Did Everyone Like Jazz?

LP Album Cover. Rhapsody in Blue: the 1925 Piano Roll, Michael Tilson Thomas, Columbia Records, 1976.

One of the most notable compositions that comes to mind when ruminating on symphonicjazz is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924). Listen Here. In thanks largely to Paul Whiteman’s clever marketing as an “Experiment in Modern Music” and its premiere performance in a well-known venue, the Aeolian Hall, the piece was largely well-received by audiences and critics.1 Much of the praise for Gershwin’s work was that it encompassed what American’s wanted out of distinctly “American Music.” As Crawford points out, it encompassed three strands of development: blues as popular music, the spread of instrumental jazz, and a want for modernism in the classical sphere.2

As we’ve discussed in class, the perception of Gershwin’s music as uniquely American can be troublesome because to some it seeks to exploit and adjust music of cultures aside from Gershwin’s own for the profit of symphonic tastes. As Crawford also points out, it was certainly not the first to present black dance music or jazz in concert settings although many think it to be so simply because the previous works by composers like Will Marion Cook or W.C. Handy are less well known simply because of their minority in that era’s society.3

Manitou Messenger, Feb. 14, 1933.

A story that’s less-often told is that some people really did not enjoy “Rhapsody in Blue” or jazz elements in general. When exploring writings on jazz, I came across an article from our very own campus paper, The Manitou Messenger. Interestingly, an article from 1933, nine years after the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” conveyed stern opposition to jazz band at St. Olaf saying “jazz is profanity in music.”4

“Many…students who aspire to and cherish the higher things in life despise this type of music.”5

Is this negative reception of jazz a sign of the times at St. Olaf in the 1930s? It seems pretty forthright, which at first lead me to think there was room for anti-jazz, conservative thinking on campus at the time. However, in the publication later that month, another student wrote an opinion article which countered that the former article “was of very little consequence” and “hardly worthy of a serious reply.”6 This author claimed that this jazz band nay-sayer was fueling the fire that the college was attempting to paint itself as heavily religious.

Manitou Messenger, Feb. 28, 1933.

“Why be afraid to admit St. Olaf is not a monastery?”7

Interestingly, both authors simply signed their articles with their first initial leaving some room for anonymity. Although we don’t know who these students sharing their opinions were, what they were studying, or where they are now, we do know that responses to jazz were not all in loving favor.

1 Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 573.

The 20s and 30s: Dance bands not welcome at St. Olaf

Vinyls: “Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 20s and 30s”

As I sifted through the LPs in the Music Library’s vinyl collection, I was particularly drawn to a section on big bands. The two LPs that piqued my interest the most did not catch my eye because of their cover art, but rather their titles; “SWEET AND LOW BLUES: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 20s,” and “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s.” My first thoughts upon seeing these records were: 1. I know a little about big bands, right? and 2. What is a territory band?

“Jammin’ for the Jackpot”

These two vinyls are collections of popular territory band recordings from the 20s and 30, and inside each of them are extensive and informative essays on the history of territory/big bands. Today we are more familiar with the term big bands, but at the time these ensembles were called territory bands. Territory bands were regional dance bands in the Midwest, south, and southwestern states. Their principal function was to provide music for ballroom dancing, which was becoming increasingly popular in the 20s and 30s. From roughly the end of World War I until the Great Depression, dance orchestras in the United States grew in number, size, and popularity in response to this call for dance music. However, in the forward to “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s,”J.R. Taylor writes that, during this period,

“Jazz musicians were in frequent creative tension with the dance band industry – exploiting and expanding its musical resources, learning its professional lessons, earning its wages, and chafing under its difficult working conditions and many artistic restrictions.

This complicated relationship existed vice versa as well, because jazz soloists served as a creative source for dance band – the innovative phrasing, rhythms, and “the adaptations and assimilations from classical music,” (Taylor). However, it is important to note that not all territory bands or big bands were strongly jazz oriented – a detail that gets overlooked now as we tend to blend the genres of jazz, big band, and swing (I myself am guilty of making that generalization without thinking.)

Here is a digitized recording of “Madhouse” performed by Earl Hines and His Orchestra —  one of the tracks found on “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s,” so you can hear the style of music I am referencing.

