Monthly Archives: September 2012

Swing Shift and Gendered Performance

Sherrie Tucker is one of my heroes. When Swing Shift was first published, it seemed like she had opened up the ways that those of us interested in jazz could talk about gender and sexuality beyond issues of representation and the privileged politics of who comes out and why. Her 2002 essay, “When Subjects Don’t Come Out” changed how many scholars even approach identity politics and music. This is all to say that she looms large for studies of gender, sexuality and race when it comes to jazz performance.

The chapter that I assigned takes on the question of performance and spectatorship of the all-women jazz ensembles involved in the USO, and how these musicians had to negotiate the competing expectations to exemplify patriotism, femininity, and modesty (while also “entertaining” men, depending) alongside the (competing?) expectation to perform jazz well. She examined so many facets of the issue, that many in the class expressed a desire to further discuss the material of the week. Much of the chapter details how these musicians “made do” with their circumstances, from uniforms to the behavior of soldiers, to perform to the best of their ability.

Since yesterday’s class relied so heavily on the borders of swing (klezmer, French, vocal-pop, free-lance soloists, etc.), I wonder how the vivid accounts of these musicians jibe with how this period is generally remembered. What aspects of the experiences of female jazz musicians in WWII jumped out at you? How can we tie the experiences of the women who played the USO with how someone such as Billie Holiday negotiated her career? How did race affect the reception of female musicality? And how do we make room for the relative outsiders to the master narrative of jazz without diminishing their contributions?

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Be-Bop: Additional Materials

Here‘s the reading that I have assigned in addition to our textbooks for our week of Be-Bop. It is a chapter from Bernard Gendron’s Between Montmarte and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. Gendron is an unconventional music scholar who comes to jazz and popular music from the perspective of philosophy. He is a very friendly guy and is the only scholar I’ve met who can present a 40-minute scholarly talk without the aide of notes.

Everyone is required to read the first chapter, but the second chapter is also very informative and might be useful to those of you interested in the cultural resonance of Be-Bop within the larger milieu of post-war jazz. Please make time to look at both, if possible.

Since the transcriptions of Parker’s solos in “Ko-Ko” and “Shawnuff” weren’t legible, here are better versions (from the e-flat edition of the Charlie Parker Omnibook). And, finally, here are the tracks we’ll be discussing that aren’t on the Norton CDs.

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Readings and Lead Sheets for Swing (II)

Swing bands and orchestras were performing and rearranging their tunes at a rapid pace during this period, thus, it is very difficult to find good transcriptions of the recordings we are covering. Here is the lead sheet for “Daphne” and here is the lead sheet for “Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen.”

Next week, we will be discussing the role of women in swing during World War II. Sherry Tucker’s Swing Shift is the best discussion of the role of “all girl” swing bands during the war. Here is a chapter about the role of the “male mass audience.” I look forward to your reactions to her research and how it contrasts with the more typical picture of female jazz musicians as pianists and singers.

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Listening for Swing (II)

Here is the additional listening for this week. I have included two recordings of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” from 1944 that were recorded in December: one from a Carnegie Hall concert in December 19th, and the other a collaboration with Jay Blackton’s orchestra for an NBC radio broadcast from two days prior. I would like everyone to pay attention to the differences between the two recordings and be prepared to discuss Ellington more at length at the beginning of class.

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Listening for Week 4

Next week we will be starting our two-week discussion of swing, a style many scholars describe as the apex of jazz’s popularity. Here is a link to the tracks that aren’t available on the Norton CDs.

If anyone in the class is a skilled at swing dancing, please let me know in advance.

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Jazz as Metaphor for Not Having a Plan

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about the Showtime show Homeland and its upcoming second season. Towards the end of the article, there is brief discussion of how the show’s first season was shot and planned.

Remarkably, the creators did not map out the first season’s convoluted plot in advance. “Six episodes in, we didn’t entirely know where it was going,” Mr. Gansa said.

Mr. Gordon called it “a jazz improvisation.” The Carrie breakdown was slotted first for Episode 3, then 6, then 8. Of course, he said, in hindsight it looked inevitable that it come toward the season’s end.

As something to ponder for the coming weeks, is “jazz improvisation” an appropriate metaphor? Is it positive or negative? Considering the structures of jazz composition, collective improvisation, and recording we have been analyzing in class, I wonder if the skill and established relationships that go into making an effective performance (and recording) are being downplayed in this metaphor. What do you think?

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On Vulgarity

During Wednesday’s class, we had a brief discussion about vulgar lyrics and the blues queens. As luck would have it, music critic Ann Powers recently posted an essay about the B-word and its place in popular music. A few paragraphs in she writes.

“Bitch,” it turns out, is as central to the popular music lexicon as are “rock” and “roll.” In the blues and the various forms of street and barroom music that immediately inspired them, the word consistently pops up as both an insult and an element in seduction. Jelly Roll Morton employed it; so did the blues queens Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan. They did so to gain a foothold in the dangerous spaces where the music that might later become mainstream was made: the concert saloons and bawdy houses where women’s bodies were often commodities. Though musicians of both genders tapped its power, from the beginning, “bitch” was slung around as a way of asserting control in a world where a male perspective rules.

It also factored heavily into trash-talk tradition that music scholar Elijah Wald examines in his book The Dozens: The History of Rap’s Mama. The street game that gave birth to rap is rooted in the art of the insult, and none proved more potent than those aimed at absent mothers defended by chest-puffing sons. In the 1920s, Wald writes, a friendly coworker in a restaurant explained the dozens for the writer Frank Marshall Davis: “When you call a man a son of a bitch, you call his mother a dog. In the dozens, you jus’ elaborate an’ expand it more.”

A decade or so later, Morton told the folklorist Alan Lomax that he sang “smutty” songs to minimize the “femininity stamp” that stuck on pianists in New Orleans, where many women played that instrument. The song he then shared referred to a female conquest as a “bitch” five times in two verses. Whether the aggression the term signaled embodied desire or scorn, saying “bitch” was a way of getting hard.

In these early cases, using music to refer to someone with such vulgarity was a way of fitting in to the segments of society where the music was most often performed. Further, it was a way of asserting control. As we continue with our exploration of the early contexts and performances of jazz and blues, we are likely to keep encountering smut. I look forward to hearing everyone’s responses to the rich world of music-making in the teens and ’20s.

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