Dance cards? Band posters? Play bills?
fb post 25 June at 05:47
A question was posed on a Facebook group called Swingopedia, and I have decided to finally voice my answer. Hey, it’s quarantine, I don’t have any gigs to lose right now…
“I’ve noticed that music trends in the global swing dance community have changed, since I started in 1995.
I’ve heard a mix of Big Band, RnB, Groove, Soul, Hip Hop, lounge/elevator jazz in early 2000s, Gypsy Swing, Ragtime etc. I’ve even heard Madonna!
What do you believe constitutes swing music and what style of music should we be swing dancing to?
Also should musicians only play recreations of original classics by Basie etc or should they be creating their own music?”
I got a lot of opinions about this. I’m a bass player, trombonist, and singer. I’ve been playing the Lindy Hop scene since 2004, with Solomon Douglas, Jonathan Stout, Michael Gamble, and basically anyone else you can think of. I co-founded Moonshine Rhythm Club. As much as I love playing with all the musicians in this scene, my opinion and my approach to music definitely diverges from a lot of them. And I think it also addresses the lack of a serious Black presence in lindy hop.
Here’s what I think:
The way we approach this music, AND this dance, is not at all in the spirit of those who created it.
Let me unpack that just a little bit. Back in the day, musicians were inventing new music that they dug, and that made people want to move their bodies. So they drew big crowds of people who invented new ways to move their bodies to it. That’s it. Does it feel good? Does it make you want to move your body? Then move your body. How? I dunno, let’s make something up together. Does it sound good? Is it fun? If not, whoops, nobody showed up to your gig.
Today, we have a historical dance taught with a preservationist mindset, and we play historic music with a preservationist mindset, or we almost reverse-engineer what music needs to be played so that we can dance this specific dance to it.
We are starting to see more new, original swing music, and I love that. But it still falls within pretty strict guidelines. We are also starting to see more swing audiences actually caring about the music itself, not just as a utilitarian function to dance to; I would definitely credit Michael and Jonathan and the Lindy Focus community for encouraging that, and I think the transcription projects have been a big part of that. It’s been really cool playing at Lindy Focus the past few years and seeing crowds of people standing by the stage just DIGGING the music.
But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?
So ok, what am I proposing instead? I don’t have all the answers, for sure. And yes, I am still a musician that loves playing vintage jazz, and loves playing for dancers. But I look at musicians like Kansas Smitty’s, Bria Skonberg, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gunhild Carling, and so many others that play amazing, badass, swinging, move-your-body music, and who aren’t even CLOSE to cutting-edge far-out modern jazz, and I hear crickets from the lindy hop community.
Here is my point. There is SO much music out there that swings. Modern stuff. Stuff that feels really good, deep in your body, and makes you want to move and groove. And because it doesn’t fit the specific historical constraints of the dance that this community commodifies and REPLICATES, lindy hoppers want nothing to do with it.
Like, how can you ask the question “what constitutes swing music” or “what style of music SHOULD we be dancing to,” and then turn around and act bewildered that you don’t have more BIPOC in the scene??
I envision a world where the historical preservation of swing music and dance can meet the modern world, where there are all kinds of dances being done to all kinds of killer music. You don’t have to drop the preservation stuff, you SHOULDN’T stop studying and presenting and talking about the history of jazz and swing and lindy hop. But what you have done is put walls around this whole situation, and it keeps you in, and it keeps a whole lot of other people out. It’s religion, in the restrictive sense of the word. And if you ever manage to notice how many badass vintage jazz musicians don’t bother with the swing dance scene anymore, it’s because they don’t fit. They got too big for the walls.
Personally, I would love to be able to continue playing swing music for lindy hoppers. But I can’t tell you how many frustrating gigs I’ve had where either the audience barely noticed there were real musicians on stage, or I was playing with really poor musicians, but nobody really cared because they fit the constraints of the dance. I think my favorite gigs are where some people are dancing (whether it is a dance or not, because they feel it in their bodies), and some people are listening (because they actually hear and enjoy the music), and I can stretch out with my fellow musicians beyond the artificial, misinformed, dance-centric constraints of “around 3 minutes song length, not too fast, not too slow.”
Oh yeah, I thought I was wrapping up, but that’s another thing I gotta address. Not every song has to be danceable for every person. That’s another aspect of the utilitarianism of music in the dance community. You think that because all we have are 3-minute songs from the swing era that that was what musicians did live. I can’t possibly believe that’s true. Not gonna go too deep down that rabbit hole, but here’s something to think about: as soon as the long-playing record was invented, Duke Ellington released a 12-minute version of Mood Indigo, and it is glorious. My favorite version of that song ever. SO swinging, so beautiful, makes me want to move, makes me want to play.
Jazz is a living art form. It’s an improvisational art form. The very best times I’ve had playing jazz with people, we’ve found our way to the special spark, the moments that make people look up and shout, the moments that inspire dance. If I’m hired to perform a utilitarian function for your specific dance style, and I’m fired when I go outside the specific constraints, you’re not gonna get my best. You’re not gonna get the magic, the spark. You are missing out. (I have a couple dancer friends in Rochester who figured this out years ago, and started going to the international jazz fest there and checking out all sorts of amazing music. They GET it.)
Music and dance have been co-created since humans have existed. In my opinion, the lindy hop community is creating neither one right now. I don’t think it has to stay that way; but you’ve gotta tear down the walls, if you want it to change.
(Disclaimers. 1. Even though I’m speaking somewhat harshly about the scene, I still love parts of it, and I love a lot of the people in it, and when I play at Lindy Focus and walk around those hallways, I’m proud and glad to be part of it. 2. I’m talking about some historical stuff in here, but I am far from a swing historian. Michael Gamble, Jonathan Stout, Jon Tigert, and a bunch of other musicians and dancers probably know quite a bit more than me about the specific history of the music and dance. The depth of my musicianship is what makes me feel like I have something to offer with this commentary.)
I have problems with the American-centredness of this post. He is generalising from what he sees in the US (at huge events) to the entire world. And it just doesn’t hold up. I’d argue that the ‘mega-event’ is a very different animal (and product) to smaller events that focus on a regional audience, or even hyper-local audience. The usual issues apply to a huge event: you need to entertain trillions of people, you have to appeal to the widest audience (rather than niche audiences), you have a lot of money at risk, you need to do quality control. You and and should (perhaps) use this big budget opportunity to do more big band gigs. The events he’s talking about are largely in the US, and these are unlike things you see in other countries (with the exception of Camp Swing It, which is MASSIVE). So you end up with a relatively homogenous, palatable menu of music and dance held in a boring big hotel, isolated from the local host community.
Because he’s generalising from big US events, he ignores all the smaller, more interesting events. There’s no Upside Down here. No Rhythm Korea. No Jazz BANG. He also conveniently ignores the work being done by Black event producers. Teena Morales, anyone? She’s been running the biggest events in the US for years. And she runs the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, which has all-Black musicians and teachers, and is firmly positioned within the modern Black community’s culture.
“But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?”
Well, they’re at Teena Morales’ event, doing dances that actually relate to them, with people who make them feel welcome. But let me address this issue: how to attract Black dancers to lindy hop. I’m guessing he means the US? This issue is a lot like the issue of attracting people of colour to other institutions. It won’t work if you don’t deconstruct or analyse whiteness itself:
As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is” (source: Diversity Means Disruption ; I speak more about this here: A Lot of White People Will Be Uncomfortable).
And if we’re going to deconstruct whiteness, we also need to deconstruct patriarchy, because white supremacy is built on the dominance of heterosexual masculinity.
