Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 4A
Jazz Goes to War
NB: There are three entries in my look at jazz in the 40s, and the playlist covering all three is linked below. This entry covers the first 13 tracks, though I don’t reference them by name for the most part.

The early 40s might be the last period during which jazz was entirely a pop affair. Going back to Dixieland, it was always possible to take the edge off of a jazz song and make it more palatable. This isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion, but it made for accessibility. Note, also, that by the late 30s, the main/high-earning swing acts were white, and they tended to make the music easy on the ear.

I’m being a little obtuse here – there have always been artists and movements in jazz that take the edge off. In the late 60s and early 70s, for example, the term ‘fusion’ was used to describe a jazz-rock hybrid (like many things in jazz, fusion was pioneered by Miles Davis and his band mates). By the 80s, fusion was almost easy listening and synonymous with the ‘quiet storm’ radio format. I get ahead of myself, but there have always been efforts to make difficult music easy on the ears (and difficult art easy on the eyes, and exotic cuisines easy on the tongue).

There were several threads of jazz during the years of World War 2. The biggest of the big bands often ended up in the USO or at least toured the fronts playing for the troops. But there was a draft and membership in a band wasn’t a dispensation from service. Jack Teagarden lost 17 men to the army in just four months.

And at home there was a 20% entertainment tax imposed – this led to the closing of many of the ballrooms.

The big names continued to play – Glenn Miller for example, toured up until September 1942, announcing at a show in Passaic, New Jersey that he’d be joining the war effort. From then until his death over the English Channel in December of 1944 he served as music director in various military organizations, performing over 800 shows and making many recordings at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. On the one hand Miller took criticism for draining jazz of its feeling. On the other, many considered the big band era over when Miller joined the war effort. It Must Be Jelly (Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That) was first recorded by Miller, but underneath Miller’s slick delivery, the song is something more akin to early Louis Armstrong, or Slim & Slam. The St. Louis Blues March was an attempt by Miller to update military music, by taking on a song we already know was made popular about 30 years before.

It would take a bit of research, but I figure the role of Armed Forces Radio in the history of American music could use some discussion. Acts including Count Basie recorded Command Performances throughout the war. My Old Radio ( seems to have quite an archive of these. In the introduction to Basie’s 1943 broadcast, the announcer says “We deal in all kinds of performance: Boogie woogie, symphony, and corny. Also jokes, new, used, and stale. Don’t delay, write today.” Count Basie’s “Dance of the Gremlins” starts at 4:40 here.

Side note: Gremlins were creatures that tinkered with aircraft. Roald Dahl (who flew for the RAF in WWII wrote a story about them, there’s also an episode of the Twilight Zone and a 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon, ‘Falling Hare’ which defines gremlins as “a constant menace to pilots…who wreck planes with die-uh-boh-lickle sab-o-tay-gee” and also makes a poke at gas rationing.)

Adding to the issues with performing during the war – the entertainment tax, the rationing of rubber and fuel (not to mention the shellac used to make records!), and so forth, there was also a musicians’ strike that lasted from July 1942 to November 1944. The musicians struck over royalties the record companies paid to artists. Musicians didn’t record, but vocalists did and records made before the strike (and during the strike with non-striking vocalists performing the roles of striking musicians) sold quite well. “Over the long term the record companies were not hurt by the strike. In 1941, 127 million records were sold; in 1946, two years after the strike, that number jumped to 275 million and it jumped higher in 1947 to 400 million.” []

Note that the strike only had to do with recordings – the main distribution of music moved from live performances and sheet music to both recordings and radio. In 1940, 96% of urban northern households had radios, and even in the rural south, 50% of households had a radio. Those command performances were just a small part of the number of broadcast performances made at the time.

Musicians who continued to have success in the war years included drummer Gene Krupa who made a cameo in the 1941 Barbara Stanwyck film Ball of Fire with his track Drum Boogie (in the playlist sung by Anita O’Day). And it’s also Krupa’s great tom toms on Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing. (Yeah, than song is from ’34, but listen to those drums!) Krupa had been performing since the 20s and in the 30s played with Goodman, but led his own band in the 40s (shrunk down from an earlier orchestra). He’s an example of the older musicians touring because the young men were almost all in uniform.

And with the men all in uniform, all-girl bands toured raising money for war bonds, among other things. One such group was the well-integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm who toured the entire country, but when in the Jim Crow South had to eat, sleep, and rehearse on their tour bus because no hotel would admit both black and white band members. What such places would have made of the group’s Asian members, I don’t know. (The Apr/May 2013 issue of Bust Magazine has a great article on this crew called No Man’s Band. Alas, not available online.)

Over in Europe, the Nazis banned jazz in the occupied countries, but it managed to thrive. The German propaganda minister called jazz “the art of the subhuman”, but later retooled swing tunes with anti-Jewish, anti-American lyrics. There was, in fact, a jazz group at the Terezin concentration camp which was filmed as part of propaganda insisting that the concentration camps were humane. While trying to find music by the Ghetto Swingers or Eric Vogel, two elements of jazz at Terezin, I found a short film in Italian. I have no idea about the text or whether the music is representative, but it’s still quite moving. The Nazis made a piece of propaganda for the Red Cross in which the Ghetto Swingers performed portraying the concentration camp as more of a resort. (After the film was made, most of those in it were deported to Auschwitz.) The film is available online, but I’ll just link to an audio snippet of their verison of Bei mir du bist schön, made popular in the US by the Andrews Sisters.

Next up: The Rise of Bebop!