Life Goes to a Jazz Party
Photography and the Politics of Swing
The man at the piano—drenched in sweat, tie undone, a 2 a.m. shadow appearing—manages to maintain his sense of elegance even as slightly organized pandemonium continues around him. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, leader of a famous orchestra, holds forth from his customary seat at the piano at an informal jam session in a penthouse studio apartment in New York on a hot August night in 1939. His ear has heard something he likes, or perhaps someone else has caught his attention. As the band plays and the condensation gathers on Ellington's glass of water, photographer Charles Peterson snaps the shutter when Ellington fixes his gaze. Peterson is another ringleader of the night's revelry. His photographs have been commissioned by Life magazine, among the most popular in the land. Over Ellington's left shoulder, bent over his guitar but staring toward the camera, is Eddie Condon, good friend of the photographer, organizer of the session, and all-around promoter of jazz music. Ranged along the back line are a mix of musicians of differing backgrounds, styles, and skin colors. In a New York City where only one club south of Harlem opened its doors to all patrons, Hearst political cartoonist Burris Jenkins's fl at is a temporary alternative world for interracial music-making.
And drinking. When Life editor Alexander King—a jazz fan who knew many of the musicians—commissioned photographs from Peterson as a follow-up to a successful spread on swing music published in Life in 1938, he must have had an idea of what might occur. Photographs from the session show a copious flow of alcohol as a bulwark against the steamy night, increasingly skewed camera angles, and eventually hazy, out-of-focus candids of men barely able to stand, let alone play music. Whether the photographs showed too much of jazz's raw side or were simply bumped by urgent news of the European war, Life did not run the article. For Ellington, a promotional opportunity had gone awry. Although the spread would not have featured Ellington's orchestra, it would have been one of the most dramatic visual instances of racial integration to be found in Life at the time.
So in 1939, Ellington had not yet been properly represented in Life, and given his musical and political commitments and the racial climate in which jazz operated, it would not be a simple matter to do so. A year earlier, the Life photo-essay "Swing" had essentially crowned Benny Goodman's orchestra the greatest band in the land, relegating Ellington to a segregated two-page section on black bands. The article also gave the strong impression that jazz had become a white music, with its early Dixieland style kept alive by faithful white players while white big bands dominated the popular dance form known as swing. Ellington himself disavowed the labels "jazz" or "swing." He already had endured criticism from white jazz writers who felt that his more adventurous music had strayed too far from what they conceived to be its roots in black folk culture.
For Ellington (1899–1974), his music represented an important part of American culture but one with an essentially African American character. And as an African American performing artist functioning in time of depression and war, he had a distinctive vantage point from which to evaluate American ideals. As Americans debated whether the country should join the world war, Ellington became deeply concerned that the African American cultural underpinnings and stylistic innovations in jazz be recognized. In February 1941 Ellington rose to deliver a Lincoln's Birthday address to black churchgoers at the Scott Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Titling his remarks "We, Too, Sing America," after Langston Hughes's poem, Ellington did not mince words when describing what African Americans meant to the country. "We're more than a few isolated instances of courage, valor, achievement," Ellington asserted. "We're the injection, the shot in the arm, that has kept America and its forgotten principles alive in the fat and corrupt years intervening between our divine conception and our near tragic present." In a few months, the United States went to war with fascism abroad. Would it remember its own "forgotten principles"?
In photographer Gjon Mili's studio in 1943 while World War II raged, Ellington and other predominantly African American musicians made jazz visible for Life while recording for the armed forces, visually embodying that "shot in the arm." Photographed with sensitivity by Mili, their presence in Life placed musicians with strong commitments to civil rights activism at the center of a magazine that, from its beginning in 1936, had rarely treated African Americans with respect. Even so, Life portrayed the Mili session as a patriotic undertaking, a showcase for a superior American democratic culture despite the realities of inequality on the home front.
