How Jazz Served as a Beacon of Hope During the Darkest Days of WWII

How Jazz Served as a Beacon of Hope During the Darkest Days of WWII

The Age of Jazz began in the early 1920s, but the musical genre’s greatest contribution in history may well be the crucial role it played in World War II. Around the same time the United States entered the war, jazz and swing were dominating the airwaves, film, and, of course, live performance in the country. In Europe, which had already spent two years battling the Nazi regime, jazz was a symbol of everything that Adolf Hitler hated and, as a result, it was much loved.

Hitler himself was purported to despise the genre as fremdländisch,  or “alien music.” All such music was destined, the Nazis insisted, for eradication. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, called the music “the art of the subhuman,” and the regime used many other pejorative titles for it as well. As a result, the entire genre came to represent freedom, democracy, and, ultimately, liberation by way of American intervention, by the end of the war.

In response, the Nazis banned the use of the word “jazz” and all American musical performances in Paris. When this failed to stem the tide of tunes crossing the ocean, Goebbels ultimately assembled a swing band to rewrite popular songs with anti-Semitic lyrics and play those on the radio. Not surprisingly, these versions were not particularly popular, nor did Goebbels’ production of a propaganda film in which concentration camp prisoners played in a swing band do anything to enhance the Nazi cause. “The Ghetto Swingers” film “actors” ended their lives tragically in Auschwitz.

As the atrocious attempts to subvert the genre became increasingly ludicrous and nauseating, even German youth became enamored with jazz. The Swingjugend, or “swing kids,” held secret meetings to play jazz records and listen to Allied radio signals. Across Europe, for American troops and those suffering under the Nazi Regime alike, jazz was a source of morale and hope for the future.

Jazz trumpeters, already popular since the 1930s, played a particularly important role during this time period thanks to their ability to play rousing melodies and their presence in the military already. Although the saxophone eventually replaced the trumpet as the dominant instrument in jazz, the trumpet remained popular, particularly overseas. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie clearly recalls this era of jazz and the importance of the jazz trumpet during this period in an interview in which he observed that jazz must be considered “serious” music in contradiction to what the interviewer clearly believed. Gillespie said, “Men have died for this music…. You can’t get more serious than that.”

Interestingly, New York Times contributor John Wilson suggested in a 1983 jazz retrospective that one possible reason the saxophone overtook the trumpet in jazz performance  in the 1940s could be the untimely deaths of many of the most famous trumpeters of the era. “Creative trumpet players [such] as Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, and Lee Morgan” all died early and, Wilson wrote, their deaths might have heralded the trend to literally mute the trumpet during jazz performances. He noted hopefully, however, that “a new generation of trumpet influences” might emerge in the coming decade, and today’s jazz bands often prominently feature trumpeters in their compositions and performances. No matter the era, however, the notes of the jazz trumpet will always, now as then, ring clear as a symbol of hope, creativity, and individualism wherever jazz is played.

The Fascinating Story of How an Illiterate Italian Artist and Jazz Great Charles Mingus Have Been Supporting LA Arts for More Than 50 Years

The Fascinating Story of How an Illiterate Italian Artist and Jazz Great Charles Mingus Have Been Supporting LA Arts for More Than 50 Years

As a child, the revered jazz composer, double bassist, pianist, and bandleader Charles Mingus was considered musically illiterate and rejected from the local youth orchestra. To add insult to injury, despite being an accomplished cello player, he was unable to take up the instrument professionally because 1930s classical music was essentially closed to black musicians. However, Mingus’ dedication to his own craft and deep affection for the arts in general ultimately led to a unique pairing of the jazz great’s adult resources and a Los Angeles landmark cobbled together from glass, stones, and steel assembled by Italian immigrant and construction worker Sabato “Sam” Rodia between 1921 and 1954.

During the early stages of the construction of what is now known as the Watts Towers, Mingus and other neighborhood children often brought offerings of broken glass and pottery to Rodia in hopes of having them added to his great and mysterious project, which he called Nuestra Pueblo (our town). Most of the offerings were rejected in favor of shards from Malibu Pottery, where Rodia worked, but Mingus never forgot the towers, which eventually numbered 17, and ultimately his Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center would hold (and continues to hold) art classes at the Watts Towers Arts Center for youth and special needs adults.

Mingus was raised in the Watts area of Los Angeles, where Rodia spent 33 years building the Watts Towers. When Rodia’s construction was completed in 1954, Mingus would have been entering the most productive and creative years of his career. While Mingus likely spent a great deal of time as a very young child scavenging materials for the exciting and eccentric Rodia, by his early teen years he was far busier writing the advanced musical pieces he would later record in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller and gaining a reputation as a bass prodigy thanks to tours with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard and, subsequently, Louis Armstrong.