If I follow that thinking, to truly change the nature of jazz and music in the lindy hop world, do we need to kill off the mega-event?
Here’s the thing. Covid19 has already done this. This is another thing that I see missing from so much of the online talk about lindy hop culture: this moment of change/crisis is the result of a global pandemic. Push has come to shove. BUT, white people have the time and energy to dig into ‘racism’ because they are in iso, or because their usual lives have been disrupted. Black people and marginalised people are busy trying not to die, whether they’re killed by disease, an dangerous ‘healthcare’ system, or the police.
So why does this white male musician assume that things will go on as they did before? They’re not going to. The world has changed irrevocably. The mega-event is not coming back any time in the next few years. That means the the existing market/audience for the mega-event will have disappeared (we know the lindy hop ‘generation’ is only about 5 years long). We also know that all the necessary infrastructure for a mega-event will also have disappeared: international airlines have folded; the arts are in disarray, from sound engineers to restaurants; international guests will not be visiting the US with its unchecked covid. It would also be horrifically selfish for dancers to attend a mega-event… lindy hop = superspreader.
So I think the question has to be,
What will jazz music and jazz dance look like in a covid19 world?
At first I was all ‘no one wants jazz dance during a plague’ and then I remembered that people really want music and dance during hard times. Who gets to dance will be the issue.
My government has taken advantage of the virus to introduce frightening laws, and expand awful powers. The same company that runs our offshore-detention camps for refugees is in charge of the quarantine hotels. Poor, refugee, and migrant people have been detained in housing commission towers for fear of covid spread. The federal police have expanded search and detain powers. … and so on.
The people who are suffering most from this are the Black members of our community.
I haven’t quite gotten there in the thinking, but I think that it’s obscene to consider running a mega-event in this climate. I mean, I have huge, massive ethical problems with fundraising for white people to transcribe Black recordings so white people can play them for white audiences in THIS moment. It’s a great promotional gig, but how does it fight white supremacy?
So if we can’t do mega-events, what do we do?
The same thing marginalised events and dance communities have already been doing: smaller scale events that cater to the local community’s needs and interests. And by local community, I mean the musicians, sound engineers, DJs, dancers, teachers, performers of a particular city. There’s no budget to fly in the same old crew of white men. So we get local. And that, as with governments*, means we have a more diverse body.
We subsidise local dancers on lower incomes with volunteer spots. We see a more sustainable labour model generally. And we see greater diversity in event types and event staff and attendance. The thing about smaller events, is that they often don’t enforce those rules about what bands should play. For all sorts of reasons. But you’ll get the odd funk number, you’ll get 10 minute songs, and you’ll get a range of tempos. Because the organisers don’t have the ‘knowledge’ to control the music like that. And they don’t particularly prioritise that issue – they’re trying to find the light switch or get the key for the late night party.
I think that this ‘definition’ of ‘good music’ is a matter of power and privilege, not objective value or ‘truth’. As the OP says, insisting on ‘good songs for dancing’ gives us a boring menu, and promotes a conservative palate. This in turn gives us boring dancing. None of those sparks of real creativity and emotion.
I think that DJing plays a big part in this. The lack of diversity in the highest profile DJing ranks is a direct result of some serious gate keeping: DJs are selected for their social skills (do they network like a white man?), their availability (do they have the money and time to drop everything for a weekend gig? Or do they have kids and family to care for?), and then, finally, their music taste (how do they talk about songs – loudly in a crowd, or with a quietly brilliant set at 11pm?). This type of musician hierarchy and power structure marginalises anyone who’s not a straight white guy.
If we want to see more diversity in the songs being played by musicians, we need more diversity in the cohort of musicians.
Which means WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP RAPING AND HARASSING EVERYONE ELSE.
WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP _EACH OTHER_ DOING THIS SHIT.
* Local governments have more women, poc, and other marginalised groups represented. As we move up tiers of government (state, federal, commonwealth, etc), we see diversity disappear and white patriarchy at work.
….RE sexual assault in the jazz music scene:
That’s my next job. I was starting work on it before covid, by deliberately setting up gigs and sessions that promote women musicians (ie sessions that are safe workplaces). But it’s been derailed. I figure we can use the methods we’ve developed in the dance world to tackle the music world.
One of the things we’ve found in Sydney, is that if we address sexual harassment and assault, we get a safer, more diverse scene generally. More people of colour, more queer folk, more trans folk, more kids.
This why this OP musician needs to address his own power as a white man in America. He is one of the obstacles we need to deconstruct.
fb comment on above post
25 June at 10:30
Hey friend, we have talked about this a bunch, and I know we have a lot of common ground, so i feel comfy talking about this “publicly” with you. I also wanna say I appreciate that going out on a limb can be stressful, and I respect you getting into it regardless.
That being said, I think you’re coming at this from a strange angle, one that on the surface looks extremely relatable (I see a “successful” post/video/blog/etc on this topic about once a month for, I dunno, the past 15 years or so) but to me totally falls apart when you zoom in. My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste. And I’m pretty sure you’re ok with it on the micro level, you just don’t like the overall effect, yeah?
Like, I play music in a style I like. To you it’s narrow, but for me it’s actually a wild experiment in combining elements of different swing era rhythm sections with elements of early new orleans & chicago looser collective improv, moving familiar riffs to new contexts, and yes, paying homage to inspiring classic (but never heard live by current audiences) recordings. There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look!-> someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!) And unless I read you wrong, you probably think that’s cool, you just wish that wasn’t ALL there is, or something?
Here’s where I point out that there are a million other places to play music, to dance, and to explore like, every iteration of every art under the sun. The WCS scene has much more modern taste. The Blues scene, and especially the Fusion scene know how to break the mold and push boundaries. (also, there was a generation of Bebop dancers at the Savoy, and there is a push within the modern lindy movement to explore that.. which I think is great. Just FYI!) Do you know about those? The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.
Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald & Chick Webb, Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing & Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!
I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —> do you realize how small the modern swing scene is? Like, compared to virtually any other hobby or “art scene”? It’s a niche within a niche within a niche. We are people who love what, in our evaluation, is actually a very broad range of dance and music forms that one could spend many lifetimes studying and never master. We’ve carved out a little space to do our thing. And still people feel the need to tell us to stop. All. The. Time.
Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus. Our scene alienates black folks in basically every way that appears on the racism bingo card. Don’t make vintage music the scapegoat for this. Our scene has historically welcomed and elevated racist individuals and ideas for as long as I can remember, to our shame. Also, though it is somewhat rarer (remember: niche within a niche within a niche), there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them. (yet) And yes, also the overall whiteness of our scene makes it a less attractive place to seek work, which makes sense. THAT is something we can change. I can’t even remotely pretend to speak for any black person in this, but I think at the very least you are making a ton of assumptions about what’s causing what, and there’s a lot more going on.
(and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing?? Regardless, I do love you, Eric Heveron-Smith!)
I’d add this as an example of Michael’s missing some of the political point:
“My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste.”
There’s a chunk of literature about how ‘individual taste’ isn’t about individual subjective choice, but about cultural forces. So while these aesthetics might seem ‘subjective choices’ from the inside, they’re clearly part of broader patterns and structures of patriarchy and white hegemony. As soon as we see patterns, we can look for the forces that are invisible to the dominant group because they are so ‘normalised’.
ie we have normalised the idea that a bunch of white people playing Black music at an event promoted as ‘preserving the past’ is a good thing. We haven’t engaged with the idea that white people are gaining cultural power from this work, that modern Black musicians are marginalised, and that only seeing white people on stage supports the myth that Black people don’t like jazz or do it well.
This is another difficult bit for me:
“There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look! someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!)”
