Essay: Jazz, Gender and American Film

Representing Gender and Race in (American) Jazz Film and Television, 1920-1960

by Kristin McGee (2012)

During the first decades of the twentieth century, new forms of mass media directly impacted the cultural and racial landscape of America’s rapidly expanding cities.

The emergence of a generalized mass culture depended upon the introduction of a number of technological developments supporting a nationally organized and interrelated network of media and entertainment including radio, film, recordings and various forms of theater, most notably vaudeville and musical theater. Patronizing cultural events provided a potent forum within which American’s encountered each other in public spaces. Yet because metropolitan neighborhoods remained largely segregated, even after the great northern and western migrations, the panoply of races and ethnicities populating American cities were often separated within public entertainment venues. It was within the decadent but affordable vaudeville theaters and picture palaces of the 1910s and 1920s that Americans of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, male and female, first socialized and interacted in ways previously prohibited.

While the convenience and uniformity of these media ensured Americans a nationalized popular culture industry intimately invested in the distribution of mass commodities, it was the heavily racialized subject material of radio, recordings and films that most appealed to an expanding middle class. Ideas of race, blackness and popular music had been at the center of popular culture since the 1850s and especially as articulated and performed by the nationally organized minstrelsy groups traveling throughout the territories and to the metropolitan centers of the United States. Blackface performances sometimes adopted the musical and comedic styles of minstrelsy and were later incorporated into vaudeville and radio programs like the highly popular radio show Amos and Andy. Indeed articulations of race, gender and sexuality, and especially when reconfigured from black expressive cultural forms, became one of the most prevalent subjects for musical films upon the introduction of sound to film in the mid-1920s.

Ironically, this fascination with blackness positioned within American mass cultural texts, simultaneously betrayed the exclusion of African Americans from prominent positions within the music and film industry. Moreover, sensationalized cultural stereotypes favored by the industry further disavowed their continued inequitable and unjust treatment in American society. However, black actors, directors, producers and especially black musicians and dancers frequently contributed to sound films during the 1920s and 1930s despite the difficulties in obtaining these roles. Yet the more profitable roles performed by “star” white artists such as Ann Pennington frequently appropriated and borrowed black musical styles in their performances in vaudeville and film. 1920s examples include “coon” shouter and theatrical singer Sophie Tucker who honed her trade by imitating blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, or blackface vaudevillian Al Jolson who frequently proclaimed his investment in black styles of singing and dancing. Indeed, the popularity of these media was heavily dependent upon the contributions of black, white and mixed-raced, -ethnic entrepreneurs, albeit in ways that perpetuated racial stereotypes and continued to exploit black creativity, resources and participation.

The ability to simultaneously project images and sounds forever changed the narrative structures of film drama, as well as the narrative relationship of music to film, which until the late 1920s was provided by live musicians in theater pit orchestras. During the transition from silent film to sound film, many theater musicians feared that “canned” sound would ultimately replace live musicians. In 1928, one Variety story estimated that of 175,000 union musicians, over 75,000 drew salaries from the theaters alone. The same article speculated that in 150 U.S. towns with theaters recently wired for sound, over 50,000 musicians would be unemployed within the next two years. Ultimately, many lesser-known union bands did lose full-time theater engagements during the 1920s and 1930s. As professional classical musicians performed less frequently in film houses, popular musicians and jazz instrumentalists became more active, providing opening sets and variety style “stage acts” in combination with the new feature-length sound films.

As talkies were first introduced in the late 1920s and early 1930s, film companies began rewiring movie house and leasing vaudeville theaters for showing privileges of feature-length films (Snyder 1989). The decline of vaudeville, not surprisingly, roughly corresponded with the addition of sound to films in the late 1920s. In an effort to compete with the new sound films, most big time vaudeville houses reintroduced the film/vaudeville combinations, which predated the picture palace phenomena be several decades. During the 1930s, however, only the larger movie palaces in cities like New York and Los Angeles managed to continue financing the elaborate live entertainment presentations that began in the 1910s and peaked during the 1920s.

