The Lucrative Black Alternative

The bleakest period of the 20th century in popular memory is of course the Great Depression, but a different minority perspective turns history on its head. Seen through the eyes of an African American, the post-Reconstruction era of the early 1900s held little promise or hope as race riots, lynchings, and Jim Crow legislation openly mocked the social progress after the Civil War. America was a desolate landscape for the young African American, largely because politics and government appeared unreliable sources for help and advancement. Booker T. Washington's calls for self-improvement (through education and vocational training) appeared to be the best means of progress during this period, and the Tuskegee Institute became a symbol of his new vision for the African American community. The only way to distance oneself from ignorance and poverty, Washington's argument ran, is through discipline and unpretentious, pragmatic learning.

Armstrong, a symbol of prosperity in the 30s.
There was another way up, however, and, according to Scott Deveaux, "had Washington been a more astute reader of trends, he would have installed a conservatory at Tuskegee... music was a cornerstone of black cultural identity, so musicians could count on prestige, respect, and a degree of economic support from within their own communities even as they reached outside for a larger economic reward" (Deveaux 46-47). The new popular music of America, jazz, had its roots in African American folk traditions, a stroke of good fortune that seems almost impossible considering race relations of the day. Although the entertainment industry was as segregated as anything else in America (during jazz's heyday, it was always the Paul Whiteman or Benny Goodman bands that outshone all other competitors), the music market was such that "dance music had emerged as a promising career for the exercise of youthful black ambition" (47).

Deveaux goes on to chart an extraordinary employment opportunity for African American musicians that, very tellingly, continued unabated through the Great Depression. Even the great jazz musicians of the American musical canon got their first breaks performing in unglamorous entertainment fields: Jelly Roll Morton acted and sang in vaudeville shows, and Count Basie (who was the first to point out that he wasn't a "jazz musician" from the get-go) started off in a variety show called Hippety Hop. Of course, particularly ambitious performers could rise through the dance band ranks and become pop icons (Armstrong is the best example, but Deveaux includes Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and Lionel Hampton as others), but such elevation also required that the musician also be willing to take on the additional role of entertainer; the distinction is an important one, as "entertainer" often meant for the black musician a return, at least to some degree, to the stereotyped requirements of the minstrel show. But for those content to work in anonymity, work in the dance band world was satisfying and rewarding: "their work entailed... dependability, versatility, and unobtrusive competence... foster[ing] values that could only be called middle-class where one would least expect to find them-- at the heart of the jazz world" (49).

Early jazz musicians often came out of the black middle class into the lucrative entertainment business. Life stories like Fletcher Henderson's, who chose music rather than a career in chemistry because of the money, are more common than most romantics suspect. Even though a musician's life did not carry the respect of a more "professional" field such as law or medicine, Deveaux points out that "resistance tended to soften or vanish once the wage-earning potential of music-making became clear" (52). Deveaux finds professional respect for jazz musicians in an incredible variety of places, ranging from banks (who preferred to hire black musicians because they "know how to talk to people, how to wear a tie and collar. Disciplined. They do their work") to the reminiscences of Malcom X, who hated aspiring middle class blacks but allowed Johnny Hodges to absent-mindedly leave a shoe shine without paying ("I wouldn't have dared to bother the man who could do what he did with 'Daydream' by asking him for fifteen cents").

The Ellington Band: the embodiment of professionalism.
The respect given to musicians was matched by an emphasis on professionalism within the jazz world itself. Deveaux points out that Marshal Royal, a Philharmonic-level violin player who was given a clarinet and a command ("Go out and make some money") for his high school graduation, had a number of compatriots with similar stories. Much of the new jazz bands featured personnels with classical training, educated control of their instruments, and a broad knowledge of dances ranging from waltzes to rags. Artie Shaw, who began playing at the age of fifteen, remembers that, by and large, musicians also had mindsets that reflected their technical skills: "All the kid-stuff I had been indulging in up to now, not necessarily in my playing but in my attitudes toward myself and the men I worked with-- all that was out... in time I began to learn to conduct myself more in accordance with my status as a professional musician working with other professionals who took their means of livelihood fairly seriously." The novelist and critic Albert Murray includes in his work Stomping the Blues a photo montage of well-dressed jazz musicians throughout history, making the point that performers have always stressed the importance of a clean-cut image; the professionalism of jazz, although it clashes with romantic images of the drugged-out and shady musician, is evident everywhere from two-tone shoes to music theory.

In a society much more segregated than ours today, such a presentation was of the utmost importance. Black musicians had a new opportunity, but were anxious not to spoil it. The emphasis on professionalism was in part, argues Deveaux, a way to avoid the stereotypes of early minstrel shows. The turn-of-the-century jazz musicians proved through honed technique that performance wasn't an "innate" African American characteristic, and that therefore they couldn't be easily dismissed as second-rate or undisciplined. Pianist Teddy Wilson perhaps best defined what musicians sought to undermine, "the picture of the Negro in the white world as a clown, a buffoon, an illiterate happy person who jammed all day." Little could have contradicted such an image better than the great early jazz musicians, who were on the whole well dressed, professional in demeanor, and virtuosic instrumentalists.

Back to the Main Page | Go to "Race in Early American Film