My feminist brain is saying “Who is ‘those of us’? And ‘their friends?’?”
Who is running these large events?
Who is managing the music?
It’s mostly white people, and mostly white men.
My follow up question would be, “If white men are doing the music stuff, what jobs do women do on these events?” and “What jobs to people of colour do on these events?” Are they handling the low-profile stuff like catering or volunteer management or budgets? Events like Focus spend a lot of time convincing people that music is the most important part of an event. The jobs men do. When punters might say, “Actually, the person who met me at registration and made me feel welcome was the most important person I met this weekend.”
The dominant discourse of modern lindy hop prioritises and values the work that white men do most highly.
Here’s another issue:
“The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.”
This is a misleading premise.
This isn’t how ideology works. If it’s a fascist state, it might. But hegemony in the modern capitalist patriarchy works in a different way. We don’t have a scene spokesman standing at a mic declaiming, “We will only enjoy bands from 1935-1945. We will only dance to bands from the US.”
But hegemony is more subtle. We get this message that ‘preservation is prime’ from a whole heap of sources and texts:
- The only bands that get hired at mega-events are preservationist bands led and staffed by white men. Each of those independent messages tells me that big organisers don’t value the work of women or people of colour. It also suggests, implicitly, that the only _valuable_ or ‘good’ musicians are white men.
- The only DJs who play those mega-events are white. And often white men (those the latter is changing, I’d argue that most of those white women DJs (myself included) are people who engage with dance in a particular way: assertive, relatively ambitiously, etc -> characteristics usually ascribed to hetero white men).
…and so on.
I’m interested in how this works in places like Seoul. There we see white bands flown into the country for big gigs. And they’re the same bands we see at American mega-events. But we also see local gendered and ethnicised relationships of power at work. Interestingly, Sage Minn’s band, one of the very few in Seoul, has women members. I wonder if it’s because they’re playing western music, Korean mores and values don’t apply in the same way? I actually saw a fab conference paper about pop culture in Seoul a few years ago that discusses this.
“Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald; Chick Webb, Billie Holiday; Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing; Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!”
…so you can do all that other stuff, just not here?
“I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —”
This is where this post gets a bit defensive. The original post was actually really gentle (I thought). But you know that saying, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
If you’re used to adulation, a little light supposition feels like a take down.
“Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus.”
This is a deeply problematic comment. I’ve seen this quite a lot in white discussions about racism (I actually did a Masters on it). If we only define racism as white cops killing Black kids, or KKK lynching Black men, then anything ‘less’ can be positioned as ‘not-racism’.
But we know that racist discourse is far more complex. All those white DJs and white bands and white MCs? That’s racism.
Here’s an example:
“there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them.”
This is racism.
In this sentence he is literally saying that he/we** do not value Black musicians enough to pay them what they’re worth.
It’s racism because of what is not said, and because of the implicit valuing of ‘historic’ Black work, and devaluing of contemporary Black work. We’ll only raise a zillion dollars to fund the transcription of work by dead Black men; we won’t shell out some of that money to pay living Black men and women a living wage.
More importantly, this statement presented with no facts or evidence, will become a ‘truth’ repeated all over the scene. It will become what we describe in cultural studies as a ‘myth’: a valuative statement that is repeated so often it becomes a ‘fact’ with huge, powerful status.
The effect of this type of cultural myth is that other events and organisers won’t book Black bands or artists because ‘they’re too expensive’. And the myth will grow.
But why. Why is a Black musician more expensive? Does he mean that he’ll only hire a brilliant Black musician, but won’t hire a less awesome Black musician, and is quite ok hiring mediocre white men musicians?
I can’t continue down this reasoning: mediocre white men. Oh to have your confidence and power.
**The way he elides ‘we’ and ‘I’ is telling – he positions himself with an important ‘many’/majority, rather than taking responsibility for his own choices. This establishes his position as part of a powerful ‘many’.
“and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing??”
While I have sympathy for him, I’d like to remind the white world that Black Americans have been fighting like demons while their society rapes and murders them with official sanction. Women work on sexual harassment and assault issues while they are being harassed every day.
This is why we call it disruption: it disrupts the status quo. And if you’re a white man, it’s often the first time you’ve had to do this work while also managing your daily dramas.
As a final note, I’m gonna quote Audre Lorde:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (source: Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
In this context, I mean that accepting the premise of the original post is misleading. Following the instructions of a powerful white man will not help us deconstruct racism. We need to do something completely different.
I’m going to direct you to this post.
Diversity Means Disruption.
Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
… diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives … are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change.
Covid19 provides an opportunity for this disruption. Or does it? In the US and here in Australia, people of colour are disproportionately affected by the virus and its effects. They’re too busy fighting racism to think about jazz. Here is a really clever twitter thread, where the writer Abu Owaisi connects up the Victorian government’s locking 9 housing commission towers, the SES removing donated goods, white journalists’ influential commentary, and the devaluing of work by migrant community groups.
So, allies, time to dismantle the master’s house. Let’s do something completely new.
A friend on fb mentioned that it’s tricky to get a handle on how words can be used in different ways in activist literature, and it’s even harder to negotiate this stuff when you’re trying to learn about a particular social justice topic with the goal of doing activist work. She made a really good point: if you want to be an ally you want to understand and use the definitions and language of the people you’re working with. You don’t want to impose your own beliefs.
This is the sort of thing I’ve taught undergraduates quite a few times, and it’s one of my favourite topics. How do you read and evaluate a source, when you have a political goal in mind? It’s a skill, and one we can learn. Anyhoo, here are some of my thoughts.
How To Read Stuff
When we do a literature review widely on a topic, we find lots of different opinions and ideas, and many of them clash. In fact, it’s also totally legit to change your ideas about words or topics over the years… or months or days… as you read more, and learn more. And the very best part is that new things are being written all the time. New ideas to stimulate your brain and get you excited about the world.
Asking Questions About The Text
Something that helps us evaluate each text (each book, article, post, etc), is to ask some questions about the text itself. This questions is also called ‘textual analysis’.
- Who is the author?
What is their gender? Their ethnicity? How do they identify themselves? Do they identify themselves? What else have they written? Are they associated with a particular institution (a university, a government department, a think tank)?
- What is the context of this text?
Where did you find it? Is it a magazine article? A journal article? A book? A tv series? A film? A speech? When was it produced?
- What ideology does it express?
What are the values it portrays? Does it respond to other ideologies? Is it feminist? Activist? Racist? Does the author say things like ‘I position myself within Black radical feminism?’
- What other texts and authors does it reference?
Does it say good things about Martin Luther King? Does it talk about Stuart Hall? Are its references all white? All male? All straight?
- Does it drop any jargon?
Does it use words that have particular meanings, eg ‘Black’; ‘gender’; patriarchy’; the ‘establishment’; ‘rational thought’?
All these words are used in different ways by different discourses and ideologies.
Go In With A Goal
There is a lot of fun stuff to read and watch and listen to. But it helps to stay on track. Ask yourself:
What do you want to learn?
What are your goals?
Discourse: The Relationships Between Texts, And Sharing Ideas
In my area (of cultural studies), the word ‘discourse’ means ‘all the words and articles and tv shows and songs and stories on a topic’. So when we talk about the discourse of ‘Blackness’, there are a trillion different texts involved. Some of them agree, a lot of them don’t. And we will argue a lot about what is relevant.
Academic discourse encourages disagreement or critical discussion. It’s common for a specific journal to have an author publish an article, then someone else publish a response article in the next issue. There are famous fights between authors that have led to screaming matches at conferences. But there have also been excellent discussions where authors have gone on to work together and do great work that changes the world.
