Sexism in 1940s Night Clubs

Screen Shot from March of Time “Night Club Boom”

 

 

 

 

 

 

March of Time, in 1946, did a feature on the boom in night clubs in the United States. For relevant numbers, March of Time cites that there were 70,000 nightspots in the U.S. is 1946. In the central hub of night clubs in the 40’s, New York was home to several thousand of that number.

Clearly nightclubs were prevalent in society, so the roles that employees took in such spaces may reasonably reflect the standard across the U.S. at that time. It is incredibly striking how much March of Time emphasizes the various important role’s that females play in nightclubs. However, is is equally disappointing to see the women constantly referred to as objects for monetary gain.

The documentary starts by describing the various jobs at a nightclub. Once the narration moves past the roll of the door-man, they come to the job of the coatroom or “checkroom girls.” The narration describes that

In most clubs, the checkroom girls are hired at a fixed salary by an outside concessionaire. He picks them for the kind of personality that will attract tips and everything they collect goes into their employer’s box, which is securely locked.

The rhetoric implies a distrust to these girls, and emphasizes that their social interactions are strictly for monetary gain. Certainly, it would not have hindered the narration to indicate the useful service that these women provided for the nightclub.

In contrast to these women, the head waiter does not need to put his money in a lockbox to give to the employer. Rather, the head waiter is seen dealing with thrifty costumers by putting them at poor tables until they tip him generously. On screen, the costumer is seen giving the head waiter a $5 bill to change seats. This was drawn in direct opposition to the checkroom girls who received a half-dollar and needed to put it in a check box immediately.

This March of Time documentary short was meant as an education tool for those who did not go to nightclubs to understand their “social order.” The depictions in this documentary continue to label the women in the nightclub business as objects to be examined and payed according to their visual aesthetic while labeling the men in the nightclub business as individuals who grant a service. This, of course, reflects the social attitudes of mid 20th century America. Nevertheless, it is valuable to examine and take note of such subjugating examples because patriarchal attitudes certainly have not died out by the year 2017.

The value of this documentary short, specifically for american music, is its emphasis on nightclub culture. In the postwar era, genres such as bebop was born in late night club sessions (after the patrons would leave), but most of the music being played was dance music. The music itself is mentioned a number of times as an important key to success for any nightclub, but the individual musicians are never mentioned.  This attitude toward musicians views them as providing a function service (much as how the checkroom girls are presented). These social situations are what provided the motivation for beboppers to focus their music on their own personalities.

One of the most prevalent clubs in Harlem was the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played frequently. Although Duke was not mentioned in the video, his music was played throughout. Therefore, I have left a song here for you to enjoy.

 

Works Cited

Night Club Boom

in March of Time, Volume 12, Episode 8 (New York, NY: Home Box Office, 1946, originally published 1946), 21 mins 

Upbeat in Music

In a democracy at war, the cultural values of a young and vigorous nation can and must be preserved.

The closing lines of Upbeat in Music echo the rising nationalist sentiment that permeated America in the 1940s. This film, originally premiered in 1943 catalogues the musical year. And if one quote can sum up America’s musical life in the middle of World War II, it is certainly the one listed above. Upbeat in Music is a short documentary  put together by newsreel makers, the March of Time. This year, 1943, in particular is compelling. America was in the middle of World War II and the nation’s sole preoccupation was establishing a strong national identity. Music was not spared from this endeavor. In fact, music is perhaps one of the great definers on American musical identity. This short film while attempting to discuss only 1943 ended up encapsulating the spirit of American Music as a whole in a few key ways.

Committee determining “Hit-Kit” songs

First, the entire film is preoccupied with the definition of “American” sound. To be fair, the film was made during a time of increasing nationalist fervor. World War II was in full swing and music was not be be exempt from the military industrial complex.  In fact, the film points out throughout WWII the US Government printed in “hit kits” (books of five American songs and one song by an Allied Nation) that would be given to soldiers in the field. What got to go inside of the hit-kits was hotly contested. So much so that the government formed Music Committees of msuicians and impresarios like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Paul Whiteman to determine which pieces of music were “American” enough to be included. At this crucial time in history, it became incredibly important that America establish a cohesive musical identity. And the most American way to establsih and American musical identity is certainly through the formation of a government committee.

Even after the reel moves on from talking about World War 2, it continues to emphasize a true “American” sound. The reel describes the efforts of American composers to create Americna works, referring to the compositions of Duke Ellington, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland. Later, the video goes on to describe the way the Jukebox is changing the music industry and discusses the way musicians are struggling to maintain credit for (and therefore profit from) their work. This struggle reflects a another aspect of American music as a whole: the duality of the musician both as an artist and businessperson. The film spends a great deal of time talking about Serge Koussevitsky and the BSO and acknowledging the Metropolitan Opera and several large symphony orchestras as both important business and important artistic forces.

