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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