Now, this friend was referring to two different texts, and was wondering how to read these two different ideas when they seemed to be very different. I think this is a brilliant question. It’s the core of critical thinking, I reckon. So I had a go at answering. The next section of this post uses some close textual analysis to see what each text is saying, and how we might read them together to develop our own ideas about this topic.
Ideology: The Ideas That Explain The Connections Between Texts
The next useful term is ‘ideology’. Ideology is, basically ‘ideas about the world’ and there are lots of competing and contrasting ideologies at work in any one discourse. So in this ‘Blackness’ discourse, we can see the queer Black American masculinity of DeFrantz’s ideology, but also the feminist Latina ideology at work. They have common elements (they both talk about gender, about ethnicity, and about race), but in different countries and cultures. If the two authors met at a party, they’d probably have a lot to talk about and agree on.
How can both these articles be ‘true’ at the same time?
Let’s do some textual analysis.
The articles we’re looking at are:
- Collaborator Sally, Black or Afro-descendant?, 21 April 2014.
- Thomas DeFrantz, Dancing Many Drums
Excavations in African American Dance, November 2001.
- Who is the author?
Tommy DeFrantz is an American man who identifies as black and gay.
In the second piece you’ve referenced, the author is ‘Collaborator Sally’, and we can’t find out much more about them than that.
If you do a search for DeFrantz’ work (in academic publishing, youtube videos, etc), you’ll find a bunch of articles, books, videos and so on. And you’ll discover he’s a university-based academic, working at a very prestigious American university.
This doesn’t mean that DeFrantz is a ‘better’ source than Collaborator Sally, but it does mean that we know _more_ about him. And his position as a peer-reviewed author means that his work has been interrogated and discussed and thought about by a lot of people.
- What is the context?
The DeFrantz text is a section in a book, published by DeFrantz. The second is a post/article in a Spanish language magazine that has a range of articles discussing gender, politics, and ethnicity. One is written in English, the other in Spanish.
Neither is more important or more valuable than the other, but they are writing for different audiences. While they’re both talking about the African diaspora, one is talking about being a Black man in America today (and during slavery), and the other about being a Black woman in Latin America today.
- Which is ‘true’?
It’s a trick question. Both definitions of ‘Black’ can be true at the same time. For a Latin-American woman the word ‘Black’ can be something she reclaims from negative use in her country/region. For DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a word he uses with other Black folk, often in a casual setting.
The supercool thing about this, is that they both understand that words are tricky, and don’t have fixed meanings.
This idea has its roots in cultural studies: the idea that words are just sounds or marks on a page, until someone reads them and interprets them. The _way_ we use them is informed by who we are. So as a white, middle class Australian woman, I don’t feel any ownership (or right to ownership) of the word ‘Black’. For authors like DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a powerful word for identity and culture, and when he uses it, he’s saying something about who he is, and the culture he belongs to.
So what do we do with this analysis?
Ideas or Practice?
Some academic discourse is all about theory. Some is more practical. For example, I tend to think of myself as a ‘pragmatic feminist’, a term I borrowed from Nancy Fraser. She argued in one of her books that ‘women’s studies’ as a discipline has no value if it doesn’t involve practical activism – feminism. So, for me, ‘doing feminism’ is about doing political activism. And in this case, doing what I can to improve the world for people who are marginalised. As Maya Angelou once famously told a bunch of graduates: now that you are empowered, you have a responsibility to empower others.
You can see in that last paragraph how I took the ideas of two different feminists (one Black and one white, both women, both American and writing in the 80s) to develop my own political ideas. My choosing these two tells you something about me – my age, my background, etc.
I found Tommy DeFrantz’ work very inspiring when I wrote my PhD on dance. Who he is as a person was important to this.
I met him at a conference, and speaking to him was extra inspiring: he’s a dancer. He wanted to go out to dance and to hang out and socialise. He didn’t mind that I was just a student and he a visiting scholar. He was a gentle, clever man with a great sense of humour. And the things he said in his paper about Afro-futurism and film and dance were exciting. I’m not a Black, gay, American man, but I can find his ideas and ways of thinking useful and exciting.
Back to the original point: how can I use the different definitions of ‘Black’ in my practice, as an activist, and an ally?
The word ‘praxis’ is a combination of this thinking and ideology and actual practical work.
What is Black?
The nice thing about all this is that the word ‘Black’ can be used in lots of different ways.
It can be a powerful political and ideological tool. eg in Australia, Black or Blak is a political and cultural way of talking about being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It can involve ethnicity (ie culture and identity – who you are, what you wear, the language you speak, the way you were raised, your beliefs, the food you eat, etc), politics (who you identify as and with as a citizen, whether you engage in activism or political action, etc), etc. Lots more than just skin colour.
I read a really nice article the other day where a Samoan woman was explaining to her son that he wasn’t ‘part Samoan’; he _was Samoan_. I’ve also heard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say the same thing: you’re not part Aboriginal, you _are_ Aboriginal. You _are_ Blac(k).
This is very powerful and important because white colonial powers spend a lot of time and energy dividing people of colour into groups, and then trying to ‘breed out’ the blackness. Racism is about believing one ‘race’ is better than another. White supremacy is about believing that whiteness and white culture is better.
In Australian history, ‘integration’ policies were about ‘breeding out’ blackness. Children with lighter skin were taken from their Black parents and fostered with white people, while their darker skin siblings were not (there is a great film called Sapphires which has the most touching, wonderful scene at the end where a girl is reminded of this by her grandmother). This ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia is an example of how white governments tried to break Black culture by removing Black children from Black parents and ‘making them white’.
The phrase “I’m Black and I’m proud!” in 1960s civil rights discourse is a good example of how identifying as Black can be empowering. This reclaiming of a word is a bit like saying ‘queer’ in the queer community in the 80s. A term of insult becomes a shout of pride:
“Yes I am Gay! And it’s beautiful!”
“YES, I am BLACK, and I am PROUD of that, not ashamed!”
- Collaborator Sally, Black or Afro-descendant?, 21 April 2014.
- Thomas DeFrantz, Dancing Many Drums
Excavations in African American Dance, November 2001.
- DeFrantz, Thomas. “Believe the Hype!: Hype Williams and Afro-Futurist Filmmaking.”
Unpublished paper. Spectacle, Rhythm and Eschatology: A Symposium.
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 24th July 2003.
Grey recently asked on fb ‘Ok, Feelings on bell hooks?’
And I got caught up in my response.
bell hooks was really important for me as a young feminist in the early 90s. At that stage, most of published women’s studies literature was by white women, and the women of colour who were getting published (primarily in journals, then in books), really shook up my thinking about class and identity. At the time, it really made me understand the intersection of class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, though at the time it wasn’t called ‘intersectionality’. I was a young, white woman in a working class suburb of a politically corrupt state. People like hooks just blew my brain. It was thrilling.
I remember reading her work, and the work of Ruby Langford Gibni (Aboriginal Australian woman), Audre Lorde (black american feminist), Rita Mae Brown (American lesbian), and then Stuart Hall (queer black British cultural studies king). They were essential to my understanding of identity politics. Because I was a cultural studies person, I was also really influenced by film makers like Laura Mulvey (white British feminist), Lizzie Borden (black American radical), Tracey Moffatt (Aboriginal Australian artist), and by a bunch of authors.
I was lucky enough to be doing my BA in a huge english department (before media studies and cultural studies existed as disciplines), and that department included a lot of politically active feminists, poc, queer peeps, etc etc. So I was able to do subjects across a range of thinking within my BA. Goddess bless Gough Whitlam and the 1980s Australian university arts degree. I remember doing a lot of multiculturalism reading (in a postcolonial context), queer reading (a library full of books about sex!), and getting access to first nations activism. We had brilliant lecturers who were also activists in a lot of cases, and were culturally diverse. Nothing gets you fired up like a koori woman pointing at you and asking you what you’re bloody doing sitting there when there’s a rally to get to?!
