Swing bandleaders and the left

Austin, Andrew austina at SPAMuwgb.edu
Tue Jan 16 12:45:00 MST 2001

Robin Kelley, who was one of the advisers on that documentary, expressed to
me great disappointment in the way elements of the final product were
presented. Much was left out.

Andrew Austin
Green Bay, WI

-----Original Message-----
From: Louis Proyect [mailto:lnp3 at panix.com]
Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 1:09 PM
To: marxism at lists.panix.com
Cc: lpanitch at yorku.ca
Subject: Swing bandleaders and the left

I can't say that it came as a surprise that last night's episode of Ken
Burns' jazz documentary omitted any reference to the left-wing connections
of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb or Artie Shaw who were
prominently featured. They are, after all, best known for their music.

However, it is disgraceful that record producer John Hammond is depicted as
something of a "negrophile", whose connections to the Harlem jazz world has
to do more with a kind of bohemian flight from his haut-bourgeois
upbringing than with his radical politics. Hammond, who was largely
responsible for introducing black swing bands to a white, mainstream
audience through his position at Columbia records, was deeply involved in
the radical arts scene. Hammond wrote pseudonymous jazz reviews for the
CP's "New Masses" and organized benefits for the Scottsboro Boys legal
defense and the Spanish Loyalists.

Since we don't have to worry about catering to the mainstream sensibilities
of PBS, let's detail the leftwing connections of the three jazz greats
mentioned above.

Ellington had already developed loose ties with the left by 1930, when he
played at Communist Party fund-raisers in Harlem. In 1932 and 1935, he
performed at benefits for the Scottsboro boys defense, according to Michael
Denning in his superlative "The Cultural Front", a study of left culture of
the 1930s and 40s.

>From David Stowe ("Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America",
Harvard, 1998), we learn that Benny Goodman, like Duke Ellington, was a
member of the Musicians' Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. His band did a
benefit for Spanish Loyalists in May 1937. When Goodman came to CCNY to
give a lecture on jazz in 1939, he was sent to an auditorium where an
anti-Nazi rally was just coming to a conclusion. Goodman told the students,
"What just went on here is important too, and I'm sorry I wasn't here."
Goodman's ties to the left were almost inevitable given his background. He
was a child of immigrant Jewish garment workers, who grew up in Chicago's
Maxwell Street tenements. He got his early musical training in a synagogue
band and then at the Hull House.

When CP'er Benjamin Davis ran for the NYC city council in 1943, Goodman
endorsed him, along with Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other
jazz greats. When the witch-hunt began a few years later, Goodman and other
stars were threatened by powerful agents like the William Morris Agency to
cut their ties to the left or else forget about bookings.

The witch-hunt proved too powerful for most artists and Goodman began
shifting to the right. He became a consultant for Voice of America in 1947
and picked tunes that Russian teenagers might enjoy. He attempted a
half-hearted self-justification: "I suppose it could be called propaganda,
but it is the right kind of propaganda. In a world filled with doubts,
music is one common bond."

Chick Webb's band, featuring the young Ella Fitzgerald, played at events
sponsored by the Daily Worker's Harlem branch.

According to Denning, "Artie Shaw supported various left-wing peace groups
and was active in the campaign for civil rights in employment (particularly
for the FEPC, the Fair Employment Practices Commission). As a
self-described activist in the left-leaning Hollywood Independent Citizens
Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), Shaw was called
before HUAC in 1953. While denying that he was a member of the CP, Shaw
never denied that he was a radical.

Louis Proyect
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