By the mid 1940s, Mingus was recording in LA and playing with jazz greats including Teddy Edwards, Bill Davis, and Howard McGhee. Mingus also received a great deal of acclaim thanks to his involvement with a jazz trio comprising himself, Red Norvo, and Tal Farlow, but he was ultimately forced to leave the band due to club owners’ issues with black performers. Ongoing racial conflict in his chosen profession exacerbated Mingus’ already short temper and, ultimately, he garnered the dubious honor of being one of only three musicians ever fired personally by Duke Ellington. That firing took place after Mingus got into a fight onstage with Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol.

After the Ellington firing, Mingus appears to have accepted his short temper as a handicap to playing in other people’s bands and opted to accommodate that temper rather than change it. He became a famed bandleader himself in addition to co-founding Debut Records so that he could handle his own recording career and support young musicians. He also created a group of rotating musicians called the Jazz Workshop, which many historians credit with the ultimate emergence of free jazz because Mingus insisted the musicians creatively explore their own music literally on the spot when they were working with him. His intense dedication to this process led some participants to dub the group “Jazz University” and others to select the nomenclature “Jazz Sweatshop.”

Mingus died in 1979 at the age of 56, but his legacy continues in many venues. Not only does the Mingus Big Band play weekly in New York City but the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty bands are managed by his fourth wife and widow, Sue Mingus. His masterpiece, Epitaph, a two-hour, 4,235-measure jazz composition, was, fittingly, discovered after his death and premiered by a 30-piece orchestra and fellow musician and recording artist Gunther Schuller.

Certainly, the Mingus association with Rodia and the Watts Towers is one of the musician’s subtler lasting cultural contributions, but it stands as a testament to Mingus’ own youthful struggles to enter and excel in the arts. As Mingus himself wrote in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, and an Observer reviewer paraphrased, this deeply talented jazz legend grew up “in a world that [was] not only trying to stop you being an artist but has tried to stop you being human in the first place.” Perhaps his fascination with Watts Towers, which he mentions in that autobiography, was another manifestation of Mingus’ determination not just to exist in the antagonistic world of the arts in his lifetime, but to forge a new sound from it and thrive.

Did You Know? The World’s Greatest Stride Pianist Started Out on a Basement Organ Missing Half Its Keys

Did You Know? The World’s Greatest Stride Pianist Started Out on a Basement Organ Missing Half Its Keys

Stride piano, also known as Harlem stride piano, is one of the most difficult jazz piano styles to master. Stride pianists must be truly ambidextrous as their left hands leap great distances across the keys while the right handles syncopated melody lines. Both hands perform at full capacity and in nearly full independence of each other. It is incredibly difficult to master, and most pianists today who can play in this style often will have transcribed older pieces note-for-note and learned them from a score. A true stride master will tell you this is not improvisational and, as a result, is not true stride.

Given the incredible difficulty of this style, it may surprise you to learn that one of the “founding fathers” of this playing style, Willie “The Lion” Smith, actually got started playing jazz in his basement on an organ missing more than half of its keys. Smith began playing the organ sometime between the ages of six and eight, learning every song his mother could recall by ear on the instrument. It took him years, but he finally won an upright piano in a newspaper contest and began playing and practicing in earnest. He soon discovered he could make a good living playing in clubs and did so until he went to war in World War I. Smith’s nickname, “The Lion,” purportedly was a result of his bravery in the war as an artillery gunner, and he returned a decorated veteran.

After the war, Smith began working in clubs once more, developing the distinct style that would become known as stride. By the 1940s, he was touring North America and Europe, which he continued for the next three decades. Over this period of time, he developed a trademark look to go with his trademark style: a cigar and a derby hat. Smith paired this look with a flamboyant personality and was known for “taking over” a club when he performed, serving as a sort of impromptu “master of ceremonies” and engaging in “cutting contests,” a popular form of musical combat in which stride piano players would attempt increasingly complex musical performances with which the competition could not keep up.

Smith and stride great James P. Johnson, who is often called the “Father of Stride,” would prearrange this type of contest in order to help increase attendance at the “rent parties” they played in the 1920s and 1930s. These parties were hosted by the owner of the residence, who provided food, drink, and entertainment, then charged a fee for entry. The fee helped the resident pay his rent. These parties were ubiquitous in Harlem in the 1920s and played a key role in the evolution of jazz as a musical genre.

Smith continued to perform until his death in 1973 and recorded his final album less than a year prior. He was a famous composer as well as performer, and clearly had the heart and ear of a poet. He once wrote that he heard the sounds of war and, interestingly, the slaughterhouse where his stepfather worked, “on an oboe.” He added, “That’s what you hear in a symphony: destruction, war, peace, and beauty, all mixed.” Smith died a jazz legend, a long way from that near-keyless organ in his mother’s basement.

