“A Dreadful Bit of Silliness”Feminine Frivolity and Ella Fitzgerald’s Early Critical Reception
In June 1939, as over ten thousand fans mourned outside Baltimore’s Waters AME Church, a twenty-two-year-old Ella Fitzgerald performed an emotional rendition of “My Buddy” to bid farewell to her bandleader, the virtuoso drummer Chick Webb.1 Webb had long fought chronic illness, and he succumbed to spinal tuberculosis while his increasingly successful band was on tour. The emotional Fitzgerald struggled to perform as, by one account, “grief wracked every muscle in the supple body of this brown skinned girl . . . as she steadied her swaying body by holding tight to the microphone.”2 Fitzgerald’s display of emotion speaks to the depth of her connection with Webb, who hired her in 1935 when she was a homeless orphan singing in amateur contests in Harlem. In turn, she gave Webb’s band its first taste of national fame, fronting the band on a string of popular hits.
Fitzgerald would go on to a legendary career that has placed her in the small yet elite group of singers regarded as significant jazz artists, yet her early work holds a tenuous place in her legacy. Gunther Schuller, in his pioneering 1989 study of swing era jazz musicians, dismisses Fitzgerald’s early work, describing her 1930s hits as “puerile songs” and “inane ephemera”:
Webb’s career demonstrates once again the painful truth that outstanding music rarely coincides with great public success. Though highly regarded by fellow musicians and by his loyal fans at the Savoy, Webb did not enjoy national prominence until he had acquired a girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald and, in particular, her recording of a dreadful bit of silliness called A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Fortunately the inane ephemera of that day are now long forgotten, while we can today still enjoy the quite remarkable recordings of the Webb band at its orchestral best.3 [End Page 43]
Schuller’s criticism reflects a broader trend traceable to Fitzgerald’s reception during the 1930s. As in the above passage from Schuller, critics then did not attack Fitzgerald directly; rather, they assailed Webb and his band for its commercial turn and for featuring Fitzgerald’s popular vocal numbers. I term this the “Webb-downturn narrative.” Buried within their attacks is a specific set of discursive moves that pejoratively articulate popularity with femininity, deploying romanticized notions of anticommercialism and authenticity.4 Terms such as “frivolous,” “popular,” “novelty,” and even “vocal” activate gendered tropes that index Fitzgerald and use gender as a means to feminize—and therefore chastise—Webb and his orchestra, even when Fitzgerald is not directly mentioned. Furthermore, by directing such criticism at Webb and other male musicians, this discourse erases Fitzgerald’s subjectivity as a musician, facilitating a strictly homosocial conversation. In this article, I build upon the feminist turn of the new jazz studies—specifically the work of Sherrie Tucker, Tammy Kernodle, and Lara Pellegrinelli—to contend that the Webb-downturn narrative was a raced and gendered reaction to Ella Fitzgerald’s growing presence in the band.5 This reaction to Fitzgerald is a crucial object of jazz historical and historiographic study, in part because the period in which she first received significant critical attention coincides with the emergence of jazz criticism as a coherent discursive formation.6
Musical Microaggression and Jazz Criticism’s Crisis of Masculinity
The raced and gendered tropes in Fitzgerald’s early reception hinge on a particular articulation in the 1930s of anticapitalist ideology to fetishized constructs of black masculinity: misogynist allusions to a black female singer intended to shame a black male bandleader into aesthetic compliance with white male jazz critics’ desires.7 As such, my argument emphasizes two fundamental claims. First, that criticism of Fitzgerald maintains specific links between anticapitalism, authenticity, masculinity, and blackness. Second, that rather than being overtly pejorative toward Fitzgerald herself, criticism during her tenure with Chick Webb’s band [End Page 44] enacts its gendered discursive violence by critiquing her indirectly as a tool to pejoratively feminize Chick Webb, her male bandleader, thus undermining Fitzgerald’s very subjectivity. My approach and emphasis take significant inspiration from bell hooks’s use of the term “White Heterosexist Capitalist Patriarchy” to both foreground intersectionality and redirect the theoretical apparatuses of identity politics toward those identities with the most privilege and power.8 This work thus joins the growing discourses in masculinity studies and critical whiteness studies that seek to expose whiteness and masculinity as problematic yet potent constructs whose politics impact social formations and narratives that, like whiteness and masculinity themselves, read as neutral discourses unmarked by their hegemonic positions. Contesting such readings, this article seeks, through analysis of Fitzgerald’s early reception, to help expose deeply embedded layers of raced and gendered privilege within jazz’s aesthetic system and historical narratives.9