Given Life's wobbly commitment to racial equality, its appropriation of black jazz culture lacked legitimacy in 1943. Life used racially unenlightened language in describing the black subjects of its photographs and essays in its early editorial practice. While the magazine showed a degree of respect to Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and George Washington Carver in its early issues, a feature on blues musician Leadbelly in April 1937 ("Lead Belly: Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel") emphasized his sexual and criminal exploits. "Amuse the public, and you can get away with almost any crime," the editors huff ed. While Life included brief reports on anti-lynching legislation (complete with a gruesome photograph) and an anti-segregation lawsuit, the magazine did not take sides on either issue. In August 1939 Life published a photo-essay detailing an elaborate nighttime Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony on Stone Mountain, Georgia. Rather than outright condemnation of the ceremony (which includes an image of a four-year-old dressed in Klan robe and hood), Life took only a vaguely bemused tone: "Klansmen sometimes behave destructively but usually are not up to much more than a primitive form of transvestitism."
An unlikely venue for creating an African American jazz image, Life established itself as the best-selling mass magazine in the country by catering primarily to middle- and upper-middle-class white sensibilities. Meanwhile, the swing movement gained popularity among the new masses of urban America: children of Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants and of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. In their jazz spreads for Life, photographers Charles Peterson and Gjon Mili expressed an alternative vision of racial liberalism that contained both hopes and limitations. Peterson's and Mili's photographs make African American art and artists visible in a racially inhospitable editorial and sociopolitical environment, creating images that countered popular racial stereotypes and modified Life's own editorial practices that portrayed black culture in demeaning ways. In work that made visible the politics of the cultural left, Peterson and Mili depicted interracial jam sessions while legal and de facto segregation remained in force throughout the country.
In presenting African American musicians such as Ellington in a dignified way within an interracial context, the photographs of Peterson and Mili not only upset the racial narrative of jazz developed in the early issues of Life but made the magazine an ironic, if halting, vessel for depicting racial inclusiveness (if not equality). Mili's photographs in particular argue for a broadening of Americans' notions of cultural nationalism. His work for Life during the war years featured musicians strongly affiliated with such institutions and activities as Café Society, the Double V movement, and the wartime drive for desegregation in the entertainment industry. The photographs also argue for jazz as both a fine art and a popular art, a dynamic expression of American culture both accomplished and accessible. But while Mili's sympathetic portrayal of black culture stands out from other photographic coverage of the day, it also allowed Life to temporarily appropriate that culture for patriotic ends during wartime without a lasting editorial commitment to equality at home. Life's opportunistic portrayal of jazz as emblematic of the best of American culture—a racially inclusive art form that the magazine claimed expressed the pragmatic and improvisational American spirit—reduced it to propaganda.
Just as swing seemed to be a bigger and louder version of jazz, Life promised a larger trim size and content based on large-scale dramatic photographs rather than pages gray with text. Founded by Time magazine's Henry Luce, it began publication in November 1936 and almost immediately started dominating newsstands with its large format and emblematic, authoritative title logo. Life quickly captured a large audience with a mix of celebrity, lifestyle, and hard news coverage that defined the new photojournalism for millions of readers. Modeled on popular European mass magazines such as the German BIZ (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung), the magazine responsible for the photo-essay's birth and development, and the French VU, Life aimed to satisfy the public's desire for the immediacy of "candid" photography. The rise of image-based magazines, with Life at the forefront, made photography a greater part of Americans' everyday lives just as national radio networks and recordings had given swing jazz a greater presence. A few months after Life debuted, Popular Photography began publication, serving photographers inspired, in part, by what they saw in Life.
While the public may have craved the immediacy and seeming authenticity of photography, photographs were hardly unmediated carriers of neutral information, making the magazine's portrayal of African Americans particularly charged. Life's commitment to arranging and commenting upon groups of photographs created dominant narratives even when the photographs themselves might have suggested other interpretations. The magazine used language to constrain and delimit the interpretive possibilities inherent in its own photographic narratives. In so doing, Life tried to domesticate and contain a racially complex cultural movement—jazz—that represented potentially unsettling political implications.
