Pearl Harbor Jazz: Change In Popular Music In The Early 1940s

Chris May By

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At the Famous Door on 52nd Street, Red Norvo's group alternated with Zorita The Snake Charmer, who with other "exotic" acts routinely appeared alongside proto-bop bands in the now iconic clubs of the neighbourhood.
Pearl Harbor Jazz: Change In Popular Music In The Early 1940s
Peter Townsend
ISBN: 1578069248
Hardcover; 256 pages
University Press Of Mississippi

In this fascinating and meticulously researched book, Peter Townsend takes a vertical slice through the mainstream of American music round about December 7, 1941—the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—and examines the intricate relationship then existing between jazz and other forms of popular entertainment including strict tempo, light orchestral, ethnic-folk and country musics, radio, theatrical variety shows and the movies.

The book's central exposition—that before bop emerged in the mid 1940s jazz was a hard-wired staple of American mass culture, not a distinct and stand-alone artform, and was inextricably linked to other styles of music from which it took several of its supposed major inventions—Townsend demonstrates conclusively and with much illuminating detail. This is not, of course, a new insight, but Townsend's exhaustive research brings to it a heightened degree of verisimilitude.

Townsend's other and more revisionist thesis is that the construction of a discrete jazz tradition by critics like Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov in the late 1940s and 1950s was based on a misplaced desire for academic and artistic legitimacy, compounded by ignorance of real (as opposed to romanticised) African-American cultural mores and selective bending of the historical record. Townsend sets out his stall persuasively, but the idea requires deeper investigation than he is able to give it in the course of this book.

The sheer number of facts and sources Townsend—a lecturer at two leading British schools of music—marshals to prove his primary thesis is impressive; more importantly, it brings jazz and its surrounding ecology during the era to vivid, and often unexpectedly shaped, life.

Townsend observes that in the 1940s, as in the decades before them, live jazz was almost invariably presented as part of a variety package, whether the venue was a nightclub, dancehall, theatre or movie house. At the Apollo Theatre, Fletcher Henderson shared the bill with the comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley, and Fats Waller with Clifford Fisher's Football Dogs (winningly described in the African-American Amsterdam News as "a new high in canine artistry"). At the Famous Door on 52nd Street, Red Norvo's group alternated with Zorita The Snake Charmer, who with other "exotic" acts routinely appeared alongside proto-bop bands in the now iconic clubs of the neighbourhood.

Through the accretion of a legion of similar examples, Townsend convincingly suggests that an umbilical relationship between jazz and other forms of popular entertainment—in live and broadcast media, and within booking agencies and record companies—was at the time the norm rather than the exception. None perhaps is more telling than the daily performance schedule of the Benny Goodman Orchestra during its residency at New York's Paramount in May 1942: set times were dictated by the running times of the featured films, starting promptly at 10:56, 1:33, 4:10, 6:57, 9:42 and 12.27, with each set lasting fifty-two minutes.

Far from being overly dense or monochrome in its assiduous excavation of fact and detail, Pearl Harbor Jazz conjurs an absorbing picture of jazz in the early 1940s on the road, on radio and on film. Along the way, the lives of some leading musicians are revealed in newly rounded detail. Saxophonist Lester Young, for instance, far from being just the shuffling, withdrawn stoner of popular legend, was the pitcher for the Count Basie orchestra's baseball team (many touring swing bands had baseball teams within their ranks) and threw an effective curve ball. These and many other biographical and musical insights, which Townsend maintains have been airbrushed out of jazz history because they don't fit the myth, show jazz musicians to have functioned within a wider social context than is today generally recognised.

Townsend's secondary thesis, that the existence of "jazz" as a distinct entity was at the time not apparent to many people, including musicians, and that subsequent and successful critical efforts to construct a distinct past for it were artificial and intellectually dishonest, makes for interesting reading too—but the jury needs more evidence before going into session. Nonetheless, this is a scholarly and recommended piece of work.


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