The last section of the film focused heavily on popular music, pointing out that the American musical landscape is predominantly molded by the desires of a white, middle class market. This too is present throughout all of American music hisotry, the idea of capitalism and music coinciding. The presence of these sentiments from a documentary in the 1940s only proves that markets for music have been driving forces behind musical development in America long before the new millenium.

The film discusses the growing importance of jazz and recognizes the importance of Marion Anderson‘s recordings of spirituals as well, only briefly touching on the subject. While the film does discuss composers like Duke Ellington and performers like Anderson, it is also important to not the racist overtones that permeate the work. Nearly every person in the film is white, and when Ellington was brought up, through praised for his work in jazz, he was contrasted against “serious” composers like Copland and Thomson. Paul Whiteman was considered to be the standard bearer for jazz when it came to determining what should go into the “hit-kits” rather than someone like Duke Ellington who had a great deal of experience in the subject. In fact, no person of color was allowed on the “hit-kits” committee. As I said earlier, this film succeeds in painting a complete picture of American music history, and that history includes racism.

The film closes with the patriotic images of young soldiers giving recitals and the reminder that “In a democracy at war, the cultural values of a young and vigorous nation can and must be preserved”. For a nation at war, the preservation and definition of musical culture was of utmost importance. Upbeat in Music serves both as a time capsule and as an example of the major themes in American musical history. It is an invaluable insight into the ways music interacts with politics, culture, and economics as well as the way we talk about and research music.

 

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

March of Time Archive

 

Cows, Colleges, and Duke Ellington?

 

Duke Ellington at Carleton

Duke Ellington (born Edward Kennedy) became a prominent jazz musician throughout the mid 20th century. His name has become synonymous with jazz throughout households in the United States of America. As many jazz musicians, Duke Ellington toured across the United States with his orchestra playing the repertoire that would make the most money. In 1957, this orchestra and the esteemed composer himself made a visit to Carleton College on November 5th. And, in the tradition of great school newspapers, the Manitou Messenger advertised the concert. However, as intriguing as this article was, a little deeper digging revealed a more interesting resource: an article reviewing the concert from the Carletonian. To be fair, the Manitou Mess certainly wasn’t skimping on their coverage: the concert took place at Carleton, so it only makes sense for the more substantial review of the concert to appear in the Carletonian. The intriguing part of the article is the student’s opinion of the concert. The reviewer says that Ellington “proved once again, in Skinner memorial chapel, Tuesday night, that he is still one of the very best jazzmen around, with one of the very best bands.” The author goes on to praise Ellington’s jazz ability, but later in the article notes that despite Ellington’s status as a premier jazz musician, the concert was not “consistently good from a strictly musical standpoint”. The reviewer explains that the audiences more “sensitive ears” would have been repelled by the “exhibitionism” offered by some of the jazz soloists. Below is a recording of one of the pieces that were played at the concert:


As is often true of historical sources, this opinion on Ellington’s orchestra tells us more about the reviewer than the music itself. Duke Ellington’s career was on the decline by this point in the 1950s. He was focusing on writing sacred music and toured playing his most popular pieces. The author of the article points out that Ellington mainly played works that the audience knew and refers to Ellington as an “institution”. Even though the concert may not have been as musically perfect as the audience expected, they still knew that Ellington was an important part of history. Already, just a few decades into his career, Duke Ellington was a sacred relic.

Record titled “Jazz in the 1920s”

This quick institutionalization of jazz figures is also reflected in the records of the time. While searching through the St. Olaf Halvorson Music Library for records of Ellington’s made around the late 1950s, I found it difficult to find a single record of Ellington’s music alone. The early solo record of his on file is from the 1970s. One record I did find from around the time was part of a Library of Congress series on Jazz music. Ellington appeared once on the record. It seems as if the effort to collect jazz and codify it as a genre began at the same time as the art form itself. This tradition of feeling a need to preserve and codify art forms like jazz was passed down from Blues collectors who also felt a need to define their genre. These two artifacts, in particular, illustrate the incredible spread and popularity of jazz throughout the country. However, they also represent the way white audiences controlled what music became popular and marketable, as well as the way jazz musicians’ careers depended on the benevolence of a fickle American public.

Mostly, however, I chose to write about this particular Manitou Messenger article because Duke Ellington came to Northfield, and Carleton didn’t like it. What a story.