This remained the editorial climate at Life during swing's peak of popularity, presenting a formidable challenge to any effort to portray African American jazz musicians in a dignified way. While their efforts created a visual tradition in candid jazz photography and seemed to subvert Life's typical practices, Peterson and Mili created that tradition in the service of larger commercial ends—a defining component of jazz photography—and could not help but perpetuate certain visual tropes. Peterson wanted jazz— especially the small group jazz of his own white peer group—to enjoy a more secure economic position, and he used Life as a forum for promoting it. Mili's relationships with white impresarios had a prominent social component, but he ran up against limits as he attempted to visually portray an interracial jazz scene. The United States may have been fighting against fascism abroad, but plenty of work remained on the equality front at home, and that unfinished business circumscribed the artistic choices available to Mili. That he made the most of his choices does not deny the conditions under which he made them. Finally, a recurring theme in this study is the effort of African Americans such as Duke Ellington to gain greater control over their art and their images in a political economy dominated by white entrepreneurs, editors, record producers, photographers, and critics. The optimism expressed in Peterson's and Mili's interracial vision of jazz published in a mass-market medium tends to mask these concerns. Over time, and in subsequent chapters, this will become a more urgent element in the developing story of photography and the postwar jazz image, particularly as musical innovations and the civil rights movement lent greater force to the questions often asked of Ellington's music during this period: "Is it jazz?" and "How black is it?"
Setting the Stage: A Tale of Two Parties
The effort to develop an African American jazz image depended in part on technology. Just as the music itself depended on new media to deliver sounds to a jazz-hungry populace, the musicians depended on the camera to develop public profiles. Like jazz, photography became a component of mass culture from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s. The new portability and affordability of cameras developed since World War I had made photography more accessible but also opened the possibilities for serious photographers, both amateur and professional, to capture images that had been technically impossible in previous years. Life published the results. The Leica and Contax 35mm cameras became available to a wide public in the mid-1920s, and their portability and greater light sensitivity increased their popularity in the coming decades. Larger cameras, such as the Speed Graphic, made use of new fl ash technology that allowed Charles Peterson, for example, to shoot inside a dimly lit club. He could capture impromptu jam sessions backstage or within an apartment. Faster shutter speeds and advances in fl ash technology allowed for the movement of musicians in performance. (This would become a preoccupation of Gjon Mili's.) Newspapers had begun publishing more photographs in the 1920s as transmission technology advanced to catch up with radio's immediacy. In 1935, when the Associated Press Wire-photo division began operations, photographs could be sent to newspapers around the globe with much greater speed.
Along the way, a visual culture of celebrity had been building. Edward Steichen came to fame as America's best-known photographer through his portraits of show people and, to a lesser extent, musicians, writers, and athletes. Published in the 1920s and 1930s in Vanity Fair, these carefully composed and controlled images created what John Raeburn calls "a particularly luxurious intensification of the consuming ideal." Musicians rarely figured in Steichen's oeuvre, but the idea that photography could ratify celebrity was in place long before Life appeared.
Perhaps the best-remembered photographic project of the 1930s remains the Farm Security Administration file documenting New Deal programs. Less ubiquitous in their own time than their later fame suggests, the FSA file photographs nevertheless remain the quintessential 1930s expression of photography's capacity to trade on the illusion that it represents reality. In elevating the unknown (and unwashed) to a kind of fame, FSA photographers such as Dorothea Lange underscored photography's ability to crop and dramatize one reality in order to represent another, though it is important to recall that the FSA project was just one of many efforts in the 1930s project of creating a new art world around the medium. To the extent that FSA photography emphasized a "straight" photographic tradition ultimately traceable to the mid-nineteenth-century masters such as Mathew Brady, it was of a piece with the photographic currents of the decade. The photojournalism to be found in Life, including the work discussed in this chapter, represents another tributary in that stream.