Discussion of the Webb band’s ostensible decline reveals the anxious maintenance of a politicized aesthetic system with roots in modernist aesthetic prestige and in an enmity for commercial markets. This anticommercialism drew upon American exceptionalist folklorism and an attendant yearning for pure, authentic expression that rejected the trappings of mass culture.10 The strong alignment in the 1930s between young white male jazz critics writing for specialty magazines and communist and related leftist movements has been established at length.11 Bruce Boyd Raeburn identifies the 1930s as a “second phase” of jazz writing, during which specialist record collectors consolidated an aesthetic discourse predicated on anticommercialism and the authenticity of African American origins, moving from the pages of left-wing periodicals to a growing list of specialty jazz magazines.12 Monica Hairston articulates the conflation of blackness, masculinity, and an authentic working class as it impacted the gendered language used in the 1930s to describe swing.13 While individual critics had varying degrees of involvement [End Page 45] with the Communist Party and “popular front” leftist activism, and not all identified as communists or even as leftists, the powerful anticommercial narratives forged through jazz criticism’s nascent aesthetic system underwrote their prose nonetheless. Jonathon Bakan highlights a similar dynamic impacting black jazz musicians in Harlem with regard to the Communist Party: “Even among those who vociferously disagreed with the Communist Party, there were many who participated in the activities it initiated or sponsored, and whose contributions to the popular discourse of the period were conditioned by the political positions the Party espoused.”14 For white male jazz critics, black masculinity became a vehicle to contest dominant constructions of mass culture. John Gennari’s pioneering study of jazz criticism hints at this point: he emphasizes both the conflation of romanticist folklorism and racial progressivism, resulting in paternalist constructions of blackness, and the white male homosociality central to the boom in hot record collecting that drove 1930s jazz discourse.15 Within the larger fold of masculinity studies, Todd Reeser has argued (building on Max Weber) that dominant paradigms of American culture valorize a man’s role as “bread winner,” conflating wealth and financial success with potency and strength. Jazz critics’ reticence to identify with this paradigm is an instance of what Reeser terms a “crisis of masculinity” where “many men in a given context feel tension with larger ideologies that dominate or begin to dominate that context.”16 Reeser argues that to resolve such a crisis, men reframe socially conforming masculine behaviors as feminine and reclaim their gender role by building an alternative, oppositional archetype of masculine behavior.17 Thus, white male jazz critics challenged the prevailing relationship between manhood and wealth by repositioning commercial success as a feminine goal for the weak-willed. Toward that end, their oppositional masculine archetype leverages another form of difference: race, specifically blackness. Though they employed the rhetorical tools of exoticism and fetishization, jazz critics did not construct black masculinity as a problematic other. Rather, they rerouted masculinity through the alterity of blackness to fuel a paradigm of masculinity more ambivalent toward material gain.
Several scholars have highlighted the repeated efforts of male intellectuals to frame mass culture as feminine. Andreas Huyssen traces the feminization of mass culture to the nineteenth century, highlighting the modernist trope of the male artist/hero resisting the frivolous and impure taste of female audiences.18 Both Norma Coates and Elijah Wald have identified this trope’s lingering power in the masculine “rockism” of 1960s music criticism and in contemporary popular [End Page 46] music scholarship.19 Discussing the 1920s and 1930s, Kristin McGee explains the feminization of mass culture, couched in the language of moral panic, as a defensive response to shifting gender roles.20 Where McGee identifies a misogynist discourse defending dominant masculine norms, what I find in Fitzgerald’s early reception is a feminization of mass culture whose opposition to cultural norms is premised on the difference facilitated by a discourse of racialized authenticity. This discourse allowed critics to deploy masculinity as an authentic challenge to, rather than a defense of, the default social and economic order without compromising their own male privilege.21
The criticism I discuss here is, by and large, not overtly pejorative toward Fitzgerald herself. Rather, critics’ tepid praise undermines Fitzgerald’s subjectivity, using her as a tool to pejoratively feminize Chick Webb, her male bandleader or “handler.” As the vitriol within critiques of Webb’s growing commercialism was often embedded within or stood side by side with more overt praise for Fitzgerald’s singing, I employ the concept of microaggression to identify the discursive violence present within ostensibly neutral or complimentary statements. A longstanding area of legal, psychological, and sociological research, microaggression offers a vital framework to understand how well-intentioned critique and even outright compliments can manifest as a form of social and psychological violence. According to Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, and Aisha M. B. Holder, “Microaggressions inevitably produce a clash of racial realities where the experiences of racism by blacks are pitted against the views of whites who hold the power to define the situation in nonracial terms. The power to define reality is not supported at the individual level alone, but at the institutional and societal levels as well.”22
As microaggressions can function based on broad institutional and social norms, they do their work regardless of an individual actor’s intention. Like many contemporary perpetrators of microaggressions, early jazz critics often viewed themselves and their projects as explicitly integrationist and antiracist. On that level, it is neither my intention nor my goal to question white male jazz critics’ good intentions or label them “bad people.” The averse racist and microaggressive behaviors I identify in early Fitzgerald criticism function, as Sue notes, “below the level of awareness of well-intentioned people.”23 Thus, the concept directs needed [End Page 47] attention toward the unconscious damage caused by well-meaning white men lacking awareness of their (our) privilege, sensitivity to the problematic dynamics of institutional racism, and willingness to meaningfully confront the power structures in which their (our) behavior and relationships function. My application of the concept of microaggression to jazz criticism is thus very much in line with Kelsey Klotz’s work on the reception of cool jazz during the 1940s and 1950s:
In accounting for microaggressions, which I interpret here as the implicit racial ideologies in jazz criticism that draw upon centuries of whites distinguishing themselves from blacks by emphasizing white minds and black bodies, there is no “smoking gun.” There is rarely a single piece of evidence in which a jazz critic wrote that black musicians simply were not as intellectual as white musicians, or white genres were more “developed” than black genres. Indeed, for many jazz critics, genres associated with white musicians, such as cool, were not considered “better,” meaning more “authentic,” than so-called black genres such as bebop and hard bop. However, racism is not only evident in such obvious statements; racial ideologies exist in critical microaggressions that assert that bebop and hard bop were better jazz genres because bop musicians performed with more “natural” emotional expression. Therefore, my evidence exists not in one or even a handful of clearly racist sentiments, but rather in the coded language of many jazz articles and reviews that sustain systems of racism—systems that have been integrated into the fabric of jazz history.24
As both explicit and inferential criticism of Ella Fitzgerald makes clear, the “sustained systems of racism” Klotz highlights within jazz criticism and history have also involved the deployment of black masculinity to sustain systems of patriarchy. Following this line of analysis, I thus interpret what Perry Hall identifies as the “racist habits of thought and association” that distort white admiration of black culture and route it through patterns of exploitation that stem from the simultaneous omnipresence and invisibility of white male privilege.25
Webb’s Critical Reception before Fitzgerald
Early in his career, Chick Webb was a darling among jazz critics—most notably Downbeat’s John Hammond, Metronome’s George T. Simon, and Melody Maker’s Spike Hughes. These critics championed the band’s driving, unpretentious style, yet there was a growing negative shift in reviews beginning in 1936, the year Ella Fitzgerald first recorded with the band. Several critics who had once praised the band now branded Webb’s music overwrought, saccharine, and inauthentic. While [End Page 48] Webb’s post-1935 reception was not uniformly negative, a new narrative emerged proclaiming the band’s decline: this narrative—the aforementioned Webb-downturn narrative—remained remarkably consistent across reviews by multiple critics. Some form of this narrative appeared in nearly every major jazz specialty publication, escalating in frequency and sharpness of tone through the late 1930s and peaking in 1939, the year of Webb’s death. Most forcefully articulated by Down-beat’s John Hammond and Melody Maker’s anonymous critic “’rophone,” Webb was accused of “going commercial.”26
During the height of his critical popularity in the early 1930s, Webb represented the idealized anticommercial purity that white jazz fans associated with Harlem. For those elite enthusiasts who would in the coming years be recognized as jazz’s first professional critics, Harlem was jazz’s thriving Mecca, with which they formed strong personal connections. For Hammond—a Vanderbilt heir who parlayed his work as a jazz journalist into a range of professional activities as a critic, record producer, and impresario—Harlem was the scene where he felt most at home and most comfortable. Yet it seems clear that Harlem was not a home for Hammond so much as an escape from his own anxieties and ambivalence regarding his privileged surroundings.27 As he wrote for Melody Maker in 1933, “The places for one to hear music in Harlem are the dance halls. Bands like the Blue Rhythm Boys, Fletcher Henderson’s, Chick Webb’s and Benny Carter’s are often at uptown ballrooms, where one can find the most pleasant escape from white ‘culture.’”28 Though Hammond complained of a general flattening of band quality in Harlem and of Webb’s fast tempos specifically, Hammond acknowledged in 1935 that “Chick Webb has the best band at the moment.”29 Like Hammond, other critics picked up on local (read: black) audiences’ enthusiasm for Webb’s band and were quick to adopt him as their champion.
Webb’s earliest reviews appeared in Melody Maker. Originally launched in 1926 as a trade publication for British dance band musicians, Melody Maker began covering hot jazz music around 1930 when it hired bandleader Spike Hughes as an anonymous record reviewer under the pseudonym “Mike.” Hughes’s column featured record reviews, dance band news, accounts of radio broadcasts, and reminiscences from trips to America.30 His early reviews of Webb’s records, in 1934 [End Page 49] and 1935, reflect both his joy at hearing the band and his anguish that he could no longer hear them live on a regular basis. He praised Webb’s band for what he perceived as its unaffected simplicity. In his early reviews, he considers the band an exemplar of Harlem swing music, marked by Webb’s “unsophisticated music making” and “unpretentious ensemble movements.”31 Hughes saw Webb’s as a band whose music pleased audiences, since “Chick, you see, does not aim high; he has no particular mannerisms; he has no ambitions as a composer. His sole aim in life seems to be the gathering together of sundry musicians, and, having gathered them together, there with to make music of a simple kind, here in after and-tofore known as swing music.”32 His praise for the band’s supposed simplicity and lack of pretension was consistent throughout his criticism and nowhere more evident than in a 1935 review entitled “Records Consigned to the Dustbin,” in which he positioned Webb as a welcome relief from other bands’ contrivances.