During the Jazz Age (1920s), in an attempt to profit from the growing public taste for big band music, many Hollywood productions recruited the most popular jazz bands to record soundtracks for their “talking,” “singing,” and “dancing” films (Stowe 1998: 94-140). As the plushest theaters and cinema palaces were rewired with “talkie” sound equipment, they continued to accommodate live music performances of popular music. Thus these new “talking” films not only afforded more complex narrative and dialogue structures but also featured soundtracks of popular bands and cameo appearances by celebrated jazz personalities. One way to promote popular jazz bands entailed recording arrangements for a film’s soundtrack and then contracting these same bands to provide opening and intermittent music sets to these films.

Initially sound film was exploited more for its potential in the short subject market than in the feature film industry, in part because these films presented fewer risks financially and were better suited to all types of abbreviated theatrical genres from music to comedy and dance. Thus, the initial creators of these short subject films explored a wide variety of material for their experimental works. Jazz, encompassing both popular song as well as cosmopolitan instrumental music, was ideally suited for sound film and could be cheaply produced by simply recording a song and then later filming the band pretending to play its own performance. Because popular music could be simultaneously marketed via recordings, radio and film, it was a natural progression that jazz and other forms of popular music became one of the first subject matters for these early sound films.

Filmed performances of popular music and jazz in early sound film implied the growing prominence of a middle class consciousness dependent upon the shared experiences afforded by mass culture. Filmed representations of jazz culture further positioned both normative and radical presentations of gender and sexuality as independent women entered the public sphere with growing prominence from the 1920s on. Early sound film directors cultivated the visual aesthetics of film and particularly exploited female performers as well as presentations proffering the spectacle of race and sexuality. Four highly symbolic films: Al Jolson’s A Jazz Singer (1927), Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues (1929), Paul Whiteman’s King of Jazz (1930) and the Betty Boop cartoon series (1932-1939) uniquely mediated the modernist and utopian fantasies of assimilation and mass consumption while also formulating contemporary notions of femininity, masculinity and sexuality, each variously predicated upon the experiences of urban immigration and industrialization, the transformation of gender roles, and increased racial and cultural contact. Both Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan  (1935) featuring a range of African American musical and dance stars including Freddie Washington and comedy duo Edgar Connor and Alex Lovejoy, and the Paramount Betty Boop episode “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (1932) with Louis Armstrong and his orchestra, similarly perpetuated stratified gendered subjectivities, as well as essentialist images of African Americans while also highlighting the sheer verve, creativity and ingenuity of African American jazz age musicians, dancers and singers.

During the 1910s and 1920s, prominent producers of girl acts constructed blackface numbers for their dancing women to link the increasingly mass produced and modern sexual spectacles of variety revues to the largely white, working-class and ‘autonomous’ male-culture of nineteenth century minstrelsy (Kibler). Further, the casting of similarly typed and largely nameless girls reinforced the patriarchy of modern vaudeville’s producers over their docile and feminized subjects (Latham), much in the same way that blackface caricatures objectified black artists as primitive, emotive and inherently rhythmic beings. As chorus dancers and theatrical stars, African American performing women similarly responded to emerging and vital trends drawing from the synergy of music and dance. As black musical theater became an international sensation, black performing stars like Josephine Baker and Valaida Snow, negotiated both modernist fantasies which mapped colonial desires for hyper-sexualized female subjects onto black women’s bodies, yet these same women ingeniously constructed complex on and off-stage personas to profit from an expanding attraction for black expressive culture (Brown). The reception of these early chorus girl acts, black, white and mixed, critically informed the ways that all-girl bands later exploited racialized musical and physical signifiers to gain popularity and recognition on the nationally organized vaudeville circuits.

