Tag Archive for democracy

Swing and Communism

Young_Communist_League,_USA_(logo)During the FMP years of the latter 1930s, the CPUSA Popular Front was making an effort to dance with swing, the new sensation, which is a radical departure from the usual Soviet position on vernacular music, particularly in its American iterations. The Soviet aversion to jazz and particularly to the saxophone, for example, could be stunningly acute. There was an unsuccessful effort to ban the saxophone in the Soviet Union in 1929, followed in the late ’40s, when Stalin had concentrated his power, by a concerted effort to ban this horn of “capitalist music,” which resulted in the confiscation of instruments, the imprisonment or exile of musicians, and saxophone parts in works by Ravel and Prokofiev and others consigned to bassoons and the like.

As David Stowe tells it in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America,

Before the redirection of policy under the Popular Front, jazz and most other popular music had been regarded as ideologically suspect by the party both in the Soviet Union and the United States; noncommercial rural folk music and protest songs were perceived as the “correct” radical music. . . . Given the party’s desire to recruit members of oppressed groups such as African-Americans, this dismissal of vernacular music resulted in a dissonance between the party leadership and its rank-and-file organizers. The more tolerant, inclusive atmosphere that prevailed in the party after 1935 led to a number of Communists, including writers for the Daily Worker, to express enthusiasm for both “traditional” jazz and swing. The popular music of the big bands came to be seen as an important vehicle, along with black theater, literature, and professional sports, for promoting the idea that African-American culture was integrally American, quintessentially democratic and progressive. (p. 65)

Stowe goes on to note an article in a 1939 Young Communists League publication that even managed to work the utterly specious “democracy” of jazzocracy into its analysis:

“There is a good deal of audience participation in swing, a kind of give and take and mutual inspiration for the musician and the crowd, a rough democratic air invading the sacred halls of music.” Another writer stated bluntly: “Jazz is the music of the American proletariat. If Negroes have been more prominent in its development, it is because more Negroes are proletarians.” (pp. 65-66)

Well, 1939 was also the year of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

A History of Federal Jazz Policy

This book is a revised version of my Long Island University/C.W. Post (now known succinctly as LIU Post) master’s thesis, submitted in December 2011, in “partial fulfillment,” as they like to say, of the degree of Master of Public Administration. An extensive epilogue was added to what was already an extensive text—this was a dissertation-sized thesis, you might say—in 2013.

FJP Cover 1AThe abstract as it appears in the original thesis:

An investigation of the meanings and motives of federal jazz policy—to the degree that federal interest in jazz rises to the level of what can rightfully be called policy—during the three periods of its chief instantiation: the 1930s WPA Federal Music Project; the State Department’s Cold War jazz diplomacy program; and the National Endowment for the Arts’ individual grants to artists and its Jazz Masters program, as well as jazz-related Congressional resolutions promoted by the Congressional Black Caucus. The examination suggests that a “jazzocracy” is sometimes at work, which may co-opt the Black revolutionary character of jazz and delegitimize the avant-garde as it mainstreams the music and validates largely specious, racially opaque principles of American “democracy.”

If it appears I have a political bone or two to pick with federal jazz policy, such as it is—”such as it is” being the standard qualifier of “federal jazz policy”—well, I do. “Jazzocracy” and “democracy,” as the book shows, are generally two sides of the same loaded coin.