THE BAD OLD DAYS

We still recoil in horror and shame when confronted with photographs of COLORED and WHITE drinking fountains and entrances . . . or at least I hope we do.  And I know that Alistair Cooke’s announcements on the jam sessions broadcast for the BBC in the late Thirties — announcing players by race, as if radio listeners needed to be protected from Negritude entering their living rooms — still startle unpleasantly.  But what should we make of this article, possibly sold around 1939?

AN ANTHOLOGY OF COLORED JAZZ

Was Decca suggesting that this was “authentic,” as in “We have the real stuff on our records,” an attempt to woo the JAZZMEN audience, or was it a way of warning off a racially-charged audience, “This is that degenerate stuff.  Keep the women and children a safe distance away”?

I can’t tell.  But since I think few listeners have their music categorized by racial / ethnic characteristics, this record album has not lost its potential to shock.

The music inside, of course, is colorful yet without pigmentation.

May your happiness increase!

6 responses to “THE BAD OLD DAYS

  1. Strange that you should be so offended by history. If you came to this country (New Zealand) you will find that decendants of the original native people (even though they are now totally assimilated-they no longer live is grass huts but are computer technicians, doctors etc-the whole range of occupations ) have advantages over the rest of the population. This is the way the UN sees that it should be. Racism exists and with UN approval!

  2. Michael P. Zirpolo

    Michael, as usual, your fertile mind is seeking the reason why something that was apparently acceptable 75 years ago is so completely, jarringly out of synch with what is, or should be, a more enlightened attitude today. I will offer my perspective, which may or may not be elucidating.

    The record companies in the 1930s recognized the realities of the marketplace as they then existed in a racially segregated America. “Race Music,” including blues artists and black bands, had been a substantial niche market for records since the early 1920s. In fact, MCA, which was certainly in the music business then, also recognized this reality: it has its own “colored” band division. Business in the USA has always been remarkably adept at following the money, and there was money to be made by segregating the record market to pitch and sell records (and bands) to a segregated society. Of course, white folks could always dip their toes into the warm waters of “Race Music,” and we know that many did just that.

    As for Alistair Cooke’s attitudes, I am quite sure he was not bigoted in any way. As an Englishman who came to America in the 1930s to observe, write about, and comment on American mores via radio broadcasts, he was undoubtedly bemused and chagrined at the peculiar behavior engendered by segregation. If anything, he was guilty of what Leonard Feather, another Englishman, once very aptly described as “Crow Jim,” the belief that Afro-American jazzmen were if anything musically superior to their white counterparts. The impresario and record producer John Hammond also had this attitude. Thus, the use of “colored this or that,” when referring to a jazz musician, was usually intended as a compliment, as strange as that seems today.

    I think it is very difficult for people today who had little or no exposure to segregated America to understand how weird and disturbing that particular scene was. I certainly wrestle with this every time I watch a feature film or read a book of fiction from the 1930s, or earlier, where Afro-Americans are treated in a way that is blatantly disrespectful, to say the least. The history of the ongoing struggle for all people to be treated as members of one race, the human race, goes on.

    Michael P. Zirpolo,
    Author,
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations
    and Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

  3. Perhaps it was meant to identify the records as musicians of the original style rather than those bands formed to meet the demands of college fraternities and radio programs.

  4. jOhn P. Cooper

    Regarding “Race records” and “Race music” – the latter term is new to me – “Race records” is a term that originated in the black press of the day and was used to identify music by ‘members of the race’ to black buyers looking for such. Easy as that. No freak-outs necessary.

  5. Whatever the strategy, surely the goal was to sell more records. Especially at Decca.

    Sadly, there remains a “Crow Jim” aspect to jazz today, evident in the Ken Burns mess, “Black American Music,” etc. Their audience is chiefly PC ignoranti with relatively little interest in the music.

  6. i agree with Michael Zirpolo. Consider the history of segregation after the slaves were freed 70 or 80 years earlier. Jazz was split between black and white audiences. I think that while the following paragraph is a generalization, it is pretty much true.

    Prior to 1930 or so, even Louis Armstrong was not well known among most white music audiences. There were two distinct markets for the music. Black audiences who knew about Armstrong, Oliver et al., bought their records and White audiences who knew about Whiteman, Gershwin, ODJB, NORK, et al and bought their records.

    Even as I became aware of “jazz” inthe early 1940s, it was still thought that black musicians were “real” jazzers and white musicians were pale imitations. After all, wasn’t it Bix who said in the mid 1920s that he would “go to hell to hear a black jazz band.”, or something like that.

    Seems to me from what I’ve read, that Armstrong led one of the few black bands during the 1930s that played to both white and black audiences, in separate venues in the still segregated South.

    IMO, the record companies simply followed the money, and Decca’s “Colored Jazz” was an attempt to appeal to a much larger white consumer base. Paul Whiteman had made jazz into legitimate music and there was, in their marketing eyes, a latent demand for the real thing.

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