Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Music Takes Root in Racist Soil

We jazz folk like to emphasize the fact that the music has provided a fertile playing field, if you will, for inter-racial camaraderie. However, at this particular moment in American history, it feels right to show how foul the cultural context was that begat the music and to give a sense of how extraordinary it was that people were able to transcend that context and lay the foundations for jazz, ragtime and other popular musics.

Wilbur Sweatman's career exemplifies the path a black musician had to take in order to make a career in the pervasive racism of late 19th c. and early 20th c. America. It's a fascinating and sobering story and Mark Berresford's well researched biography Wilbur Sweatman, That's Got 'Em tells the story well. This post also adds observations culled from a recent reading of Dennis Owsley's City of Gabriels, The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973, where the story of racism is told once again.

Berresford makes a strong case for Sweatman as an under-appreciated bridge figure between ragtime and jazz. Sweatman grew up in a town not far from ragtime hotbed Sedalia, MO and the Mississippi river, with its flow of itinerant musicians. He started, in the 1890's, in the trenches of showbiz as a member oa "pick" (pickaninnyband and transitioned into minstrelsy, brass bands, circus bands and vaudeville, where he spent most of his career. His musical skills put him in leadership positions early on and he associated with important figures in African-American music, many of whom are little known today: Nathaniel Clark Smith, P.G. Lowery, Harry T. Burleigh, Ford T. Dabney and others, whose names are slightly more familiar: Will Vodery, Perry Bradford, Shelton Brooks, Bob Cole, Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, Ernest Hogan, James Weldon Johnson among others.

It may be all too easy to think-especially given the hardscrabble quality of the itinerant musical life-that these musicians were uneducated, "natural" musicians. However, the story of Sweatman's success, along with that of 
Will Marion Cook
figures like Lowery, Smith, Cook, Europe and others, puts the lie to the mythology about the "natural" black musician. Many musicians were self-taught, often because formal training was unavailable to them, but the implication that disciplined intellectual training was beyond the scope of black musicians, was one of the most pernicious manifestations of racism. Natural they may have been, but what this biography makes clear is that in order to make a living in music, a musician had to have a solid musical background, be able to read music and if not write, then contribute to arrangements and play in any style of music. 
Eddie Randall's St. Louis Devils, 1938

City of Gabriels describes a similar scenario. Unlike the mythology of the riverboat bands, which we think of as hotbeds of improvisation for many famous jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds and Pee Wee Russell, there was little improvisation. The riverboats' bands, largely run by Fate Marable for the Streckfus family steamship line, were highly disciplined and structured musical environments, where one had to learn how to read well and be adaptable in many musical situations. And, as such, this gig was highly valued by musicians.
Fate Marable Riverboat Band
The racist attitude about "natural" versus "educable" forced black musicians to hide their education. For example, black musicians playing in James Reese Europe bands for white audiences had to quickly memorize the latest songs, as they could not be seen to use sheet music on the bandstand, lest they be seen as putting themselves on the same level as their audience. And, of course, black musicians had to give up any idea of becoming involved in the world of classical music. 
James Reese Europe's Hellfighters
City of Gabriels covers an aspect of the story not covered in the Sweatman book, that of musician's unions.

In St. Louis, white bands played only for whites, while black bands could play for both black and white audiences. However, jobs in legitimate theatre and classical music were restricted to the white union. Both unions managed to uphold decent per-job wage levels, but when times grew tough in the late 1920's, enmity between the two unions grew, as the bread and butter jobs in the new entertainment industries of radio and film were also not made available to black union members. Separate but unequal unions were not officially desegregated by the American Federation of Musicians in all American cities until 1971. 

Of course, the history of racism in music encompasses much more than I've talked about here, just as it is only one aspect of the pattern of discrimination that pervaded every trade, profession and employment track in America. As a lifelong aspiring practitioner of jazz, I can only take a knee in honor of the indomitable men and women who laid the foundation of this profound expression of the human spirit.


gmoke said...

From what I've read, the unions, at least in NYC, cracked down on after hours jam sessions as well. You had to hide from your union in order to jam with your friends in the 1930s and 40s in NYC. They slowed the advancement of the music and interfered with the camaraderie of musicians.

Steve Provizer said...

I've heard something about this, but would be interested in citations that help to clarify it.