All these people in the 80s and early 90, and their critiques of university-based white women’s studies (which was distinct from a lot of the feminist activism of the day), helped me understand that feminism can’t just be about gender. It has to address class, race, sexuality, etc, and it has to engage with institutional patriarchy. I was also influenced by Nancy Fraser (white American feminist) and her concept of ‘pragmatic feminism’. She argued that women’s studies had to have a practical, activist component (feminism) or it was just shoring up the academy.
But that was 20 years ago, and feminism has moved on. The lack of trans voices in the ‘feminist canon’ of that second wave is particularly telling. Even queer voices were marginalised at that moment. I personally think that the rise of trans politics within feminism has been the most radical change of this wave. And that’s no doubt why TERFs have so much trouble with it.
I think that these writers are important for understanding the history of feminism and gender studies, and for understanding women and activists of that generation (who are in their 60s an 70s now). But there are problems with them as well. And the nice thing about modern feminism is that it has moved on, adding new voices and thoughts to the discussion.
As a side note, I’m getting quite interested in Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib at the moment. Old school feminists, but powerful thinkers.
Black activist men:
Straight up, my most favourite thinker is Stuart Hall (queer, black, British man). His work on class, race, gender, and sexuality in culture was the most influential work I read when I was doing my MA and PhD. I love the way he wrote, and his ideas really resonated with me.
I was also influenced by Paul Gilroy (another black British thinker) for his radical black politics.
And I’m a big fan of Tommy DeFrantz (queer black American dance history scholar), who I met while I was doing my PhD. He’s a dancer and scholar, and the way he talked about black dance and media culture, as well as being a dancer himself, part of a dance community, shook me. Plus he is a kind man, and just the right influence I needed at that stage in my own work on race and dance.
I came across Raúl H. Villa and his work on the latina public sphere in LA in the late 19th and early 20th century and was fascinated (partly because it overlaps with the zoot suit riots stuff). I also got into Michael Warner (white American queer)’s work on the queer public sphere.
This then led me to another thought…
Academic journals and magazines were really important in that 70s/80s/90s moment, because they were often published by collectives, or by groups of scholars who had shared interests (and politics). They’d publish special issues, or articles with the latest thinking, and then in following issues authors would respond to those articles or issues. That meant you could see the thinking happening at the time in a particular journal.
So, for example, ‘Screen’ published Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Autumn 1975) in vol 16, issue 3 (pg 6–18), but people got so worked up about it (it was influential) that the next issue was themed, and all in response to her article.
There were also some really great magazines and journals published outside universities that gave marginalised writers a voice. eg On Our Backs (a sex positive lesbian erotica magazine) was a response to Off Our Backs (a feminist mag that was often anti-porn). For more.
When I first got to uni, I remember being kind of crazed by access to so many huge libraries. I would just sit in there reading everything. So. Many. Journals. I’d never even heard of things like feminist magazines or journals.
I know there are special collections of these things here in Australia eg Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
The language was exciting: very RISE UP! and radical activist.
And of course, at this point, it’s important to point out that Grey’s research and thinking can be read in Obsidian Tea, one of the most important publications in the modern lindy hop and blues dance world.
It’s very interesting.
Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.
I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.
I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:
- Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
- Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
- Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.
I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.
Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.
But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!
That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D
We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).
I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).
I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.
…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.
So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?
Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…
a long post from fb.
I am interested in:
- sexual harassment and assault and its role in discouraging women musicians;
- the recent round of cuts in arts council funding and its role in pushing musicians o/s;
- do women follow the jobs o/s as younger men do, or do they have domestic commitments keeping them here?;
- whether or not a lack of attention to female historical figures in jazz education disuades young women musicians;
- intra-band culture and masculinism, and their role in discouraging women from playing instruments (v singing), and consequent effects on the music itself;
- are broader industrial factors inaccessible for women, because of impossible child care and donestic labour making the late hours, excessive drinking and drug use cultural factors central to jazz music culture and networking)
And so on.
I also want to look at the intersection of race, class, and sexuality, because the australian jazz world is very white, very straight, and very male.
What’s the point of asking these questions?
- most dance event organisers are women; does jazzbro culture impede collaboration? Would it be different if there were more women musos?
- jazz is slowly fading away as musos and audiences pass away. Why is the jazz world ignoring (even fighting) the great resource of 51% (more!) of the population?
- how would the music itself be different if it became the vernacular not just of some white bros? How many more people would it resonate with, if the stories were more varied and interesting?
I just need money for research (incl library access, transcription resources, secure places for data, travel $$ for interviews, etc). But i could plan and do this research no worries.
Here is a thing I read today RE arts funding which made me think about this: https://twitter.com/beneltham/status/942570857250959360
And I’ve also been reading first-person accounts by very brave young women recording their experience with sexual assault and harassment in the jazz scene, both in the US and here in Australia.
Basically: getting raped and harassed every day by staff, teachers, students, and punters discourages young women musicians. How can it even be true. Unfathomable*.
Upshot: sexual assault is a very good way of getting rid of threats to male egos and careers. ie talented young women.
Similarly, racism (both explicit and implicit) is another good way to get rid of threats (to white masculinity): talented young musicians of colour.
None of this is news. We have decades of first hand and academic research supporting this idea that sexual assault and harassment are tools of the patriarchy: discouraging women and others from breaching the citadel.
*insert sarcasm gif
I feel like the ban on black/american musicians touring Australia until the 50s is also relevant. And the role of the musicians union(s).
…and I want to look at the role of women in the Australian jazz industry to date. Especially the role of the women in the 50s, 60s, and so on up til now – the people who managed gigs, sold tickets, etc etc. All that unpaid, low status work that actually makes a gig possible.
I think that ‘uses of history’ is going to be important too. Something about the way historical figures, historical recordings and texts, ideas about history, authenticity, etc etc are used in ‘jazz’.
I feel like there’s some connection with the way Herrang really discourages modern black music like hip hop, house, rap, etc etc, yet sponsors the Frankie Manning ambassadors and young black people to the camp. These kids are allowed to come as ‘ambassadors’, but they aren’t allowed to bring their own, modern day music and dance – stuff they are authorities on. They have to be positioned as ‘special cases’ accessing black history via white ‘specialists’ in Europe, v accessing black history via their own families and communities and bodies and contemporary culture.
…I guess it’s all about culture, gatekeeping, power, and access to knowledge. And the discursive role of words and concepts like ‘authentic’, ‘history’, even ‘swing’. And which historical figures are used (Louis Armstrong vs Lil Hardin Armstrong etc).
So I guess we’re looking at the intersection of ideas about ‘work/labour’, ‘art’, ‘creativity’, ‘gender/race/ID’ in a particular creative field. Same old same old, really, but in a new context. And the new part is the role of funding and support (eg universities) by governments today, and jazz’s shift from vernacular music and culture funding by everyday spaces (eg bars, cafes, dancehalls) to ‘art’ funded by the state and high-end sponsorship. Which, it turns out, is much more precarious. There’s also something in there about education, learning, and teaching in vernacular vs institutional spaces. I think that’s the bit that’ll interest me most.
