Thursday, February 12, 2015
Race Conflict in the 1930's
Since the birth of jazz in New Orleans, race had always been a significant issue. There was conflict between slaves and their masters and between lower class blacks and upperclass Creoles. When jazz migrated to Chicago, there was tension caused by the injustice of black musicians having only a predominantly white audience. Despite the obvious racial tensions that surrounded the burgeoning jazz movement, very few people questioned it. Segregation was the norm, and not until the 1930’s did anyone start to give race any serious consideration.
Due to the invention of the radio and popular magazines such as “Down Beat” and “Metronome,” jazz music was well known throughout the nation by the 1930s (Swing Changes, 2). The burgeoning popularity of jazz caused an upwelling of critics, who would listen to the newest artists and write articles about their findings. In this way, a small number of musical critics shaped the way the general public viewed the current style of jazz (Swing Changes). As the number of critics began to increase the analysis of the jazz style of music became much more political. Inevitably, the issue of race began to arise.
Previously, jazz was perceived as an “uncouth and primitive a variety of music associated with African-Americans, and the arena for a dangerous social miscegenation (2).” It’s connection with black culture was what made jazz music unsavory; in the 1930’s however, critics began to assert that black musicians were in fact superior to whites in the realm of jazz music. This was most clearly seen in the career of John Hammond, one of the most influential critics in the 1930’s. He emphasized the connection between race and jazz, and strongly endorsed the musicians he believed were true to their roots and the origins of the music. This included artists such as Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie, who he generously supported and got them their first recordings. Not only did he support black musicians, he was also a firm political advocate for racial equality who dreamed of a world where “white and colored friend of his could play blues together in racial and musical harmony” (Swing Changes, 8). He even went so far as to insist that black musicians were superior to white players, saying “'The best of the white folk still cannot compare to the really good Negroes in relaxed, unpretentious dance music'” (6). Not only was he a personal advocate for racial equality, he was also extremely outspoken. This is witnessed by his castigation of Duke Ellington, who played at the “Cotton Club” a whites-only establishment. Hammond accused Ellington of forgetting the roots of jazz and forsaking his people for the sake of wealth and stardom.
With critics like Hammond so prevalent in the social scene of the 1930’s, it is easy to see how race suddenly became a popular topic of discussion in public forums. Due its ability to make people reconsider the injustices of race, jazz was likely one of many significant factors that led to the Civil Rights Movement.