinct and talent" and "the Negro's extraordinary sense of rhythm." The latest wave of "jes' grew" music was the blues: an expression of a national spirit, an object with "universal appeal," and a product of African Americans' "remarkable racial gift of adaptability" and of the "transfusive quality" of their art.25

Johnson's analysis of African American music took into account its status as a product of the culture industry. On the one hand, its popularization might extend i