By Steve Provizer
Sittin’ In raises fascinating issues and its wealth of ephemera provides an amusing context in which to ponder deeper questions.
Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s by Jeff Gold. Harper Design, 260 pages, $39.99.
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Sittin’ In belongs to the family of large-format jazz-related books like The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography and Impulse for Change: The Story of Impulse Records. The volume is text-heavier than the former and more graphics-heavy than the latter. Author Jeff Gold breaks the book into sections — “The East Coast,” The Midwest” and “The West Coast” — and places in-between interviews with musicians Sonny Rollins and Jason Moran, and writers Dan Morgenstern and Robin Givhan. Jazz people will recognize all those names except that of Ms. Givhan, who is a Washington Post fashion critic, brought on board to give her impression of the photographs of audiences taken at jazz venues.
Gold writes brief introductions covering the jazz topography of the cities in the volume as well as short descriptions of the venues. His choice of the latter seems to have been based on the ephemera in his own collection. New York City receives the preponderance of coverage — about 100 pages. Chicago gets about 20, and it decreases from there. The only Boston places he includes are Symphony Hall, the Hi-Hat, and North Adams Armory. When I undertook to simply list the number of venues in Boston over the decades there were over a hundred. It’s hard to imagine any book being totally inclusive, but let’s just say that for the sake of organization and honest presentation Gold might as well have put “New York” and “Everywhere Else (afterthoughts).”
Much of the ephemera — programs, posters, menus, and the like — is pretty interesting. Anyone who thinks that hype is a new invention will be disabused of that idea when they look at this material’s head-spinning claims and grabby graphics. As is to be expected, much of the advertising is sexist (overtly) and racist (less overtly). It’s intriguing to read about how the spaces that these venues occupied were constantly repurposed. The Hickory House went from car showroom to restaurant to nightclub. Central Plaza was first a kosher catering house, then a spot for jam sessions, weddings, bar mitzvahs, television filming, and finally the first home of the NYU School of the Arts.
It’s also informative to see the publicity, menus, etc., from local, non–New York City jazz venues where some of the people who eventually rose to the highest ranks of jazz first learned their trade: for example, Bill Hardman at the Mirror Show Bar in Cleveland, Dorothy Ashby at the Wal-Ha Room in Detroit, and Johnny Hartman at the El Grotto in Chicago.
The life span of most of these places was short, and the book reminds us that this was often the result of challenges that had nothing to do with the relative popularity of the music. There was the influence of “Racial Covenants” — agreements to exclude black people from housing — which led to self-contained black neighborhoods. The practice was banned by the Supreme Court in 1948, but the results of the change were mixed, at best, for jazz venues. There was also the 1944 Cabaret tax imposed in New York City, which added 30 percent to the price of live music. Clubs that allowed no dancing were exempt from the tax, a prime reason that one form of jazz, bebop, became a mainstay in clubs and older forms of the music, intended for dancing, were phased out.
The other graphic components here are photos originally taken by photographers who had been hired to take shots of the audience. These were offered as keepsakes for a buck or two to remember a night out on the town. A lot of authorial text and interview reflections are given over to an evaluation of these photos. Rollins and Moran both talk about the crucial role of the audience in the musical experience and, by extension, the importance of the photos. I agree about the importance of the artist-audience relationship, but I’m not sure this kind of documentation sustains the importance Gold wants to vest in it.
I’ll return to the photographs, but first let me note that the main agenda the author puts forward in this book is that the world of jazz was far ahead of the rest of American culture in terms of racial mixing. Gold occasionally talks about ugly incidents, but his goal is to show the degree to which integration in these places — especially on 52nd St. in New York — was ahead of its time. I partially agree with this assertion. Jazz musicians did interracial jamming and recording as early as the ’20s. But jazz musicians accepted each other because they were fellow members of a hard-won meritocracy and this sense of community, to some degree, flattened out the racial disparities.
When Gold tries to extend this notion of racial comity into the venues and audiences, he’s on shakier ground. The author is ebullient about what’s happening in the photos — couples in love, adoring looks at the musicians, stylish posing, etc. Fashion writer Givhan has a subtler grasp of the content of these photos. In her interview she constantly brings Gold down to earth. For example, when he talks about how much he loves all the black men wearing hats in a photo, she responds: “It plays on a sense of anonymity, to some degree. It’s a uniform and there’s probably a certain degree of safety and camouflage in that.… I suspect there’s probably an element of protection in dressing with the crowd, not standing out.… It’s the whole notion of welcoming the black musicians but not regular black folks in its audience — it’s the notion of being willing to embrace the exceptional but not the average.” Gold assumes a level of ease among the audience in these mixed race environments but, as Givhan observes, while a musician might feel that ease, one can’t assume that a black audience member will.
Quincy Jones’s interview is fairly glib and all about the racial upside of jazz. Rollins insists that jazz musicians don’t get enough credit for “breaking down racial barriers.” Moran is thoughtful and analytic; he has a lot to say about audiences, albeit through a somewhat theoretical filter. Dan Morgenstern’s interview deals with his personal experience of jazz and, with caveats, he agrees with Gold’s integration slant. For me, Givhan’s interview is the most perceptive, to some degree because she’s a jazz outsider, responding in the present to photos from the past. She seems to have few preconceptions about what she is supposed to see.
Oral histories suggest that jazz musicians have related to each other with more ease than can be found in other parts of the culture. At the same time, there’s no doubt that venues in general were hostile to racial mixing. So the degree to which jazz — the music and the business — contributed to a progressive model of race relations is an open question, one that generates many different opinions. The essential value of Sittin’ In is its generous collection of memorabilia, but there’s no reason why a book like this can’t look more deeply into substantive issues.The vision of jazz clubs that Gold presents here is not necessarily wrong, but it is fairly glib. His authorial voice, as it emerges in the text and in the interviews, indicates that he is more a “booster” than a scholar. Along those lines, a table of contents and index would have been helpful. Still, the book raises fascinating issues and its wealth of ephemera provides an amusing context in which to ponder deeper questions.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.