Breaking racial barriers between performers and audience in jazz was part of more considerable social changes that the American society faced in the 1930s. The growing popularity of this genre turned radio stations and club scenes into the places for mass gatherings where the conventional norms could be intact. One of the brightest figures of that time was Louis Armstrong, whose performance was oriented not only towards the black audience but also towards white listeners who appreciated his music as well. Although jazz musicians like Armstrong did not participate in any political movement and even received scathing remarks due to their cooperation with the authorities, they helped to undermine segregation with their popularity and subversive acts on the stage rather than on the street or in the parliament.
Socioeconomic and demographic shifts in the US changed the standards of music that was popular in the urban area. In particular, the massive migration of the African-American population from the rural South to the industrialized North affected demographics of the biggest American cities. Subsequently, Anglo-American culture was no longer in the dominant position, and such cities as New York became prominent multicultural centers, where African-Americans could express their culture in a new environment. Moreover, musical traditions of Southern black communities became exposed to the recent technological developments in the music industry, which included a phonograph, radio broadcasting, and microphone. According to Givan, a combination of technological progress, cultural traditions, and proactive individuals like Louis Armstrong created a new music style, namely jazz. Therefore, the term Age of Jazz (1920s-1930s) characterizes both musical and social shifts in the American society.
Jazz is a broad term to describe different ways of performing on the stage that presupposed improvisation as an ineliminable element of the performance. Spontaneity and freedom of expression allowed musicians not only to show their talents but also to play with different social contexts. Givan assumes that Armstrongs success as a vocalist lies not in the intrinsic features of his vocal but rather in the fact that he familiarized the white audience with a new style that was previously common only in black communities. Moreover, mainstream cultural sphere did not allow rapid changes, but Armstrongs heterogeneous vocal timbre that blurred the line between song and vernacular speech was a real revolution at that time. Although there was a tension between rigid norms of mainstream music and improvisation of jazz musicians, its foreign elements helped find its audience.
Only 3 steps to get your perfect paper
Place an Order
Your Paper is Being Written
Finished Paper is Sent to You
Jazz was not only music for new black urban residents, as it became popular among the white population of the cities as well. Lopes claims that it was a cultural form of rebellion for white people, because music was associated with African Americans. Journalism, literature, and film industry used a trope of a defiant jazz musician whose talent was not recognized by the critics. On the one hand, it subverted existing norms in music and society. On the other hand, it established a commercially successful product for the wider audience. In such a way, white and black listeners found the opposite interpretations in jazz: for the former, it was a new way to express themselves, while African-Americans could trace the familiar motives in it.
Milieu, in which jazz musicians worked, was diverse despite the general image of jazz as the music of African Americans. This tendency of meeting black and white artists in the creative process has been the most prominent since jazz entered the commercial mainstream sphere. Hence, Armstrongs cooperation with Tin Pan Alley vividly exemplifies such practice in this case. According to Givan, Armstrong made one of his most successful and influential products working with white musicians and songwriters. For example, Armstrong performed the song I Must Have That Man written by white songwriters Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh for the African American Broadway revue Blackbirds. Moreover, he experimented with other styles playing with such hillbilly singer as Jimmie Rodgers. As a result, crossing racial boundaries led not only to cooperation between people of different races but also to cultural interaction and fusion.
African American element was still very profound on the stage and had to find its way to accommodate to the racial norms of that period which segregated black and white communities despite the commercial success of jazz. Accordingly, black musicians often faced racist authorities, which arrested them or banned jazz concerts. Thus, they tried to comply with stereotypes about black culture to find limited acceptance, as officials were against jazz concerts. Louis Armstrong embodied the features of a stereotypical black musician, who altered the principles of mainstream media dominated by white music and musicians. Especially his singing rather than playing on the trumpet made him an exotic performer. Due to this fact, even racist authorities of Southern cities praised his performance although they could oppose jazz music for a wider audience. Raeburn mentions an episode in Memphis in 1931, when police officers, the majority of whom were the members of Ku-Klux-Clan, liked Armstrongs performance in their city. Overall, reproducing stereotypical images of African Americans on the stage, jazz musicians reinforced racist norms in the American society, which racists in power tried to preserve.
- Title Page
- Revision (on demand)
Although Armstrongs image as a musician followed the prejudices about African Americans, he found some cultural practices to subvert the existing order. Returning to the episode in Memphis, when police enjoyed Armstrongs performance, Raeburn assumes that the musician played a double game using cultural symbols that had different meanings for various groups of people. Performing the song Ill Be Glad When Youre Dead, You Rascal You in Memphis, he decided to dedicate it to the local police officers who initially had been against his concert in the city. While the number of African Americans who were present at the concert interpreted the song as a mockery of the police, the police officers themselves were flattered that such a famous musician paid attention to them. Combining both motives in the song, Armstrong introduced cultural resistance to white domination so that African American culture performed on the mainstream stage had a hidden meaning shared only by those who were part of the community. Raeburn regards it as a form of dozens, verbal combats popular in black communities where opponents mocked each other. Since the authorities were not aware of such subversive practices, they did not directly oppose the existing order but empowered the members of the community who knew that they had cultural influence in the mainstream sphere sharing a secret knowledge.
It was not one-time joke but rather a more systematic opposition by Armstrong. In his movie performance in A Rhapsody of Black and Blue in series One-Reel Acts and Band Shorts, Armstrong played King of Jazzmania singing and playing the trumpet in leopard skin. On the surface, it may seem to the white audience as if Armstrong portrayed a stereotype about a wild African in their natural environment and clothes. However, his performance empowered the black audience of that time, because Armstrong expressed his sexuality regardless of the ridiculous setting of soap bubbles and stereotypical black songs. Moreover, it was the first time the black person performed in One-Reel Acts and Band Shorts, which only emphasized his message for black community. Accordingly, Armstrong used film industry to deliver an empowering message to the black communities across the US. Moreover, the musician openly criticized US government in 1957 after Little Rock Crisis and did not support the status quo order proposing hidden practices of opposition.
Cooperate with us and forget your worries!
We will help you get high grades!
To conclude, jazz became a vessel for African American culture into American cultural mainstream, which blurred cultural lines and empowered blacks in America. Furthermore, jazz contributed to the emergence of more multicultural face of America, where Anglo-American culture was not in the dominant position since every culture had a possibility to express itself. Lois Armstrong was one of the leading figures who brought Americans together and empowered the oppressed with his subversive music practices.