Earl Hines and His Orchestra

By the time the Great Depression hit in the 30s the territory bands were failing to survive, as live music was replaced with the radio, and having a disposable income was no longer an option. While all of this was going on, back at St. Olaf a mysterious “L” was expressing their own opinion on jazz music and dancing in the Manitou Messenger. “L” calls the jazz band “contemptible,” “obnoxious,” and “profanity in music.” The author argues that the jazz band and jazz music do not correspond with the (Christian) spirit of St. Olaf College, and should thus be driven off the hill.

“L” does, however, recognize that jazz music naturally calls us to dance. They even pose the question “Why allow temptations such as this to exist?” if we know it’ll just make us want to get up and start dancing. Remember, dancing was forbidden at St. Olaf during this time. When you search the Manitou Messenger archives for “dancing” during this period it is consistently referred to as “folk-dancing” or “traditional-dancing” or “Norwegian-dancing” – safe forms of dancing that correspond with the mission of the college.

So, there’s quite a contrast between the popularity of ballroom dancing accompanied by touring territory bands in the 20s and 30s, and the nasty portrayal of jazz music and dancing by a student from St. Olaf. All I can do is wonder what “L” would think about our jazz bands and swing club.

Another example of taboo dancing in the Manitou Messenger. Taken from “Growing Pains,” published in 1935.

Sources

  1. “Territory Bands.” Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed.. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/epm/49928.
  2. Bradford Robinson. “Territory band.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J445200.
  3. Marc Rice. “Territory band.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2276655.
  4. Taylor, J.R. Jammin’ for the Jackpot: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s.

Bluer Than Blue: Michael Johnson and Folk Music at St. Olaf

If you search through St. Olaf’s Manitou Messenger, in the 1970s and 1980s, you will notice a trend: St. Olaf College loved folk music, especially the music of Michael Johnson.

He performed on campus in the spring of 1973, on May 11, 1974, on October 24, 1975, and November 20, 1981:

Michael Johnson in 1975.

Playing for large audiences in Skoglund Gymnasium and in the Women’s Gym (now Kelsey Theater), Johnson performed hits from his albums There Is a Breeze and For All You Mad Musicians (the 1975 concert) like the songs “Bluer Than Blue” and “On the Road” (1981 and 1974 concerts, respectively). The popularity of Johnson was perhaps his ability to not only perform ballads/love songs and classic folk tunes, but also jazz and classical arrangements (and rearrangements) of his own and other peoples’ music.

That’s not to say everyone desired to hear a variety of music when Johnson came to town. In 1981, Johnson shared a concert with Simon and Bard, a fusion jazz group (many people left at 10pm when the band began their set). As the Manitou Messenger article from that event relates, that whole night was a fiasco: the doors opened 30 minutes late, Eastern Airlines sent Johnson’s guitar to Atlanta, and, the greatest crime of all, Simon and Bard was supposed to play first, but instead, Johnson opened. Many diehard Michael Johnson fans arrived late only to hear the end of Johnson’s set and the entire Simon and Bard set. Oops.

Michael Johnson in 1981.

St. Olaf’s affinity for Michael Johnson and his folk music showed the college’s continued participation in the folk revival, which began in the 1940s, peaked in the 1960s, and after that began to lose steam in the face of the British Invasion and the rise of rock. It also demonstrates the tastes of Oles, perhaps the unchanging tastes of Oles: to this day, one of the most-discussed concerts is Ingrid Michaelson’s visit to St. Olaf in 2012 (Michaelson is a singer-songwriter especially associated with the indie pop/folk movement).

Folk music in general has a strong following at St. Olaf. It could be the hipster-ish aspect of campus and folk music (“Have you heard of this person? They’re SO refreshing”) or maybe it’s the more rural origins of most of our students. Whatever the reason, in both the 1970s and the 2010s, folk music is alive and well at St. Olaf College.


“Calendar: Coming.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), April 26, 1974.

Lemke, Brenda. “Johnson steps up slow start.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), December 3, 1981.

Schrader, Beth. “Johnson and Johnson, pigskins and alumni.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), October 24, 1975.

Popular Music at the Pause circa 1977

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For many students at St. Olaf, the Pause is a hub for campus activities and a source of music on weekends (I may be biased as an employee…).  Obviously the genres of popular music have changed, but so has the culture and environment of the room in which we choose to listen to music.  Searching through old Mess articles show just how differently students spend their free time.