Chick Webb’s [band] I have always liked; and his, too, I have come to like even more with the passing of time. There is about its playing an instinctive elegance, an essentially [sic] danceableness that inevitably appeals to those who search for sincerity and less obvious beauty in this world. In a few years’ time I shall throw a whole heap of records away into the ash-can. I shall be crowded out of my home by ten-inch records. I shall discard a thousand black and white mediocrities. Not one of Chick Webb’s records will find its way into the hands of the Westminster dustmen; not for all their elegant top-boots and turned-up hats. But you may be surprised what will.33
For Hughes, appreciating what he perceived as Webb’s unambitiously simple brand of swing—in essence, to appreciate his “Harlemness”—was a mark of musical erudition truly audible only to those “in the know” about Harlem’s night-life scene. He wrote of Webb in 1934: “The tremendous ease of these performances, with their swing and the memories they revive, are so typically Harlem that one fears that none but the elite who know uptown from downtown can really appreciate them.”34 Other European critics who had not heard Webb live still lavished similar praise upon his recorded work. Ronald Wimble, writing for the British publication Swing in late 1935, described Webb’s as an elite band, writing, “I feel that Chick Webb’s band in the combined work of the rhythm-section and soloists is almost without equal.”35 Earlier that year, famed French critic Hughes Pannassié reviewed Webb’s collaboration with Mezz Mezzrow in his magazine Le Jazz Hot, writing that “Chick Webb is above all praise. He is no doubt one of the greatest drummers.”36 [End Page 50]
Like Hughes, Metronome’s George T. Simon highlighted Webb’s association with the Savoy Ballroom in 1935, describing the band as “an accepted institution within an accepted institution” and praising their ability to swing. “Chick Webb’s Band is a neatly rounded outfit,” Simon wrote, “concentrating on swinging everything within the walls of the famous Savoy. And when those darksters start swinging things up there, they really swing.”37 Simon expanded his praise for Webb’s musicianship and character the following year: “There’s more swing per cubic inch in little Chick than in anybody else in the whole wide world. Not only because he packs such a terrific sock, but also because he’s one of the squarest little shooters, is this man one of the idols of his Harlem. He’s very intent in everything he does and he’s continually working to improve his already magnificent band.”38
Writing for the magazine Swing Music, Billy Mason echoes Simon’s sentiments in a somewhat rambling but overwhelmingly positive review of Webb’s “Don’t Be That Way” and “It’s Over Because We’re Through”: “Chick Webb has a swell band. This is dance music; and after all he doesn’t set out to make anything else, like some I know. There is not much one can say about the record. It is all so good, so the easiest way, and the most fitting, is to say it’s a good record. So help me!”39 Mason’s backhand toward an unnamed set of bandleaders is particularly noteworthy. It underscores an overwhelming tendency in the early 1930s to praise Webb not only for his mastery of the unpretentious, so-called real dance music associated with Harlem but for an ostensibly exclusive and unflinching commitment to the style. Critics consistently singled out Webb’s band as a model of authentic swing music and celebrated the band’s popularity in Harlem, its simple yet intense presentation, and its abundance of hot rhythm. Indeed, Hughes sums up the tone of Webb’s early reception in a January 1935 record review where he writes, “Can you remember when there were any complaints to be made about Chick Webb’s music-making? I cannot.”40
From 1936 onward, however, an abundance of complaints emerged: Chick Webb’s music making was a shell of its former self, it was too commercial, it was corny, it was overwrought, it was infantile, it was “white.” Pannassié wrote of Webb’s 1936 recording of “What a Shuffle” that it “doesn’t give us any more idea of what Chick Webb’s band can do. The piece and the arrangement are scarcely more than a succession of clichés.”41 In a 1937 review for Downbeat, John Hammond attacked Webb for his “elaborate, badly scored, ‘white’ arrangements.”42 He went on to accuse Webb of selling out, playing novelty songs and employing comedy tricks, and—in a review for the British publication Rhythm—called the band’s [End Page 51] playing “heavy-handed and uninspired,” claiming Webb sounded “like a colored Hal Kemp.”43 Other critics later echoed Hammond’s sentiment, including Melody Maker’s new anonymous record reviewer “’rophone,” who took the reins from Hughes’s “Mike” in 1936. “’rophone” wrote in a 1939 review that “the arrangements and the performances have lost that looseness, i.e., that swing of the best Webb days. They are packed with clichés and self-conscious effects. The rhythm section has declined. The sax section has what the divorce courts call incompatibility of temperament.”44 According to Metronome’s Simon, by 1939, Webb’s band “unfortunately had taken a pretty nose-dive so far as dishing out honest-to-goodness swing is concerned,” and he recommended “de-emphasizing commercial (white-like) arrangements and going in for the freer swing which originally put Chick across—and which, by the way, is about the only course which will lead him back to that high niche which this plucky lad so justly deserves.”45
That negative assessments of the band were explicitly racialized—that the band’s decline was a sonic descent into whiteness—is critically important. Webb’s reception turned negative when his band ceased to conform as consistently, at least to the eyes and ears of his detractors, to the sound palate and professional comportment that white male critics viewed as markers of black masculinity. For the critics cited above, Webb’s pre-1936 band represents a specific expression of blackness as rough, uncompromising, and antimaterialistic. However, as his band’s national commercial success skyrocketed, its sonic and professional realities no longer conformed to this idealized model.46 As Benjamin Filene explains in the context of 1930s “folk” and “roots” music revivalism, “Roots musicians are expected to be premodern, unrestrainedly emotive, and noncommercial,” since performers “who too closely resemble the revival’s middle-class audiences are rejected by those audiences as ‘inauthentic.’”47 Webb’s reception suffered from the same phenomenon as other black musicians who sought to use musical excellence as a vehicle for material success and class mobility. Jazz musicians aspiring to project middle-or upper-class values transgressed what Filene terms an “identification premised on difference.”48 After 1935, Webb’s band increasingly collapsed this space of difference such that his outfit soon became a perfect foil against which critics could measure their aesthetic ideals. The crucial factor here is that the band’s rapidly growing commercial success was coterminous with the disruption of its homosociality, as [End Page 52] the band restructured its public identity and its commercial ambitions around a young girl singer.49
When Webb’s Band Hires Fitzgerald
