JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


As jazz broadened its reach beyond U.S. borders during the ‘30s and ‘40s how did the music and its innovators break down boundaries here at home?

The major boundary that jazz musicians had to break down in the United States - there were two, I would say. One is racial and the other is the idea that since the music was created initially by African Americans that it is somehow a low-born, a music of low-born estate that is whorehouse music - a phrase incidentally that you were still hearing in the '60s and even in the '70s. A lot of, you know, people understood that you had to get through the race thing; Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton as part of his quartet, with the white drummer Gene Krupa, but he did not allow them to sit in the band, that would have been too far out. So they came out as specialty players for the Benny Goodman quartet. But right after that, Artie Shaw hired Roy Eldridge. He agreed only - I'm sorry, he hired Billie Holiday first. And that was a disaster because of racial feelings and he eventually had to let her go.

He later hired Roy Eldridge - before he did though Gene Krupa hired Roy Eldridge and Roy agreed to sit in with Gene's band on one condition: he didn't want to be the guest star, he didn't want to be the hero of the evening. He wanted to sit in the trumpet section. That was a radical moment in American cultural history and Roy never got over it. It was traumatic for him. I mean, he said, "Man, you sit up there, the audience goes crazy, you're so great you're a celebrity on that stage - and then you can't even use the toilet, you can't even walk into the Chinese restaurants where the band - they'd have to bring you food on the bus." He never really got over that, it was a terrible experience. But it was an historic one. And eventually more and more of the bands started to get integrated. But as late as the 1960s, Louis Armstrong was banned from Southern theaters because his band was always integrated. He always insisted on having an integrated band. Uh, so there's that.

Then there were other borders that needed to be broken. The musician's union was completely restricted. Benny Carter was the guy who really broke down the doors there. Benny Carter was such an unbelievable musician and composer that he was able to get into the musician's union, the only black guy in the LA musician's union, writing for movies. But he couldn't put his name on them; he would ghost for more famous composers throughout the '50s. You could always tell when Benny Carter worked on a score because he'd have a bit in the movie. It'd be a scene where Ava Gardner walks into a nightclub and in the background Benny Carter's on stage, [and] Benny worked on the score. He did quite a lot of that but he didn't actually have his name on until the late '50s when he wrote M Squad for television and did a few minor films in the '60s and it actually said "Scored by Benny Carter." And then by that time you had Quincy Jones and a lot of blacks - John Lewis, Miles Davis - working in the system. But it took a long time, we're talking about the '50s and the '60s.

The other thing was, because of the incredible sophistication of a man like Benny Carter, of a man like Duke Ellington, of a man like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, it's very difficult to get away with saying that this was some kind a low-born music. They just didn't look the part. And especially when the Modern Jazz Quartet came along - and, you know, even in the big bands, Jimmy Lunceford, they all had band uniforms. I mean they looked incredible up there . . . and so the prejudices began to wear away. One of the signal moments incidentally from the early 1930s: Rudi Vallee - nothing to do with jazz - huge star though in America and he had his own radio show that was broadcast by Fleischman's Yeast and he was taken over for a few months and he insisted that he be replaced by Louis Armstrong, and Fleischman's Yeast - to its ever- lasting credit - not only went with it but they really publicized it, and this was the first time a black guy had ever been broadcast as a star of network radio. And it's only in the last couple of years that the Fleischman-Armstrong broadcasts have been discovered and released on CD. And they're incredible.

So, you know, each one of those doors. Bing Crosby, huge star, one of the things Paramount would not let him do for the first couple of years was produce a film outside of Paramount with his own company. Finally, in 1936 he is so big he can basically call his own shots. So for the first film under his aegis, the one thing he's definitely going to do, is bring his idol Louis Armstrong in. He not only - he's only in the movie for six or seven minutes, Armstrong, basically to play "Skeleton in the Closet," wonderfully funny number, but he's billed as a star. Right up there with Crosby, one of the four stars above the title. First time a black artist had been billed above the title in a white film.

So each one of these doors that's broken down, everybody else gets to walk through it. So gradually, step after step, the music becomes more a part of the culture. The last bastion where it can't break through, unfortunately - and even today it's a problem - is the great arts establishment, which is academic and white and doesn't want to have anything do with them. The Pulitzer Prize ignored Ellington his entire life, never gave an award to - I mean, the first really major jazz Pulitzer was to Ornette Coleman in the 21st century; um, the Jazz at Lincoln Center program which Wynton Marsalis helped to create, you know, didn't come along until the 1990s and yet there are still moments - the American Academy is very prejudiced against jazz. Uh, there were still establishment areas where jazz is sort of on the outside but, you know, usually they don't allow jazz inside the establishment until it's no longer commercially meaningful, so it's a mixed curse.