Sources

Hodeir, André and Gunther Schuller“Ellington, Duke.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 30, 2017http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/08731.

Manitou Messenger Archive

Carletonian Archive

MPR Article on Ellington’s Sacred Music

Mingus’ Epitaph: Jazz or Classical?

Many people write epitaphs, either for themselves or in honor of the death of another person. They are usually short texts meant to be inscribed on tombstones. Rarely does someone write a jazz composition that is over 4000 measures long and takes more than two hours to perform for their epitaph. To my knowledge, Charles Mingus has been the only person to create a jazz piece of such epic proportions.

Attempting to record the piece for the first time, however, was fraught with problems from the beginning. First developed in 1962, Mingus conceived this project as a “live workshop” with a big band for newly composed music. The plan was for him to write the music and record it with a live audience at The Town Hall in New York City. Thanks to United Artists Records, the deadline for the music was rescheduled five weeks earlier than originally planned. Mingus not only pushed himself to the limit, but the musicians as well, unleashing his notorious wrath upon them if he was not satisfied. As a result, the musicians were tense and fearful and the music was still being passed around during the live show. The Town Hall concert was so disastrous that Mingus never looked at the score again for the rest of his life.

In 1988, almost 10 years after his death, musicologist Andrew Homzy discovered the four foot high score for Epitaph. The first full-length recording was appropriately recorded after Mingus’ death and the 31 piece orchestra was conducted by Gunther Schuller at the Lincoln Center in 1989. Finally, Mingus’ magnum opus was fully realized.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 19.56.07

[1]

The importance of this work could not be understated. As a review from the New Yorker stated, “It marks the first advance in the composition of large-scale jazz works since Duke Ellington’s 1943 Black, Brown and Beige” [2]. Even more than 50 years after its completion, the piece still stands certainly as one of Mingus’ most difficult works. However, it is difficult to classify it as predominantly jazz or classical. Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are considered jazz symphonies, primarily classical compositions with jazz influences. Epitaph transcends this and becomes an integration of the jazz and classical forms rather than a work that contains influences of the other. As The Boston Phoenix appropriately states, “It’s uncategorizable. It has nothing to do anymore with ‘jazz’ or ‘classical’ music, or anything. It’s just Mingus” [3].


1. “NPR Presents Charles Mingus’ ‘Epitaph.'” Chicago Metro News, Sept. 30, 1989. http://www.infoweb.newsbank.com (Accessed April 6).
2. Balliett, Whitney. “Jazz: Mingus Regained.” The New Yorker, August 21, 1989. http://mingusmingusmingus.com/mingus-bands/epitaph (Accessed April 6).
3. The Boston Phoenix. http://mingusmingusmingus.com/mingus-bands/epitaph (Accessed April 6.)

Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

Count Basie, a famed jazz pianist and jazz orchestra leader, wrote a tune called “A Study in Brown.” It sounds like the average big band tune, with ample time for piano solos. We can only make inferences about Basie’s reason for that title and tune, such as the fact that jazz’s roots are in improvisation styles popular in African American bands of New Orleans, African rhythms, and the blues. When Duke Ellington wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943, the connections and program were more obvious because places in the music clearly imitated the sound of hammers, African American spirituals, and included some lyrics. Listen to how “A Study in Brown” is more elusive to a statement like Ellington’s.[1] 

While the song was not Basie’s most popular and the intent behind Basie’s song is unknown, a few people have covered it. Below is a recording of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra in a recording from 1945. Notice, how the sound is smoother, less swung (except for the solo), and slower. Besides being a primarily white group, does the performance add another layer of meaning to the song? [2]

Furthermore, The Manhattan Transfer has made it popular by adding these lyrics.

[Intro:]
Picture this: Rhythm n’ happiness
Souls in bliss ‘n havin’ fun
(Oh no)
If you can’t there’s nothin’ to it
(Oh no)
I’m thinkin’ I have t’ paint you one

[Verse:]
I’m gonna paint a sepia panorama
So full of life the painting will come alive
Bathed in blues ‘n full of drama
An’ all the swing they needed so they’d survive
I’ll add some tans an’ yellow ocher
Such soul! So full of rhythm
An’ then some orange t’ tone up the black a bit
My goal is to be with ’em
Purple haze t’ lull the smoker
What swing! What syncopation
An cherry red t’ loosen the back a bit
That thing captured a nation

An’ then a mere patina of subtle green
Get down with me – you’ll dig my study in brown
To lighten up the purple n’ tone it down
Get down with me – tell about it all over town
A dancing glow to highlight the subtle scene
Get down with me – Dig how I’m paintin’ the town
An’ there you’ll have a study in brown
My study in brown

Well, git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
Well, git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

We’re puttin’ down “A Study In Brown”
Coda: (That’s why we’re callin’ it, “A Study In Brown!”)
Git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
N’ git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

Dig what I mean! It’s in the scene
Guitar solo
What cha’ talkin’ ’bout?
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
That’s my scene rhythm n’dancin’
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
You can add real romancin’
(Yep!)
I’ll come clean,
That’s the way I like it
Why’ start real thin, then put some color in
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Fuschia hues blended with subtones
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Spread them blues, blarin’ trombones
(Yep!)
Paint that scene
Just the way I like it
A dab or two, that’s how to do it.