In 1935 Chick Webb’s band was fronted by entertainer Bardu Ali and crooning singer Charles Linton. Following an increasing trend to feature girl singers, Webb encouraged the two men to scout potential candidates. When the pair heard Ella Fitzgerald at an amateur contest, they recommended her to Webb. While skeptical at first, principally because of her physical appearance, Webb hired Fitzgerald once he heard her perform.50 His enthusiasm for Fitzgerald’s singing grew quickly, and he had his arrangers craft numerous songs to feature the talented young singer. Relatively soon after Fitzgerald joined the band, the press began to take note of the emerging phenomenon. Among the first critics to publicly praise her was Metronome’s George T. Simon. In his June 1935 review of Webb’s band, he lauds the new singer, claiming that “Miss Fitzgerald should go places” while noting of the band as a whole that “it’s all very good hot music and certainly deserves every bit of the fine rep it’s got in Harlem.”51 By January the following year, Simon was prepared to anoint Fitzgerald a sensation on the verge of stardom:
Ella Fitzgerald . . . the seventeen-year-old gal singing up at Harlem’s Savoy with Chick Webb’s fine band . . . un-heralded, and practically unknown right now, but what a future . . . a great natural flare [sic] for singing . . . extraordinary intonation and figures . . . as she is right now, she’s one of the best of all femme hot warblers . . . and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be just about the best in time to come . . . watch her!52
Simon’s position, though notable for its enthusiasm, more or less reflected the critical appraisal of Fitzgerald until 1938, when “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” hit the airwaves. The song was based on a children’s nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald recalled from childhood, and Van Alexander’s arrangement proved a perfect vehicle to showcase the masterful phonetic playfulness that defined Fitzgerald’s unique [End Page 53] style both during this early period and throughout her career. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” became Chick Webb and His Orchestra’s first, and indeed only, major national hit; it was the top song in the country for nineteen weeks.53 The song brought Webb national notoriety, opening doors to a level of cross-country touring that the band had not previously seen. That said, the real star was clearly Fitzgerald. During this period, one sees a shift in advertising and critical nomenclature from billings for “Chick Webb and His Orchestra” to “Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and His Orchestra” and even “Ella Fitzgerald and Her ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ Orchestra.”54 The song’s derivation from a children’s rhyme fueled a growing and highly gendered tendency to criticize popular songs and swing music as appealing to infantile sensibilities.55 While “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” itself was generally well received, critics lam-basted Fitzgerald’s string of similar follow-ups. Leonard Hibbs referred to “Chew, Chew Your Bubblegum” as “a bit of nonsense,” and “’rophone” made backhanded reference to her earlier hit when he wrote in a review of “Wacky Dust” that “little tiskets and baskets once in a while are acceptable, but I wish Ella would sing something in English now and then.”56 “’rophone” later wrote of “Got a Pebble in My Shoe” that it “is such an irritating and childish piece of affectation that it embarrasses me to play it. It is directed at the twelve-year-old mind.”57
The infantilization of Fitzgerald’s songs and of her voice, branding her as “girl” rather than “woman,” helps explain her ambivalent reception by critics who otherwise had a history of celebrating black women’s voices. John Hammond, in particular, had a well-documented affinity for Bessie Smith and featured Sister Rosetta Tharpe prominently in his 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.58 As Farrah Jasmine Griffin argues, black women’s voices have long served as fundamental signifiers of Americana and specifically of American redemption. The simultaneous fetishization of black women’s benevolence and black women’s suffering and disenfranchisement results in a figure who, in Griffin’s words, “heals and nurtures [the nation] but has no rights or privileges within it—more mammy [End Page 54] than mother.”59 Blues shouters such as Smith and singers with strong sonic and biographical ties to rural southern blackness fed the romanticized folkloric constructs of blackness that critics had positioned as authentic. Fitzgerald, however, was of a generation of “girl singers” or “canaries” in the 1930s whose performances and personas were associated not with either national politics or histories of struggle but with the feminized realm of emotion and personal life.60 The association of Fitzgerald with youth and girlhood affixed her femininity not only to personal emotion and commercial novelty but also to whiteness. As Gayle Wald has argued, discussing popular culture of the late 1990s, the space of girlhood in popular culture is always already white.61 Fitzgerald’s vocal girlhood, a departure from the black women blues and gospel singers prized by critics, thus became one significant means through which critics explained the Webb band’s simultaneous turns toward commercialism, femininity, and whiteness.
No critic pinned the blame for Webb’s commercial turn on Fitzgerald’s presence more explicitly than did Melody Maker’s “’rophone.” His criticism simultaneously blamed Fitzgerald for the band’s decline while conversely framing her as an impressionable child lacking the autonomy to be blamed for anything. “’rophone’s” style as a critic, at least according to Rhythm’s Leonard Hibbs, rested on his “matter-of-factness,” in contrast to his predecessor Hughes’s romantic idealism.62 Curiously, “’rophone” maintained a strong enthusiasm for Webb and his music well into 1938 and explicitly praised both Fitzgerald and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” He wrote of Fitzgerald in August 1937 that “what she doesn’t know about inflections, vibrato and phrasing would barely fill a rather shrunken postage stamp” and in September 1938 of her hit song that it was “recommended to all musicians irrespective of whether their particular instrument is featured.”63 However, toward the end of 1938 and through 1939, ’rophone’s tone had shifted. He became the Webb band’s harshest critic, rarely writing about the band without articulating a narrative of decline for which Fitzgerald was substantively, if not principally, to blame:
Presenting the Decline and Fall of William Webb, Esq. This band has now reached a stage where one feels that everything it plays has the express object of pleasing those audiences that have been roped in by the attraction of Ella’s personality and are not otherwise interested in jazz. . . . Though still clinging to my affection for Ella’s original [End Page 55] Tisket, I have realized now what the result of all this commercial success has been. It’s an old and regrettable story.64
Framing Fitzgerald as an innocent young girl who could not be blamed for the frivolity of her performances, he claimed she was “a grand singer, but she is only as good as the songs she sings, and too much commercial material has undoubtedly warped her style.”65 Used to sell records and make money in a compromising bow to crass commercialism, Fitzgerald is here rendered as much a victim of Webb’s avarice as the critics whose expectations he violates. Since, in the perception of critics, she neither writes the music she sings nor actively pushes the band’s musical direction, she may be a tool to catalyze the band’s commercial turn, but she lacks any agency within this process. As a nonagent in Webb’s commercial turn, Fitzgerald’s retention of authenticity is linked to a kind of musical virginity. This childlike picture of Fitzgerald is of course aided by the “infantile” material she sang, which used devices like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket’s” nursery rhyme to emphasize her childlike nature. Fitzgerald’s origin story—her rescue from homelessness and Webb’s adoption of her—contributes as well.
