JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


The intriguing thing about swing is that it is like the soundtrack for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal America. It is so pervasive that it just seems to be the only kind of music that one can imagine when one thinks about the period 1935 to 1945, which includes not only the Depression but also the Second World War. Everybody then hears that as a thoroughly American music, they hear it as a thoroughly democratic music, they hear it as something that is vernacular and just brings everybody together in a groove that seems to be casual and down home and all the things that Americans felt that they were fighting for. You can hear this in all the kinds of things like the – like the Andrew Sisters, where you get the idea of that kind of thing – as I say, embodying what Americans were fighting for.

It's very interesting in retrospect to look at that stuff and to see the way in which race is clearly present but not really addressed by a lot of people. I haven't quite been able to figure out – well, I suppose there's no way to do this retrospectively, but how much of the swing audience was not consciously thinking about race? I find it very hard to imagine anybody could do, that but I'm sure that for a lot of people they just did not think of it as black music. At the same time, all the indicators were that it was black. It's an interesting thing to look at exactly how racial barriers were overcome during this period.

It's during this time that you start to see some of the aspects of segregation being broken through. Benny Goodman's Quartet, for example, was a big step forward. He had in that group Teddy Wilson, who is a real icon of thoroughly educated, middle-class black America, as a piano player. His father was teaching English at Tuskegee Institute. You also have Lionel Hampton, who comes from more humble backgrounds but also presents kind of the entertainment side of black culture. But [Goodman] manages to bring those people into an integrated group and he presents them, I think, very cleverly. He does not say that they're part of his band but that they are special guest artists that come with the band. And somehow that manages to override the existing segregation that is in place. People just said, ok, and this band then actually performed in all kinds of venues around the country. These little bits and pieces are things that we can see as small triumphs over segregation.

At the same time, we can also look back and say, my goodness, apart from these few people crossing over these boundary lines, those boundary lines were very clearly in place and they were very clearly in place in certain kinds of situations. You could not have a black band playing at one of the major hotel ballrooms in New York City, which is where most black bands, most white bands got radio time. You know, live from the Hotel Pennsylvania Ballroom, you know, and they would have a broadcast that would go over national radio and would let everybody know what the Glenn Miller Band was up to during the summer months – or no, sorry, the winter months was when they needed to be in there. All of this was denied to black bands, and they were also not allowed, oh yeah, to be on commercially sponsored radio broadcasts. And there are a few exceptions. I think Louis Armstrong was on the Fleischmann Yeast radio hour for a while; I mean, there are a few of these things. But generally speaking they just did not want to offend southern customers.