I’m already pretty interested in community arts practice via ‘art’ in galleries, opera houses, conservatoria, etc etc. I’d like to have a look at some cultural policy studies literature on engagement with the arts in Australia. ie do more people ‘engage with the arts’ as amateur makers via craft courses, community choirs, school holiday programs, etc etc, than they do via more formal routes like ‘going to see a show at the opera house’ or ‘attending the Sydney Festival’? I’d also like to look at the pathways to professional musicianship – via places like the Con, or via music programs in universities, or via informal apprenticeships with family members, or via ongoing lessons with teachers? And do these pathways offer particular obstacles or opportunities for women/POC/queer folk?
And of course, what are the more complex (and interesting) networks and convergences of all these pathways and factors? eg attending the Con, taking classes as a kid at school, practicing with friends in high school, making a band, recording and broadcasting at home for youtube, etc etc etc.
Here’s a post I’ve just discovered, that may have fallen off my database somehow.
MAY 4, 2009
In the earliest parts of my researching into jazz history, I tried to set up a sort of ‘time line’ or map* of musicians and cities and bands. Who played with which band in what city at what time? Then where did they go? This approach was partly based on the idea that particularly influential musicians (like Armstrong) would spread influence, from New Orleans to New York and beyond.
But drawing these time lines out on pieces of paper, I found it wasn’t possible to draw a nice, clear line from New Orleans to New York, passing through particular bands. Musicians left New Orleans, went to New York, then back to New Orleans, then off to France, then back again to New York. The discographies revealed the fact that a band recorded in different cities during the year – they were in constant motion, all over America. Furthermore, musicians didn’t stick with one band, they moved between bands, they regularly used pseudonyms and even the term ‘band’ is problematic. The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, with its dozens and dozens of names, was in fact a shifting, changing association of musicians, and did not even have a fixed ‘core’ set of players. Perhaps this is why the MBRB is so important: many people played with them, and they were a band(s) which moved and changed shape, a loose network of musicians who really only existed as ‘a band’ when they were caught, in one moment, on a recording. Or perhaps on a stage (though that’s far more problematic). I wonder if that’s why it’s so hard to find a photo of them? Perhaps the ‘Mills Blue Rhythm Band’, as a discrete entity didn’t really exist?
The more I read about jazz and ‘jazz’ history, the more convinced I am by the idea of ‘jazz’ as a shifting series of relationships. I think about cities not as fixed locations, but as points on a sort of ‘trade route’ or even as a complicated web or network of relationships between individual musicians (which is, incidentally, how I think about international swing dance culture – the physical place is important, but it’s not binding).
Right now I’ve followed some references backwards to an article by Scott DeVeaux called Constructing the Jazz Tradition, which is really interesting. It not only outlines some of the political effects of a coherent ‘narrative’ history of jazz, but also the economic and social effects of positioning jazz as a ‘black music’, with interesting references to consequences of the ‘jazz musician as artist’ for black musicians. Read in concert with David Ake’s discussion of creole identity and ethnicity in New Orleans as far more complicated than ‘black’ and ‘white’, this makes for some pretty powerful thinking.
I’m very interested in the idea of a ‘jazz canon’ and of the role of people like Wynton Marsalis, the Ken Burns Jazz discography, jazz clubs and magazines developing during the 30s and 40s devoted to New Orleans recreationism and the whole ‘moldy figs’ discussion. The tensions surrounding the Newport jazz festival also feed into this: the Gennari article (which I discuss in reference to its descriptions of white, middle class men rioting at Newport here) pointed out the significance of a festival program loaded with ‘trad’ jazz – for black musicians and for the popularising of jazz generally. I’ve also been reading about the effects of this emphasis on trad jazz for superstar musicians like Louis Armstrong.
O’Meally and Gabbard have written about the way Armstrong’s public, visual persona is marked by ethnicity.
Armstrong was known for his visual ‘mugging’, or playing the ‘Uncle Tom‘ for white audiences, particularly on stage. Eschen writes
…as the struggle for equality accelerated, Armstrong was widely criticized as an Uncle Tom and, for many, compared unfavourably with a younger, more militant group of jazz musicians (193)
This, as Eschen continues, despite the fact that Armstrong was actually an active campaigner for civil rights in America, and overseas.
The trad jazz movement – or ‘moldy figs’ pushing for the preservation of an ‘authentic’ jazz from New Orleans – effectively pushes Armstrong to continue as Uncle Tom – unthreatening black man clowning for white audiences. A narrative history of jazz which emphasises a beginning in New Orleans and a consistent, clearly defined lineage of musicians and styles also, more subtly, relies on an idea of the black musician as powerless or unthreatening. DeVeaux makes the point that positioning jazz (and jazz musicians) as artistic loners who do not ‘sell out’ with commercial success:
Issues of ethnicity and economics define jazz as an oppositional discourse: the music of an oppressed minority culture, tainted by its association with commercial entertainment in a society that reserves its greatest respect for art that is carefully removed from daily life (530)
In this world, the ‘true’ jazz musician is ‘black’ (in a truly singular, homogenous sense of the world), he is poor and he is mugging for white audiences.
Billie Holiday becomes a particularly attractive representation for this idea of the ‘jazz musician’: poor, black, addled by drugs and alcohol, a history of prostitution, yet nonetheless, a creative genius pouring out, untainted in recording sessions (and I’m reminded of the ‘one take’ stories) and tragically cut short.
All of this is quite disturbing for someone who really, really likes jazz from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Am I buying into this disturbing jazz mythology? It’s even more disturbing for someone who found similar themes in contemporary swing dancers’ development of ‘narratives’ and geneologies of jazz dance history. As DeVeaux writes (about jazz, not dance), though, this is
The struggle is over possession of that history, and the legitimacy that it confers. More precisely, the struggle is over the act of definition that is presumed to lie at the history’s core (528)
I wonder if I should suspect my own critique of capitalist impulses in contemporary swing dance discourse?
I don’t think it’s that simple. Gabbard discusses Armstrong’s work with Duke Ellington, including the filming of Paris Blues (in which Armstrong starred, and for which Ellington contributed the score) and the recording of the ‘Summit’ sessions:
at those moments in the film when he seems most eager to please with his vocal performances, his mugging is sufficiently exaggerated to suggest and ulterior motive. Lester Bowie has suggested that Armstrong is essentially slipping a little poison into the coffee of those who think they are watching a harmless darkie.Throughout his career in films, Armstrong continued to subvert received notions of African American identity, signifying on the camera while creating a style of trumpet performance that was virile, erotic, dramatic, and playful. No other black entertainer of Armstrong’s generation “with the possible exception of Ellington” brought so much intensity and charisma to his performances. But because Armstrong did not change his masculine presentation after the 1920s, many of his gestures became obsolete and lost their revolutionary edge. For many black and white Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he was an embarrassment. In the early days of the twenty-first century, when Armstrong is regularly cast as a heroicized figure in the increasingly heroicising narrative of jazz history, we should remember that he was regularly asked to play the buffoon when he appeared on films and television (Gabbard 298)
You can see a clip from Paris Blues here.
Armstrong’s performance gains meaning from its context, from the point of view of the observer, from his own actions as a ‘real’ person (Armstrong was in fact openly, assertively critical of Jim Crowism and quite politically active) and from its position within a broader ‘body’ of Armstrong’s work as a public performer. Pinning it down is difficult – it’s slippery.
The idea of layers of meaning is not only interesting, it’s essential. This physical performance of identity, tied to the physicality of playing an instrument reminds me of the layers of meaning in black dance. And of course, of hot and cool in dance, and the layers of meaning in blues dance and music. Put simply, what you see at first glance, is not all that you are getting. Layers of meaning are available to the experienced, inquiring eye. Hiding ‘true’ meanings (or more subversive subtexts) is important when the body under inspection is singing or dancing from the margins. Tommy DeFrantz discusses meaning and masculinity in black dance during slavery:
serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107).