“’rophone” ultimately used tropes of girlhood to feminize Webb himself. After Webb’s death, the tone of lamenting remembrance for a recently deceased bandleader in “’rophone’s” final Webb reviews only amplified the long-standing paternalism in his ostensibly sympathetic posture toward Fitzgerald. In his 1939 essay eulogizing Webb, entitled “Commercialism Was Too Strong for Chick Webb,” “’rophone” made an explicit link between Fitzgerald’s public rise and the band’s musical fall, situating her as a taint or impurity that had tempted a weak-willed Chick Webb into artistic self-destruction. Articulating the point rather bluntly, he wrote, “The discovery of Ella set Chick’s band on a commercial path which changed its character irreparably.”66 Having brought a woman into his band space and featuring her above his instrumental soloists and even himself, Webb sullied the musical purity for which critics had once praised his band. Implicit in this reasoning is a conflation of Fitzgerald’s seductive, corrupting femininity with the femininity of commercial music’s popular audience. As victim of his own success and the temptations offered by Fitzgerald’s “personality,” Webb becomes a victim of ignorant fans and a popular music industry at odds with the tastes of Webb’s elite critical listeners: “It is much better and kinder to think of Chick as a swell artist and fellow who was carried away by something too big for him, in the form of Broadway commercialism.”67 In the end, Webb also loses his agency as he becomes ostensibly swept up by forces too great for him to comprehend or resist; “’rophone’s” attitudes toward Webb become paternalistic, a term made all the more powerful by his and other critics’ use of Fitzgerald as a means of feminizing, and infantilizing, Webb and his band. Just as Fitzgerald was too young and naive [End Page 56] to be held accountable for her material, “’rophone” positions Webb as similarly blameless, offering that he was simply too weak to resist being lured onto the cliffs of national prominence by the Lorelei of Fitzgerald’s commercial appeal. Here, we see Fitzgerald cast as both the Madonna and the whore: an innocent girl subject to the unfortunate decisions of her arranger and bandleader yet whose fame was a seductive temptress that “made” poor Chick Webb sell out his fans and abandon his style.
Reflecting this broader trend of undermining Fitzgerald’s subjecthood by emphasizing her commercial appeal, John Hammond’s overt praise for Fitzgerald rarely addressed her musical contributions. Rather, he noted her role in popularizing Webb’s band nationally and filling the drummer’s coffers: “But one thing we can safely predict: Chick is definitely on the road to financial success, for the singing of Ella Fitzgerald has become an enormous asset to any band.”68 His faint praise couches Fitzgerald’s contribution in the dreaded language of commercialism; her prominence is, for Hammond, a concession to oppressive market forces, her role that of “asset” rather than artist: “At least partly because of Ella Fitzgerald the band is extremely popular these days, but I’m afraid that its musicianship is far below the standards Chick ought to set for himself. . . . But Chick is such a swell performer and Ella so great a personality that crowds usually overlook such deficiencies.”69 This review highlights the three most common tropes of Webb criticism in the two years before Webb’s death in 1939: the band’s turn toward commercial tunes, either explicitly or implicitly attributed to Fitzgerald’s growing prominence; the ignorance of popular music consumers; and Fitzgerald’s role as a nonartist—a “personality” rather than a performer. This dynamic endured even when Fitzgerald’s singing was overtly praised. In a 1937 record review for Metronome, Gordon Wright complimented Fitzgerald’s “mighty fine warbling” only lines after writing, “Chick is going a bit too commercial on these sides and doesn’t do his band complete justice.”70
Such critiques rely on gender-coded language: the act of singing and the role of singer read as feminine. This gendered articulation endures in part because instruments, symbols of industrial tinkering and technical culture, code as masculine objects and frame instrumental performance as a male form of labor.71 Lewis Erenberg argues that the “overwhelmingly male” dance-band business “evinced a distrust of women singers as ‘poison’ who might disrupt a band’s fellowship, team-work, [End Page 57] and sense of freedom.”72 Though Erenberg refers to musicians themselves, this dynamic was present as strongly, if not more so, in the masculine homosocial discursive relationships that critics built, or at least imagined, between themselves and male-dominated bands. As such, Fitzgerald’s voice was a transgression of masculine space that signified the commercial pandering critics so deplored. Her growing prominence became an emasculating threat. What critics perceived as light, frivolous, sweet, and/or popular transgressed their own aspirations for what men’s music should sound like and for what male musicians, specifically black men, ought to produce. In Hammond’s critiques, Fitzgerald is relevant only insofar as she impacts the aesthetic direction of Chick Webb and his band of male instrumentalists. When Fitzgerald’s presence enlivened audiences, critics blamed not only Webb but the audiences themselves for their poor taste. Downbeat critic Bob Bach exemplified this rhetorical strategy in a 1937 review when he wrote, “Ella Fitzgerald got a bigger hand than Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton which should be a sure tip-off on the crowd.”73 Bach’s review demonstrates the band’s double bind: if they did poorly, featuring Fitzgerald caused their downfall; if they did well, it was because audiences were ignorant. Since girl singers like Fitzgerald disrupted a folkloric black masculine paradigm, they were necessarily regarded as concessions to commercialism and to the tastes of those unenlightened fans who cranked the wheels of crass American capitalism.
