"Musical Ability Has Damn Little to Do with It": Downbeat Dodges the Racial Issue



In these two articles, taken from the leading magazine of jazz, Downbeat, in October of 1939, musicians comment &endash; mostly white musicians, and mostly anonymously &endash; on integration. It shows the startling extent to which even musicians saw jazz primarily as "white" music.


Should Negro Musicians Play in White Bands?

"No! Definitely No!" said many leaders and side men.

"But why?" asked DOWN BEAT'S reporters. "It's professional suicide" said one, "but don't quote me. It's not fair for Negroes to replace white musicians when there is so much unemployment." "The Union should forbid it!" said another.

"It will break down race lines," said a third. "But in music and art we thought there were no race lines," interposed DOWN BEAT'S reporter. "Of course there aren't," replied the musician, "but dance music is a business, not an art. And we've got to make a living!"

Southern musicians were unanimous in denouncing it as a bad idea, full of trouble. "The north has spoiled the Negro and success has made him insolent and overbearing!"

"I wouldn't have a Negro in my band," said another, "for the simple reason that the musical ideas of the Negro and White are too far apart for the best results. But I'll be damned if I'll tell anyone what to do. If Benny wants `em, Benny can have `em."

"It's too bad," reflected one leader, "that this question can't be decided on pure musical ability. The Negro has exceptional musical ability but unfortunately for him, there are social overtones involved which, although he is not to blame, still work against him.

"White people do not want to mix socially with Negroes. It's not a question of equality, it's a matter of privacy. And any uninvited trespassing of it is bitterly resented. There have been many instances of Negro musicians making overtures to white women in the cafes, they were playing. That alone is enough to incense a white man against the colored race. But in an atmosphere of drinking, where normal restraints are gone--it's murder.

"You see, and it's too bad too, but music ability has damn little to do with it."

Another leader who had guts enough to express himself, but not to be quoted said, "when a Negro enters a White band, he loses his identity as a Negro musician. I think the musical progress of all Negro groups such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie has been tremendous, and has contributed originality and a freshness to American music we would never have had if there were mixed bands."

"But after all it is really up to nobody else but John Q. Public. If the public wants Negroes in its white bands, it'll get Negroes in them. If it doesn't want them, well, the box office will always tell us what the answer will be."

And so they go!

Free expression of opinion--WHATEVER IT IS! In free America! Criticism, whether it be good or bad--WITHOUT FEAR OF ARREST OR PUNISHMENT.

The only regrettable thing confronted when the question was asked, `Should Negro Musicians Play in White Bands?' was the desire by most of the musicians who were critics NOT TO BE QUOTED.

If a man has a serious conviction that something is wrong or not good. HE SHOULD HAVE THE COURAGE TO EXPRESS THAT CONVICTION PUBLICLY.

Those musicians who either approved of Benny Goodman's using Negro musicians or could see no harm in it, certainly did not mind being quoted (see front page).

Whether it is good or bad, in its final analysis, the editors of DOWN BEAT frankly do not know. They are trying to encourage musicians to think about it instead of feeling about it.

And if promoting honest discussions about debatable issues can bring those issues into an atmosphere of "give and take", reasonableness and impartiality, DOWN BEAT will certainly open its columns.

One thing sure, we want to see a square deal. And any American, no matter what his race, his color, or his creed, is entitled to that.

Benny Should Be Congratulated For His Courage--Jimmy Dorsey

How do American band leaders and side men feel about Benny Goodman's adding Charlie Christian and Fletcher Henderson, Negro instrumentalists, to his band?

That question aroused tremendous interest last month when Christian, following Henderson, was added. Goodman claims he wants to have the best band possible to assemble, and he chose Christian and Henderson, he said, because "they are the best on their respective instruments." In addition, Lionel Hampton is an outstanding member of the Goodman company.

Jimmy Dorsey Favors It

Siding in with Benny was Jimmy Dorsey, among others. He said: "Frankly, I think Benny should be congratulated for his courage in adding Negro musicians to his orchestra.

"I have a very good idea of the criticism to which he'll be subjected, for it will be remembered that for nearly a year we had June Richmond as vocalist with my band. I also think it would be presumptuous for any leader to tell Benny he is jeopardizing his professional future, for offhand I can't think of any leader doing better than Benny. To my mind, the question resolves itself to one of style. I feel my present instrumentation, without Negro talent, expresses my style best. If Goodman feels he can better express his hand's style with colored artists, more power to him. If anyone can make a mixed band acceptable to the public--Benny Goodman can!"

Woody, in making the statement, gathered his band around him and they drafted his quotation together. All felt the same way.

Other comments:

TEDDY WILSON--"I believe the hiring of colored musicians to play in white bands is an excellent idea. I think, musically speaking, it is of mutual benefit to both. The colored musician is the gainer where quality is concerned, and the white musicians are often further inspired by the rhythmic feeling of the Negro. I feel that this sort of mixing is conducive to the production, of a higher type of swing band. Charlie Christian is the finest guitar soloist I have ever heard and his addition to Benny's band must be musically effective. It is easy to understand that the arrangements of Fletcher Henderson must prove to be of great advantage to any musical organization."

ELLA FITZGERALD--"I believe the hiring of colored musicians in a white band is really mutually beneficial. Both races have a lot to offer each other. It would be hard to understand the advisability of radial distinction where artistry in musical advancement is concerned. The interchange of musical ideas between both races surely must be broadening in influence."

ARTIE SHAW: "It's most unfortunate that there are still promoters who book bands on appearance. Every bandleader should be free to hire men on basis of ability and ability alone. I'd put colored boys in the band in a minute if they had the talent and a great deal of them have."

JACK JENNY: "There should be no discrimination. Selection of men should be on ability basis."

SHEP FIELDS: "Have always regretted prejudice that forbids mixed bands. Hope to see it lived down in my generation."

CASPER REARDON--"Good for Benny! I'm for him. His ideas are like mine. If a Negro is a better performer use him. One cannot hope to draw a color line in music or any other art."

VIDO MUSSO: "I think it's a terrific idea and I give Benny a lot of credit, but whether it's going to go over depends on the public's reaction. What do you suppose will happen if he ever goes down into Texas with the band? I not only admire Benny's musical taste in adding these men, I also think his using Negroes is a smart promotional and business move to buck all these good swing bands that are coming along to crowd him out of the limelight. More power to Benny."

Asked for opinions, several other "big name" leaders and side men refused to be quoted. Interviews with the majority, however, indicate that great progress has been made in the last five years in regard to equality of races in the music field. Several leaders, in fact, said they believed that "within two more years, use of colored artists in white bands will be accepted everywhere in the States."

All gave credit to Goodman for effecting the change.



Downbeat, Vol. 6, No. 11, Chicago, (October 15, 1939)