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Article about the opening of the New Pause 1977

 

Currently, the Pause is a big concrete box of sharp angles and harsh corners.  It just screams “nightclub,” in its vibe, and as every tour guide can tell you, it was modeled after the Minneapolis venue, First Avenue.  Events in the space owe their success to the intelligent lights that spin, strobes placed behind the drum risers, huge powerful subwoofers, black lights illuminating the pit, and blinder lights that yes, blind the audience.  In short, very flashy lights and loud sound are used best with DJs and for large dramatic concerts–the recent Betty Who, Matt and Kim, or Hoodie Allen.

But the old Pause was completely different.  Located in the basement of Ytterboe, it was nicknamed a “Hobbit Hole” due to its small entrance and hidden feel.  Articles written when the old Pause was the new Pause say that “the atmosphere of the new Pause is still quite Bohemian” (S. Crumb).  Gold candles and a dark wood stage contributed to the coffeehouse vibe–which it indeed was.  No pizza was served, but coffee, cheese and crackers, and yogurt (?!?).  Performances consisted of many folk groups and students covering folk songs.  Hall and Oates, Seal and Crofts, Joan Baez, Loggins and Messina, Cat Stevens–artists who based most of their music around a voice and a guitar, all singer/songwritters.  The folk revival was in full swing.

Kenny Loggins, House at Pooh Corner

Seals and Crofts, Prelude / Windflowers

As a result, Mess articles describe performances in the Pause as “mellow” and “smooth.”  Students looked for more intellectual, introspective entertainment, and the venue responded to them.  Popular music can totally define architecture and design of a space. Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.17.48 PM Sources:

Muss, Solveig, “Mellow on Friday at the Pause.” From The Manitou Messenger:  Volume 093, Issue 007, 08 Nov, 1979.  Accessed 4/21/15.  https://contentdm.stolaf.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/mess&CISOPTR=17652&REC=20

S. Crumb, “Grand Opening of New Lion’s Pause.”  From The Manitou Messenger:  Volume 091, Issue 003, 29 Sept. 1977.  Accessed 4/21/15.

It’s Musical Theater! So it’s ok… right?

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.41.47 PMThis week we have the great opportunity to delve into the history of our community at St. Olaf by looking through the well preserved archives of the college’s student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger. The “Mess” as it is often referred to by current students captures events on campus and student news ranging from academia to athletics and yes, music. From our class discussion on American musical theater, I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of our theater department and it’s musical productions and my search yielded an article about the St. Olaf performance of Gypsy in 1987.

gypsy merm Gypsy, a 1959 musical with book written by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, andlyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-1970). Rose Lee was an entertainer who specialized in burlesque, a style of dramatization intended to cause laughter.  The musical centers of Gypsy’s mother who attempts to turn one of her daughters into a Vaudville star.  Rose, Gypsy’s mother, eventually convinces her younger daughter Louise to do a striptease on stage which catapults her into fame. Louise soon becomes known as “Gypsy Rose Lee” and eventually rejects her mother’s assistance in her ascent to stardom.

Our course this semester we have talked about a wide array of political and societal issues concerning American music and musical theater is no exception. Setting a story to music and then putting that story on stage adds multiple layers for contention.  Women in music has been a common point of interest for the course and Gypsy puts a controversial topic at center stage. Director Patrick Quade stated that “the production has accepted the responsibility of trying to avoid offending people” when asked about the musical’s touchy subject. The arts often provide the opportunity to push the envelope and Quade certainly took that opportunity.  My favorite quotation from Professor Quade addresses the controversy directly as he states: “why are we doing a play that treats women as sexual objects?… This aspect of the musical is part of American history, and you don’t wipe out history.” For Patrick Quade, the purpose of putting on a production of the musical Gypsy was not to spark an uproar, but to spark a conversation. Examining musical theater and the progression of musicals as a form of entertainment provides a hefty amount of insight into not only the musical style of the time period, but also the issues of the era. These conflicts are preserved though the musical work and provide the unique opportunity to serve as entertainment and as an educational tool with each production.

References

Brown, Dave. “Musical Comedy “Gypsy” Opens Thursday.” Manitou Messenger, November 6, 1987, Lifestyle/Arts sec. Accessed April 21, 2015.