Critical Misreading and Webb’s “‘Soft and Sweet’ Ideal”
Hammond and “’rophone” implied that Webb’s explosive national success was an unexpected and unwelcome twist of fate, coaxing him away from a comfortable local career, but such logic grossly distorts Webb’s long-standing stylistic versatility and national commercial aspirations. In fact, Fitzgerald was only the most visible symbol of what may have appeared as an abrupt change in direction but was actually consistent with, and a welcome realization of, Webb’s long-standing professional goals. In a 1939 review of Webb’s live performances at New York’s Park Central Hotel, George T. Simon celebrated the Webb band’s supposed return to Webb’s musical roots. In doing so, Simon evoked the Webb-downturn narrative, asserting that what Webb “wants to play” is in conflict with a growing audience of casual fans and their “white” aesthetic preferences:
His band is now ensconced in a pretty commercial white spot (Park Central Hotel), where it’s in the process of trying to decide whether to play as it wants to play; as it thinks it should play, or as the customers think it should play. Unfortunately, Chick’s outfit had chosen the latter course for the past year and a half or so, and just as unfortunately had taken a pretty nose-dive so far as dishing out honest-to-goodness swing is concerned. If you’ll listen pretty closely from now on, though, chances are you’ll [End Page 58] note a marked improvement in the band. Apparently Chick has returned to his former philosophy and is ready to play again as he wants to play.74
Simon assumes that Webb, given a choice, would have willingly adopted the mantle of anticommercial hero that he and other white critics depended on black male bandleaders to enact. Yet, not only were professional black swing bandleaders savvy businessmen who saw satisfying audiences as their role, but many black bandleaders admired the kinds of sweet commercial music their white critics detested. Webb had long sought to improve his band’s national reach and crossover appeal, hoping to tap into the national audience enjoyed by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.75 His “tactics” with Fitzgerald, specifically focusing on commercial tunes, were not actually new to the band; rather, they were simply more successful with her as the featured singer than in previous attempts with male crooners. In 1934 Webb hired falsetto crooner Charles Linton and recorded sweet-style tunes that featured him, including “Imagination,” a ballad pressed the year before Fitzgerald joined the band. This recording reinforces the Pittsburgh Courier’s 1933 claim that Webb could “dish it up plenty hot” but actually preferred his music to sound sweet.76 “Imagination” contains virtually no instrumental solos and minimal ensemble support for Linton’s sweet, vibrato-laden vocals. As Linton explained it, his role with the band was to perform the classical and ballad numbers, which proved extremely popular and drew crowds of admiring young women to Webb’s performances.77
These were the sorts of tunes that prompted the Chicago Defender to declare that Webb was “nationally famous for preferring his music soft and sweet” and, in reference to Fitzgerald’s first recording session with the band, during which she sang “Love and Kisses” and “I’ll Chase the Blues Away,” that Webb was “clinging to this ‘soft and sweet’ ideal.”78 It was this “‘soft and sweet’ ideal” that helped the band secure a lucrative radio contract with NBC in 1934, making them the most frequently heard band over the airwaves at the time.79 Thus, when white critics lauded Webb’s earlier focus on raw, hot instrumentals, they were noting only one aspect of the band’s versatile personality. In fact, Fitzgerald was not actually brought in to sing sweet ballads, which remained Linton’s domain, but to perform [End Page 59] more up-tempo swinging numbers.80 This strategy proved tremendously successful as Fitzgerald’s popularity vastly expanded the band’s reach.
Though the band’s emphasis on novelty songs merely extended its longstanding versatility in search of popular appeal, the presence of Fitzgerald’s female body led critics to misperceive a massive sonic change in the band’s direction. As she came to dominate the band’s public identity, the ubiquity of her presence transgressed the homosociality of swing bands.81 The immediate and unavoidable presence of a woman as a band’s public face and centerpiece upended expectations about the role of girl singers, who, at least for critics, were mere nuisances or unfortunate concessions to popular taste. In addition, with Fitzgerald fronting the band, Webb’s strategy for reaching a mass audience actually started to work; “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” sold over a million records, an outstanding feat for any band at the time. Fitzgerald’s popularity afforded her a prominence and public presence heretofore unheard-of for a girl singer, and her success and style pushed against received wisdom regarding girl singers’ limited musicality. Even early on, Fitzgerald was a versatile, creative musician: not only did she show a strong aptitude for phrasing and rhythmic play, but she also played a significant role in creating her own material. Van Alexander, who wrote many arrangements for Fitzgerald during her time with Webb, describes the composition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” as a cocreative effort. After Fitzgerald brought Alexander the idea, the two worked together.82 Her early aptitude for composition and experimentation with scatting and ornamentation reveal a jazz artist who already possessed an original style and the ability to make substantial creative contributions as a band member. This was the Fitzgerald that Webb recognized, that other bandleaders actively courted for their own outfits, and that fans repeatedly placed in magazine polls as jazz’s finest. However, by engaging only Webb in critical dialogue, even when their objection was principally to the band’s repertoire and style when featuring Fitzgerald, critics such as Hammond, “’rophone,” and others who participated in the Webb-downturn narrative erased Fitzgerald’s agency and subjectivity as an artist.
