Tag Archive for swing era

The Federal Music Project: Intro

FMP2One of the salient differences between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008 and counting, never mind the official pronouncements that it’s over, is that during the four years the Federal Music Project thrived, America not only enjoyed by what today’s standards would be the radical-left politics of FDR, but the country supported a viable Communist Party whose Popular Front movement lived up to its name. Socialism at that time, as incredible as it may seem in 21st century Tea Party America, when states with reactionary electorates are unironically called red, attracted the interest of perhaps more than a quarter of the nation. Though it may be largely coincidental, the FMP and the Popular Front run concurrently, 1935-39. Not only was the FMP created in 1935, that year also marked the official arrival of the swing era, heralded by Benny Goodman’s Palomar Ballroom concert in Los Angeles, but this too is largely coincidental—the FMP was not dedicated to swing or to any other brand of popular music; it was primarily an instrument of European-derived classical music, led for the better part of its life by the founding conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.

One of a fantastic four of arts projects under the Works Progress Administration banner—projects likely never to be seen again in what passes for federal cultural policy in America—the somewhat staid FMP was also generally considered to be the least left-wing of these storied organizations. As a supplement to Ka-ching, which also includes consideration of several jazz-related Federal Theatre Project productions, this section of the site will look at 1930s jazz/cultural policy issues and civil rights battles that illuminate the grand scope of the comparatively glorious WPA and FDR years.

Federal Theatre Project: The Swing Mikado’s Imperial Ambition

swing mikado 1 posterThe various regional units of the FTP’s Negro Theatre Project were responsible for many notable African American-performed productions, the New York Theatre Unit’s Voodoo Macbeth, directed by the very White and very young Orson Welles, perhaps being the most prominent. On the jazz front, the FTP’s Negro Project also had its share of notable musical productions, such as 1938’s The Swing Mikado, a Pacific Island-based takeoff of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, created by the Chicago Negro Theatre Unit, featuring an all-Black cast (but produced and directed by Whites). So hot was this tropical Mikado concept, in fact, The Swing Mikado did battle in New York for a time with the commercially produced, Black-casted Hot Mikado, the shows actually playing across the street from each other.

The battle of the Mikados is discussed in Ka-ching, but here I’d like to note Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, which unpacks The Swing Mikado, in a chapter titled “Prisms of Imperial Gaze,” with the zeal a team of TSA agents might bring to a suspiciously foreign suitcase. The racial implications of The Swing Mikado, in this expansive analysis, are just the tip of the hegemonic iceberg.

As the author notes, in 1938 the U.S. had been occupying the Philippines for decades; but the show’s imaginary-island conceit is hardly an innocent fairy-tale setting.

The Swing Mikado symbolically obliterates its referents through their putative nonexistence. The discourse of paternalism, constructed disorganization and infantile dependence in the colonized society, [is] sustained by an abstraction and exoticism that insisted on the othered culture as empty and in need of civilization. The vulnerability to imperialism existing in the lack of culture tautologically signifies a need for Western imperial presence. (p. 151)

The FTP may have been a hotbed of New Deal Red activism as far as much of Congress was concerned, but in this show, unlike perhaps, the issue-focused Living Newspaper productions, American empire is reified beneath a thin veneer of entertainment. According to Batiste,

The brand of exoticization demonstrated in The Swing Mikado becomes a mainstreamed, almost mundane tool for abstracting black and othered indentities . . . The process of using blackness as a template for abstraction indicates a cultural comfort and arrogance with exoticism akin to the British impulse to make The Mikado Japanese in the first place. (p. 150)

The poster seen here, from a Library of Congress collection, promotes a San Francisco production of The Swing Mikado; the show went from being a huge hit in Chicago to seeing only modest success in New York—its Hot Mikado competition also failed to take New York by storm—before embarking on a national tour.