From the late 1920s on, women increasingly contributed to the expanding mass culture industry in a variety of media including film, theater and eventually radio and television. During the Jazz Age, the appearance of all-girl bands in vaudeville and soundfilms significantly contributed to the popularity of new media such as film, which gained currency in part because of the widely successful and highly sexualized spectacles of ‘girl acts’ featured in vaudeville and variety revues. During the 1920s and 1930s, all-girl bands, more often than not, were promoted as the featured attraction of a picture house’s stage show. These vaudeville-style stage shows typically provided one to two hours of live entertainment before the showing of feature-length films.

Although rarely mentioned in contemporary culture, jazz or film histories, there were dozens (if not hundreds) of extremely popular all-girl jazz bands, female singers, dancers and soloists active during the 1920s and 1930s including Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, Hazel Scott, The Harlem Playgirls, The Dixie Sweethearts, Peggy Gilbert’s All-Girl Band and many more. Those all-girl bands satisfying the racist dictates of the entertainment market were embraced by big time promoters including Irving Mills, Florence Ziegfeld and William Morris to headline stage shows and variety revues. When given the chance, prodigious performing women, as instrumentalists, dancers and all-around entertainers enthusiastically contributed to some of these first experimental short subject sound films. For example, during the 1920s and 30s, all-girl bands Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears and the Ingenues appeared in Vitaphone, Pictoreels and Fox Movietone music shorts.

The Jazz Age cultivated the careers of multi-versatile African American theatrical women, many who made names for themselves as blues, jazz and ragtime singers or dancers. Celebrated performers including Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Valaida Snow, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, however, suffered promotional representations, which exaggerated an overtly sexualized “otherness” and tacitly implicated one’s social position as constitutive of the emotive and creative performative voice. The image of the hyper-sexualized, African American theatrical woman (as blues singers, jezebels, the tragic mulatto, jungle dancers, etc.) had so saturated public discourse, that by the 1940s, African American women responded in a number of ways including supporting increased censorship of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films, to policing African American performing women’s bodies in public leisure spaces (Carby), to participating in civic projects promoting race pride and “racial uplift.”

While there were dozens of prominent touring African American “girl” bands including the Harlem Playgirls and the Dixie Sweethearts, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the only predominantly black all-girl band to record short subject films during the 1940s. During the war independent black cast films and soundies including Harlem Jam Session (1946) were introduced to entertain and boost the morale of black war workers and military personnel. These black entrepreneurial films provided important opportunities for African American’s to denounce stereotypical roles promoted in Hollywood films. Through their film appearances and live performances, the Sweethearts clearly mitigated prior gendered and racialized characterizations by adopting a number of performative strategies, including formulating a repertoire built upon swing and blues in order to counter dominant white all-girl band aesthetics, which promoted feminized genres such as “sweet” and light classical.

Public and popular support of mass-produced female sexual spectacles were later supported and reinforced during the 1940s by the massive success and appeal of wartime pin-ups and sexy female bandleaders like the former burlesque and strip-tease artist Ada Leonard (Tucker). Popular representations of bandleaders and jazz singers as morally suspect and sexualized beings in feature-length Hollywood films such as Orchestra Wives (1942) and Ever Since Venus (1944) inspired and nourished such newly organized public, modern, and popular cultural performances. The war effort also motivated contemporary myths regarding feminine musicianship by presenting female bands as wartime substitutes or collegiate groups (rather than professional touring musicians). When Johnny Comes Marching Home(1942) featuring Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra is representative. In the context of mass-mediated filmic representations, producers of popular culture demanded heavily streamlined representations of female sexuality in the service of public affirmations of male desire. These mass mediated gendered images did much to destabilize canonized jazz acts, such as the jam session, a site once dedicated almost exclusively to a masculinized conception of musical artistry, practice and sociality.