Why’ talkin’ loud, hope people hear why’
Hey dad! Mama’s gonn git ‘cha soon as you git home!
That’s the ticket
But where’d why’fin’ th’ wicket?

Certainly, this adds a layer of meaning, and perhaps not a good layer….On one hand, performing covers gives the music more recognition and audiences. However, the lines add a meaning that wasn’t present in the original song, with words that insinuate a certain situation that brown is “bathed in blues and full of drama…all the swing they needed so they would survive.” The lyrics are a white perception of a black musical lifestyle, and the instrumentation, primarily vocal imitation of instruments, has a much different sound and connotation than the original. Additionally, as Dai Griffiths says in his chapter on cover songs and identity, when comparing white and black performances of a song we can’t “underestimate the asymmetry of power between black and white.”[3] We have to ask questions of power and exploitation when considering the Clinton and Manhattan Transfer covers of a Count Basie song. So, can covers be valuable? Perhaps we can’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t be allowed, but then how can we add layers of meaning with covers without exploiting/wrongly appropriating? How can we communicate the complexity of covers to the average person who will listen to the Manhattan Transfer cover and not even know Count Basie?

[1] Count Basie, performer, One Note Samba, Recorded May 11, 2009, Synergie OMP, 2009, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/1019835. 

[2] This Is Larry Clinton, Recorded June 1, 2010, Hallmark, 2010, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/li_upc_5050457974817. 

[3] Dai Griffiths, “Cover versions and the sound of identity in motion,” In Popular Music Studies, edited by David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 51-64, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

 

Music is My Mistress

“It’s not unlawful to sing or play any kind of music in the United States of America, no matter how good or bad it sounds. Jazz is based on the sound of our native heritage. It is an American idiom with African roots-a trunk of soul with limbs reaching in every direction, to the frigid North, the exotic East, the miserable, swampy South, and the swinging Wild West.”[1]

IMG_1022

Left- Duke Ellington’s autobiography; Right- Mercer Ellington’s memoir of his father

This passage from Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is my Mistress, hints at his plain writing style and his lifetime success in jazz. Ellington wrote his biography for the celebration of his 70th birthday in 1973, but its intent is not entirely clear. While he has a few revelations on music, God, and his Sacred conventions, to share, most of the book is spent listing the unique experiences he had and the many people that he worked with or that influenced him, all of whom are described as “good guys.” As Eileen Southern said in her book review in The Black Perspective in Music, “a great deal of essential data is missing…nowhere in the book is a hint of the pain Ellington must have experienced.”[2]

In contrast, his son Mercer Ellington wrote a memoir of his father that painted a much different picture of his life. Perhaps tainted by his experience of not seeing much of his father, Mercer summarizes some of the moments when Ellington was sidelined because of his race, such as when Ellington wrote Black, Beige, and Tan as a parallel and critique to African American history and received a patronizing response from critics or the many moments that Ellington had to prove his bands’ worth in comparison and competition with white jazz bands.

Perhaps the fact that Ellington left out the more bleak and tough moments of his life shows his view on protesting racial issues. Mercer quotes his father, “’I think a statement of social protest in the theater should be made without saying it.’”[3] His piece, Black Beige and Tan, and his 1963 cover of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue have undertones of critique on white appropriation of jazz by the virtuosity, styles, and stories that he implements, but they have to be inferred. Arguably, these conflicting accounts also show Ellington contributing to the white narrative of jazz. Ellington’s success was not only because of his talent as a musician and bandleader, but he did not outwardly fight the racist structures controlling his profession. Since his autobiography was published at a time when Ellington was celebrated by white audiences as a successful American jazz musicians, it makes sense that he chose to leave his African American experience out.

 

[1] Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music is my Mistress, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1973), 436.

[2] Eileen Southern, “Reviewed Work: Music is My Mistress,” The Black Perspective in Music, 2, no. 2 (1974): 211-212.

[3] Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, (Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1978), 94.