Armstrong’s performance is more than simply its surface. As with any clown, the meanings are more complex than a little light entertainment. Gabbard continues his point:
In short, Ellington plays the dignified leader and Armstrong plays the trickster. Armstrong’s tricksterisms were an essential part of his performance persona. On one level, Armstrong’s grinning, mugging, and exaggerated body language made him a much more congenial presence, especially to racist audiences who might otherwise have found so confident a performer to be disturbing, to say the least. When Armstrong put his trumpet to his lips, however, he was all business. The servile gestures disappeared as he held his trumpet erect and flaunted his virtuosity, power, and imagination (Gabbard 298).
This, of course, reminds me of that solo in High Society that I mentioned in a previous post. There’s some literature discussing the physicality of jazz musician’s performances, but I haven’t gotten to that yet (though you know I’m busting for it). I have read some bits and pieces about gender and performance on stage (especially in reference to Lester Young), and there’re some interesting bits and pieces about trumpets and their semiotic weight, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, either.
Sorry to end this so abruptly: these are really just ideas in process. :D
To sum all that up:
– The idea of a jazz musician as ‘isolated artist’ is problematic, especially in the context of ethnicity and class. Basically, the ‘true jazz musician who doesn’t sell out by making money’ is bad news for black musicians: it perpetuates marginalisation, not only economically, but also discursively, by devaluing the contributions of black musicians who are interested in making a living from their music. Jazz musicians are also members of communities.
– Linear histories of jazz are problematic: they deny the diversity of jazz today, and its past. Linear histories with their roots in New Orleans, insisting that this is ‘black music’ overlook the ethnic diversity of New Orleans in that moment: two categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ do not recognise the diversity of Creole musicality, of the wide range of migrant musicians, of the diversity within a ‘white’ culture (which is also Italian and English and American and French and….), of economic and class relations in the city, and so on.
– ‘linear histories’ + ‘musician as artist’ neglect the complexities of everyday life within communities, and the role that music plays therein. These myths also overlook the fact that music is not divorced from everyday life; it is part of a continuum of creative production (to paraphrase LeeEllen Friedland and to refer to discussions about Ralph Ellison – which I will talk about later on).
– Music and dance have a lot in common. They carry layers of meaning, and aren’t simply discrete canvases revealing one, singular meaning to each reader. They are weighted down by, buoyed up by a plethora of ideas and themes and creative industrial practices and sparks.
DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.
DeVeaux, Scott, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” Black American Literature Forum 25.3 (1991): 525-560.
Eschen, Penny M. The real ambassadors. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 189-203.
Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.”
Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in
Movement and Dance. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 –
Gabbard, Krin. “Paris Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It with Music”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 297-311.
Gennari, John. “Hipsters, Bluebloods, Rebels, and Hooligans: the Cultural Politics of the Newport Jazz Festival.” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 126-149.
Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.
O’Meally, Robert G. “Checking our Balances: Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison and Betty Boop”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 276-296. (You can see the animated Betty Boop/Armstrong film O’Meally references here.
*The jazz map was found via jazz.com, but they don’t list the url for the map in context.
There’s something seriously addictive about historic ‘jazz maps’. I think it’s because they’re imaginary places. My latest find: New Orleans ‘jazz neighbourhoods’.
I think it’s worth copying this discussion from fb to here. Not too long ago I got into a ‘discussion’ on fb about why codes of conduct are important. One of the things that struck me was how aggressively one woman rejected the idea of structural change to reduce attacks on women (ie codes of conduct), and also tried to get me to moderate my tone. A bit of ‘tone policing‘.
I often have people (especially men) say they won’t read what I write, or don’t think what I’m saying is important because I swear too much, or because I’m ‘too aggressive’. In the case of this woman, somehow a discussion about whether codes of conduct are important became a bit of a ‘pity party’ for her. It was interesting, because I see this sort of tactic from women quite often. They’re disagreed with, so they respond by playing the martyr so people will ‘stop being mean’ (read: stop disagreeing with them). This is interesting in this case, because she’d said earlier in that thread that she didn’t think we needed codes of conduct because she feels confident enough to speak up for herself.
The tone policing is important, because the very point of the discussion was to change conditions so that women had more room to speak up for themselves, to accuse an attacker, to prevent harassment of other women, to agitate for social change, to be disagreeable.
I find that whenever I’m particularly confident or fierce in my language (even without swearing! :D ), I’m described as being ‘aggressive’ or ‘bullying’. When I reread what I’ve written, I’m really not being aggressive or bullying. I’m being confident. What I suspect is that the cliche of people seeing a woman who speaks at all in public as ‘aggressive’ applies here. And, more importantly, this idea of an ‘aggressive’ woman is deeply unsettling. For men, and for women who identify with a conventional gender identity.
There’s a lot going on in this exchange, but the bits that caught my interest were:
- this woman used her personal experience to justify resisting a policy which would protect people who had other experiences;
- the combination of ‘I’m strong enough to speak up for myself’ and the ‘stop being mean!’ in her language. It was conflicting logic which unsettled the discussion, and established her as a little ‘unstable’ and conventionally feminine (hence justifying the idea that we should be kind to her);
- I was actually rather moderate in my responses to her – I didn’t swear at her (I rarely do that; I swear near people all the time, but very, very rarely swear at people – that’s not cool), but I very clearly engaged with her points individually. This was the point at which she switched tactics from ‘oh, but I don’t think we need that’ to ‘don’t be mean!’ She positioned herself as being ‘attacked’, rather than being engaged in discussion;
- somehow we ended up a long way from a discussion of actual, physical attacks on women, instead having one woman positioning herself as ‘under attack’ when she was really just being disagreed with.
This is something that women often do. They manage a conversation that isn’t going their way through a combination of performing a defenceless victim role, and quite selfish arguments against working to safeguard other women. To me, this is the most disturbing part of patriarchy. It recruits women in their own disempowerment.
One of the consequences it had for me, was to doubt my own thinking. Was I ‘being mean’? I went through and reread the discussion. No, I wasn’t. I didn’t add any personal attacks (where I attacked her, rather than her argument), I didn’t get nasty with her. I just engaged each of her points, outlining how they were inaccurate. I think this was the issue: she saw a sustained disagreement as an ‘attack’.
I know there comes a point where we should abandon arguments online, or face to face. For all sorts of reasons. And usually I do, because GOD TIRED. But at that point I decided I’d see this through and untangle each of the points she presented.
What I was left thinking, was that when a woman does engage in public disagreements, using consistent, persistent logic or resistance, she’s perceived as ‘aggressive’. This is so in conflict with my training as a Phd and MA candidate, that I can’t quite accept it. I am trained to think through a point to it’s logical conclusion. I’m trained to hang onto an idea, working it over and over, to see where it leads.
I know that women are trained to avoid conflict, to use other methods for disagreeing or disapproving. But I think that it is important to be persistent in discussions sometimes, particularly as a woman. I deliberately chose not to adopt that preferred feminine mode of response where I would have apologised or reframed my points to make her feel comfortable. I wanted to discomfort her logic. Just that one time.
Because I get so tired of being sensible and calm and gentle. I’m tired of hearing the ‘you catch more flies with honey’ line. Being angry is important. And in this instance, where we are talking about sexual assault, physical attacks on women, I think it essential that we get angry. We need to persist. Being angry and loud and disagreeable is powerful. It’s feminist. It should unsettle and disturb. Those men who harass women rely on their not speaking up. They rely on women keeping quiet to avoid drama, violence, or being accused of being ‘aggressive’. So we should practice speaking up.