Jazz’s post-war fall-out signified the general hardships incurred by jazz musicians who maintained successful performance and recording careers during the 1930s and 1940s, but struggled during the more conservative McCarthy Era. New domestic pastimes such as television watching, perpetuated old-fashioned strategies for promoting gendered musicalities. Television’s multi-generational presentational format and single sponsorship advertisements ultimately facilitated the continued assimilation and increased homogeneity of American popular culture. In particular, the highly popular ‘vaudeo’ format from the post-war years through the late 1950s provided a forum for reinventing theatrical and film material from vaudeville and variety (MacDonald). The newly televised variety revue genre reinforced the star system, albeit with preferences for mature Hollywood performers, whose televised images demanded informalized, domestic personas (Mann). These musical programs provided some of the only opportunities for female jazz women after the war. Indeed it was often those women including Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee and Ina Ray Hutton, who had successfully navigated the changing landscape of mass culture and of jazz and popular music before and during the war, who were frequently selected as guests or hosts of variety television programs during the late 1940s and 1950s. The resurgence of vaudeville and variety formats and their penchant for mixing musical, generational and gendered genres provided one strategy for television’s mass and largely middle class audiences. These jazz women’s prior experience with other mass mediated forms including short subjects and feature-length films endowed them with a variety of techniques for successfully navigating television’s expanding mass audiences.

The brief resurgence of all-girl bands and female jazz hosts during the 1950s suggested similar processes at work as those during the early 1940s, where women performed as all-girl spectacles in a variety review contexts favoring feminine glamour, swing, and “wholesome” vaudeville style acts. The short lived re-entry of all-girl bands into the public sphere through the heavily-mediated and visually-attuned medium of television spoke to women’s continued peripheralization as visual objects and feminine spectacles over creative musical subjects. Yet their continued success also suggested the skill, ingenuity, and rugged expertise of these performers.

In all of their mediated forms, jazz women of the 1920s through the 1950s both resisted masculinist and sexist ideologies yet also reinforced heavily gendered stratifications in the most dominate media. They resisted masculinist and sexist ideologies by asserting personal and musical agency; acting as creative subjects through their particular improvised performances and increased public presence, and developing their musical professionalism during national and international tours. Further, their expanded wage earning capabilities entitled them to assert their professional personas against those of their male colleagues. Yet they also and necessarily promoted newly emerging and constrictive gendered ideologies from the pejorative “triple threat” female persona to widely circulated publicity campaigns depicting the “novelty of feminine uniformity”, residual Victorian representations evoking the “cult of white womanhood” or conversely, re-enacting the supposed “primitivist” sexual dispositions of urban blues women and jazz dancers.

In a sense, black musical women became cultural referees, negotiating musical, racial, and gender boundaries to create a musical genre both prodigious and accessible within the dominant culture as well as the African American community. These women clearly recognized the values of the media industry, and in turn understood on a deeper level, how their unique modes of performing and creating were frequently appropriated, misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored all together in favor of imagined stereotypes, which facilitated their exclusion from the more financially profitable mass mediated forums. In the climate of a profoundly and consistently racist and segregated American culture, women re-enacted these highly popular and carefully constructed spectacles of femininity, sexuality and musical eroticism. Clearly, jazz women of these decades consciously and sometimes reluctantly cooperated with media producers, bandleaders and music managers to ensure that their performances remained financially and commercially profitable. These heavily mediated gendered performances also ensured that all-girl bands successfully competed with the popular male jazz bands of the day and more importantly with the highly fetishized “all-girl” spectacles presented in film, variety revues, and vaudeville.

It is no coincidence that the theme of Some Liked it Hot adopts visual mediums as its point of departure for examining women’s jazz. Indeed, the number of visual texts and especially films and televised variety programs featuring female jazz artists remains striking in contrast to the relatively few audio recordings produced of such groups and star performers. By emphasizing mass mediums like film and eventually television, which provided a significant structure for reifying, refashioning, and transforming public enactments of gender, race, and sexuality staged through American popular music and particularly jazz, one gains a broader picture of how women contributed to the expansion of mass culture and to a uniquely American form of cultural identification in these four important decades.


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Some Liked It Hot - Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928-1959