Live from the hill: KSTO’s second wave

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How did students get their news in the 1960s? The Manitou Messenger was the main source, but events were also broadcast through KSTO, the radio station which went through several ups and downs in the past 60 years, and which now occupies the 93.1 air wave. Acting as KSTO’s assistant manager has led to my interest in the station’s history. What were the goals of the original staff, and what kind of music was broadcast? Putting together a more comprehensive history than our blog’s page is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and the Manitou Messenger seemed like a logical and reliable source. I tracked the first few years of KSTO’s history through Mess articles, and surprisingly, I found more information about the station’s managerial past than the musical catalogue. Ultimately, I found that the music and news came from the hill more than the Great Beyond. But still, culture and drama ensue! Read all about it:

KSTO’s official “History” page states that the station began broadcasting in 1957, beginning each day with “Fram! Fram! St. Olaf” and ending with “A Mighty Fortress.” The Mess began its coverage of KSTO in 1959, writing about the grand reopening of the station (songs played during the first day included selections by the Kingston Trio, the St. Olaf Choir, and “a smattering of mood music interspersed with Broadway show hits”). The paper reported that “Plans…provide for regular news broadcastings which will include information of scheduled Hill activities and side lights.”

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Early broadcasts kept students posted on campus activities, but “music of the type conducive to study” was played during evenings from 6-10 pm. The radio station occasionally advertised their events in a small box entitled the “KSTO Korner” (this only stuck around for a few years, maybe due to the unfortunate name that can only be attributed to the happy-go-lucky, “gee whiz!” tone of the 50s-era Mess). What we learn, however, is that KSTO supported live campus talent through its show “The Dessert Inn”–we can only assume that some of the campus talent involved music.

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KSTO underwent more changes in the early 1960s, installing a Current Carrier system that connected the station to the student dorms. Reports from the 60s are pretty sparing, although KSTO’s history page notes that the station had a weekly publication of top ten hits at the time. Large events in KSTO’s history–most notably a fire in 1970 that destroyed $3,000 worth of equipment–went unreported, but we know that debates and school sporting events were broadcast across campus.

KSTO has evolved significantly from its 1959 iteration, but there are still some similarities between the new and old station. There were budget proposals (despite the fact that the 1960 request of $125 is a far cry from our current budget), shows with student discussions, and a regular programming schedule. Interestingly enough, some of our current goals for the station–more campus involvement, a bigger focus on news, and field reporting from live events–resemble the focus back in the day. And luckily for us, the station’s connection with the Manitou Messenger is stronger now, with the paper reporting on upcoming concerts and publishing the station’s schedule every semester. We’d like to continue that partnership–even though we could potentially nix the impassioned editorials.

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Sources:

“History.” KSTO 93.1 FM. Accessed April 20, 2015. https://pages.stolaf.edu/ksto/about-ksto/history/.

“Thursday Night Marks Grand Opening; Return of KSTO Station to Campus Radio.” Manitou Messenger, May 1, 1959. Accessed April 20, 2015. https://contentdm.stolaf.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/mess&CISOPTR=12656&REC=3.

Dames at Sea? All Aboard!

During class last week, we focused on musical theater in the United States and its “American-ness.”  I thought it would be a fun adventure to dig through some of our musical theater history at St. Olaf.  Below is an article from April of 1980 in the St. Olaf school newspaper Manitou Messenger.

manitou messenger pic

It caught my eye when I read the title of the musical and it was Dames at Sea.  It is, indeed, a rags-to-riches story about a variety of women actresses, or the “dames” in the musical.  The director of the show, mentioned here as Margerum, refers to its patriotism as a story resembles the idea of the American dream.  Margerum also points out the coincidence of picking this play before “all of the war news came out,” and I’m assuming he’s speaking about the Cold War.

However, what I found to be the most exciting about this news page was the role of women in theater, and how both articles offered different viewpoints on the subject.  Although the Dames at Sea story has very stereotypical love triangle (or hexagon) theme, the women are the centerpiece of the story, and provide the vessel through which the American dream is fulfilled.  The article directly below this, however, offers a different view on feminism, sponsoring a theater production revolving around a woman and her “survival of the brutal sixteenth-century frontier.”

I guess I just find some pride that even in 1980 the St. Olaf community was fighting for feminism.  Some people think of the Women’s Rights movement as something that happened in the late 1800’s with women’s suffrage, and then is continued today in modern feminism.  However, just 4 years before this article in The Manitou Messenger was published, it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife.  In 1978, just two years before this article, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, forbidding employers to discriminate hiring, firing, or forced leave based on women’s pregnancy.  Those laws were found on a women’s rights timeline site found here and the rest of the timeline can be viewed if you like.  There are many more in different encyclopedias and on the web, too! With that being said, it looks like St. Olaf was just following in the footsteps of years before, continuing to keep feminism in discussion among the St. Olaf community, and I’m glad this tradition has continued.