Anyhoo, moving on. This exchange was an example of how one woman argued that her personal experience was justification for not adopting systemic change.
I’ve also heard this argument against adopting codes of conduct: ‘we deal with these issues on a case by case basis’. This argument is a way of insisting that individualism is more important than collectivism. Or, more clearly, it makes it impossible to see the forrest for the trees. If we respond to each assault as a ‘single case’, we are so busy dealing with ‘cases’, we don’t see patterns. I think that the case by case approach is an explicit tool for resisting change, and enabling sexual assault. Because it responds to sexual assault, rather than preventing it. Assaults will still happen; women will still be attacked. The power of the authority ‘dealing’ with incidences is maintained; women are kept powerless. They’re not given tools to prevent assault. Men aren’t taught that assaulting women is not ok. I discussed this in my previous post, ‘yes all men, and all women. all of us.’.
Societies and cultures and communities are groups of individuals. But we are also people with shared experiences, and there are patterns of behaviour and experience. Collectivism is an important concept if we are to prevent sexual assault, not just respond to it.
Anyways, this brings me to my next point. That post ‘yes all men, and all women. all of us.’ was a post on fb. And one of the comments was quite interesting. A man asked:
What’s an example of a systemic barrier in organisations? I’m not being difficult, it’s just sometimes easier to see things once they’re pointed out that’s all
This was the perfect question. If we aren’t dealing with sexual assault on a case-by-case basis, if there are ‘systemic barriers’ (or broader cultural patterns of disempowerment), how do we identify them? This is a tricky one. And such a good question.
In a lindy hop context, not paying women teachers as much as male teachers, or only offering dances classes at the times babbies need the most care (ie 6.30pm). Both are examples of how an organisation or system makes it harder for women to continue teaching or learning, and favour men or people who don’t have child-caring responsibilities.
Still a systemic barrier, but more about discursive barriers: always referring to follows as ‘she’ or ‘ladies’.
Learning to see barriers is harder if you tend to benefit from barriers that affect others inversely. I keep my radar out, and the things that usually ping that radar are, for example, structural things that are divided by gender, or only affect women. So, for example, ‘wearing high heels in lindy hop’. If only women wear heels, or are encouraged to wear heels, I’m immediately suspicious. Similarly, if beginner dance classes divide students into leads and follows, but use gendered language to do so (eg ‘ladies over here, men over here’).
Context is important, of course. So because we live in the context of patriarchy, I tend to be suspicious of things that are related to gender. But you might also be looking for things like ethnicity: are all the teachers in a school white/anglo? Are all the performers in a troupe white/anglo? Are all the students in a class white/anglo? If that’s the case, then the next step is to ask ‘why?’ If you see broader patterns, then it’s probably structural or systemic barriers at work, preventing or discouraging certain people from entering the group.
The next step is then to start investigating. You can ask people of colour (POC) why they aren’t taking dance classes, but it’s more useful to start by observing things like language, social settings, clothing and other cultural stuff, etc etc.
Luckily, we have a few generations of feminists and other activists and thinkers to give us an idea of what to look for, and how to look for it.
Probably the most important tool for you, as hooman, is critical thinking. If you see something (eg no women on a DJing team), ask ‘why’, rather than just accepting it, or accepting an excuse like ‘there just aren’t any women DJs’. Similarly, if we see it’s only women, or mostly women being sexually harassed in a dance scene, ask ‘why?’ Because there are patterns (ie it’s women, not women and men being harassed in large numbers), then there are probably broader factors at play, beyond individual people – eg systemic, structural, discursive, cultural factors.
Once you’ve observed those systemic barriers, you can set about dismantling them. If you are in a position of relative privilege, then you are in a great place to do this sort of work.
I feel, as someone who benefits from systemic barriers (because I am a white, middle class women living in a big city in a developed country), I feel I have a responsibility to ask questions, and to be curious or suspicious. The nice thing about jazz dance, is that as a vernacular dance (ie a street dance, or ordinary social dance), it really works well as a tool for changing things, or asking questions, or being curious and creative.
I think, then, to summarise, addressing systemic change is about empathy. Thinking beyond your own personal experience. And I think that this is where my real problem with that woman at the beginning of this post lies. I believe in using empathy, imagining what it’s like to be someone else, to address patriarchy. That woman made an explicit call for empathy: ‘don’t be mean’. But I persisted, even though it caused her discomfort. Was this unfeminist? If sisterhood is at the heart of feminism (for me), then should I have stopped ‘being mean’?
It’s a tricky one. When I write on fb or here on this blog, I always remember that there are far, far more people reading along than commenting. So when I continued in that discussion, not heeding her ‘don’t be mean’ response, I risked alienating readers. Particularly female readers.
But I know that demonstrating how different ways of being a woman is important. Just as the best way to get more women leading in lindy hop is to have more women leading in lindy hop, having women speaking up and being disagreeable – and coming out of it unscathed – is a way to model speaking up for yourself when you’re sexually harassed.
The irony, of course, is that many conservative peeps find it difficult to empathise with women who aren’t conventionally feminine, who aren’t quiet and meek victims. Who are confident and vocal and disagreeable.
But as we all know, bitches get shit done.
In that setting, I figure I can be that outlier – the bitch at the far end of the spectrum. And hopefully someone else can fly under the radar, being sneakily subversive, rather than loud and stroppy. Me, I don’t have the patience. I’m femmo stroppo because my friends are being assaulted – attacked, raped, hurt – by men. And there’s no time to waste.
My jazz nerdery has reached (glorious) new heights.
This genuine jazz zine (accompaniment to our jazz history class) can be YOURS for the grand sum of 50AUc. PM to find out how to get it to your house.
Now available ONLINE as my journey into capitalism continues: http://swingdancesydney.com/shop.html
Price: now incredibly high (to cover postage), but also with the added incredible experience of receiving actual PAPER MAIL
I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage with this topic. But you know, post-event boredom, feeling a bit bolshey. Time to ramp it up.
This is the sort of post that I get heaps of hate mail for. Usually with a few sooky comments by people telling me to:
– stop hating
– just relax
– be happy the dance is getting some exposure
– be thankful the community is getting ‘grown’.
But FUCK me.
…multiple forms of the dance that was created in late 1920s Harlem by Frankie Manning are growing ever more popular (source)
I had a quick look at this book the other day in the book shop, and I was pretty unimpressed. Nice type, nice photos, nice etc etc. Entirely lacking in substance. Reminded me very much of this 2009 book:
But honestly. Fucking HONESTLY. Whoever wrote the blurb for this book needs to:
a) find out who Frankie Manning was, and what he did (tip, he didn’t create ‘swing dancing’ in the 1920s),
b) have a think about what the business hosting this website does,
c) just stop.
If this line is in the book (and I remember some dodgy bits like this in my quick flick), then the author needs to take a long hard look at himself.
…because I can’t leave this here.
1. Frankie Manning didn’t invent lindy hop. A whole heap of people were dancing lindy hop before he got to it, and as with all vernacular dances, lots of people had a hand in ‘making’ and remaking it. Frankie himself would have been the first to make this clear.
2. Let’s talk about George Snowden at some point, and the ‘swing out’ or ‘breakaway’.
3. Let’s talk about WOMEN. Who were these leads’ partners? You can’t invent a partner dance on your own, you can’t do new and creative things in a partner dance without a partner. So fuck THAT noise.
4. I know that someone somewhere is trying to make a point about Frankie and the first ‘air step’ and I can dig that. But that is not where we will end this discussion: who pulled out this first over-the-top with Frankie? ie who was his partner? And what other sorts of acrobatic steps were happening before these guys pulled this out in a comp?