Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942

Article excerpt

Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942. By Christopher Wilkinson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. 197pp (hardcover). Illustrations. ISBN 978-1-61703-168-7. $55

In 1934, Irving Mills blackballed Jimmie Lunceford from the major New York theatres, radio audiences, and hotel ballrooms that his orchestra had consistently played over the years. Lunceford left after becoming fed up with Mills' exploitation, but the timing, deep in the throes of the Great Depression, was far from perfect. He knew that he had to find the steadiest work possible for his band, and fast, so he hit the road, like so many other jazz musicians did in the 1930s, towards ... the coal camps of West Virginia. Christopher Wilkinson's wonderfully researched Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942 yields a number of such revelatory anecdotes as he presents for us the vibrant dance culture of West Virginia during the long 1930s.

African-American miners indeed created a remarkable and unique space in the hills of West Virginia, unlike anything witnessed during that time in the Jim Crow South, from where most of them had arrived. Railroad construction and the operation of high-quality bituminous coal mines in West Virginia required highly concentrated labor. African-American sharecroppers from the South were among the first to take advantage of this opportunity, particularly as welcomed members of the United Mine Workers Association; the work was extremely dangerous, but the financial incentive was hard to ignore, particularly after the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 virtually guaranteed the union members well-paying work for the remainder of that tumultuous decade. With disposable cash in hand, they often turned to dance band music. Wilkinson in fact documents 356 public dances held for African-Americans between 1930 and 1942 in the state. African-American southerners indeed had much reason to celebrate in West Virginia: there they wielded a politically influential right to vote, they succeeded in banning racist films such as Birth of a Nation from the state's theaters, secured an anti-lynching law, and, as Wilkinson demonstrates through the vivid remembrance of Lionel Hampton's trumpeter, Joe Wilder, enjoyed the dignify of integrated seating in train cars.

One of Wilkinson's contributions lies in his ability to use a musical micro-history of West Virginia's coal camps in order to further disrupt the dichotomies that originally defined the work of many music scholars: those of rural versus urban entertainments, of " hot" versus "sweet" jazz adherents, and of the musical preferences of whites versus blacks and middle class versus working class audiences. From the days of medicine shows, West Virginians had become well versed in the cosmopolitan, commercial musics that emanated from New York and Chicago. Enhanced through the distribution of phonographs and the reach of radio deep into the hollers of the mountains, indeed the most well-known orchestras arrived behind a long line of local and "territory," or regional, jazz and dance bands that had long played their hit parade renditions both to white and black audiences. Despite the equity gained by African-Americans in some of West Virginia's social and political arenas, their dances remained segregated. Wilkinson demonstrates through his examination of local newspapers how African-American jazz and dance orchestras began to create interesting fissures in the divide: when Don Redman performed at the Fairmont armory in 1934, the West Virginian reported that in addition to the "biggest crowd of colored terpsichorean experts ever assembled at one time on the local floor . …

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