The New Orleans Ordinance that Legalized a Local Red Light District and was the Catalyst for the Jazz Age

The New Orleans Ordinance that Legalized a Local Red Light District and was the Catalyst for the Jazz Age

Toward the end of the 19thcentury, fully two decades before the official dawn of the Jazz Age, a New Orleans Alderman proposed an ordinance that would change the face of music. That Alderman, Sidney Story, did not have music on his mind, however, when he proposed Ordinance No. 13,032. He was thinking of something a little “bluer,” so to speak.

Story’s ordinance actually targeted prostitution, not Stride pianists. In an effort to regulate local illicit activities, Story hoped that making red-light behavior illegal everywhere other than the area bounded by North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis streets would enable the city to more easily keep “sales activities under control.” The district almost immediately was dubbed “Storyville” and quickly became a hotbed of tourism, with local stores publishing “blue books” describing services, prices, and houses in titillating detail.

Story believed the move would be a positive one both ethically and economically for the area. In reality, he accomplished neither, although some of the more successful madams had a nice run of it before losing their fortunes in “investment schemes” when their establishments later became illegal. However, historians do give Storyville credit for one very significant cultural contribution: the origin of Jazz.

Beginning with the passage of Story’s ordinance in 1897 and ending in 1917 when the entire red light district was permanently shuttered to “protect” local Naval officers and enlisted men from illicit entertainment, Storyville was a mecca for established professional pianists and aspiring composers and musicians who hoped to make a splash in an entertainment arena dedicated to lively, rollicking fun 24/7.

Much like Las Vegas casinos decades later, Storyville’s establishments dedicated huge portions of their operational budgets to keeping the good times going all the time. Expensive mansions dedicated to luring wealthy customers into the area became not only locations for a good time in the colloquial sense of the word, but also for anyone who enjoyed the emerging strains of what would become what we recognize today as the origins of 1920s jazz.

While Storyville is not by any stretch the only place that jazz began to emerge as a powerful musical trend, it certainly was a cauldron of mixed musical styles. The creative juices flowed from stages throughout the area thanks in large part to desegregation of those stages. Although music labels in the early 20thcentury insisted bands signed remain fully segregated, Storyville’s stages were increasingly unsegregated, and jazz flourished and evolved as a result.

The End (and Beginning) of an Era

When Storyville was officially closed in 1917, the musicians on its stages headed north to Chicago, which would soon emerge as the next major urban center for jazz. Storyville fell victim to a World War I regulation prohibiting brothels from operating within five miles of a military base. However, the district’s legacy includes Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Ann Cook, Joe “King” Oliver, and Pops Foster, among dozens of others.

Although proprietors of local establishments attempted to continue in business as dance halls, cabarets, and restaurants, repeated raids drove the most determined (and usually most profitable) entrepreneurs out of business. Those business owners tended to persistently operate speakeasies, gambling joints, and now-illegal brothels behind closed doors, so the entire area suffered under constant police raids.

When the National Prohibition Act followed quickly on the heels of the devastating 1917 regulation outlawing prostitution, Storyville began to sink figuratively into the past and literally into the ground. By the 1930s, the area had been leveled to create New Orleans’ Iberville Projects, which were closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, demolished in 2013, and now stand, resurrected, as an affordable-housing, mixed-use development boasting one of the lowest crime rates for low-income housing in New Orleans.

Today, Storyville holds a place only in history and myth, but every time you hear “Potato Head Blues” or Pops Fosters’ distinct slap bass style, take a quick second to thank Alderman Story for his failed attempt to regulate human nature and his inadvertent success as a catalyst for jazz.

Big Band Album Update: Final Song Selection Almost Complete

Big Band Album Update: Final Song Selection Almost Complete

An update from Carole Crawford, vocalist with the Pat Crawford Big Band, regarding the much-anticipated release of our latest recording project, which is Carole’s tribute  to the great American women jazz vocalists:

The final lineup of tunes is almost complete. There will be pieces from the great Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughn, June Christy and Lena Horne, as well as pieces not heard  in any big band vocal lineup. One of those is “Come Back To Me,” the great Sammy Davis swing piece recorded with the Buddy Rich Band in 1966. And a recent addition to the final lineup is Bette Midler’s version of “Mambo Italiano.”

We have been working on this labor of love of mine now for almost a year. I produced our first combo album, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” in three months from start to finish in 2005, then the combo added strings and other special touches on our 2007 release, “Back at the Chicken Shack.” That project took me seven months to produce.

As of this writing, there is no title yet for the upcoming big band release, but we hope to complete the recordings by the end of the year and go to post-production in January 2019. There will be a sample to download coming up soon, so please visit us again!

Thanks for supporting the great jazz of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and beyond!