By contrast, the black press engaged Fitzgerald as a full human subject—both when offering compliments and when levying critique. Black newspaper columnists made fairly frequent mention of Fitzgerald’s role in the composition of “ATisket, A-Tasket” and a number of other songs. Ina McFadden of the Norfolk Journal and Guide bills “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” as “written and arranged by Ella Fitzgerald” and also credits Fitzgerald with the authorship of “Saving Myself for You,” “I’m in the Groove,” and “You Showed Me the Way.”83 The Pittsburgh Courier’s Porter Roberts, himself a songwriter, listed “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” at the top of his 1938 list of “great [End Page 60] song hits written by colored people” and said of Fitzgerald’s potential as a lyricist that “if anybody ever asks you about Ella Fitzgerald’s songwriting, be sure to tell them when better lyrics are written, Ella Fitzgerald will write them!”84 Billy Rowe, Roberts’s colleague at the Courier, also predicted that “Ella Fitzgerald will become famous as a songwriter.”85 This is not to say that black newspaper reception of Fitzgerald was always positive and never sexist; Frank Marshall Davis claimed Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” follow-up, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” “suffers greatly in comparison to the original and is just ordinary,” and multiple critics made note of fluctuations in her weight.86 Still, even when Fitzgerald was criticized in the black press, the dismissive microaggressions of the Webb-downturn narrative were not present; black critics discussed Fitzgerald as an emerging artist capable of making her own decisions. McFadden’s profile on Fitzgerald describes songwriting as her “greatest ambition” and offers a quotation, ostensibly from Fitzgerald herself, that outlines her significant creative input within her and Webb’s collaborative dynamic: “‘Naturally, I discuss all things with my guardian (Chick Webb)’ she said, ‘but he leaves all final decisions with me. He usually picks tunes I like, and together we work them out.’”87 Furthermore, black critics did not criticize Fitzgerald or Webb’s band for achieving commercial success. In striking contrast to white critics’ objections, at least one black critic actually criticized Fitzgerald for not doing enough to strengthen her commercial appeal. In the Baltimore Afro-American, Buster Vodery inquired of Fitzgerald, “Why doesn’t she cultivate a more dignified entrance onto the stage. Her personality is lost until she sings.”88 James Dodson of the Norfolk Journal and Guide held Fitzgerald up as a model of racial uplift, emphasizing her ability to use her gifts to succeed despite difficult circumstances:
She took the little bit of talent which God gave her, developed it, and made it speak in terms of dollars and cents. An orphan, Miss Fitzgerald not only has succeeded in proving that one does not necessarily have to be loaded down with degrees in order to rise high and be somebody, but that it can be done with[out] the help of parents. Today, she is the toast of the “swing” world. Her magnificent voice and winning personality will keep her on top for sometime [sic] to come. This is a good example for [End Page 61] the thousands of our young people who are sitting around waiting for a break—not knowing breaks are made and not born.89
While white critics saw black musicians as paragons of anticommercialism, within black communities successful musicians like Fitzgerald were held up less for their artistic talent than as models for hard work and class mobility.90
While essentially absent in the black press, the Webb-downturn narrative advanced by Hammond, “’rophone,” and their contemporaries—specifically Fitzgerald’s central role in it—does persist in the two Fitzgerald biographies published during the 1990s, reactivating the misogynist premises upon which earlier critics built their accounts. In an otherwise strong Fitzgerald biography that generally gives this time period a nuanced treatment, Stuart Nicholson undermines both Webb’s and Fitzgerald’s artistic agency by claiming that Webb hired Fitzgerald because he “was frustrated and impatient, willing to try anything that might increase his popularity.” Of Fitzgerald, he writes, “Artistically, Ella was unconcerned about the quality of the material she was asked to perform,” a claim disputed by Fitzgerald’s active collaboration with arranger Van Alexander, which Nicholson does not discuss.91 More problematically, Jim Haskins claims that “Chick Webb had no real need for a girl singer, except as ‘window dressing,’” and that Webb considered singers “superfluous.” In Haskins’s account, Webb saw Fitzgerald as “a young, naïve girl with an unpolished talent, and he had no interest in catapulting her to a featured role that she might not be able to handle.”92 This perspective is driven by Haskins’s broader claim that singers were necessary only because they “added a dimension to a band’s performance that ordinary people who had no hope of understanding pure jazz needed.”93 Haskins’s rhetoric hits on an important argument, one I believe reflects the position of Webb’s critics: What does it mean to foster an aesthetic where voices and, by extension, women are “impurities” that taint or dilute real jazz? Pellegrinelli explains this dynamic’s role in perpetuating jazz aesthetics as a patriarchal system: “In general, the ideology of the ‘artist’ gives women and singers little symbolic capital. They may find a place among the muses that inspire male creativity, . . . but they rarely count as important historical figures or icons. If demanding art music is made by men for men as connoisseurs, then the elimination of singing as women’s primary form of participation helps make jazz into a more ‘serious’ (i.e. ‘male’) domain.”94
Over time, this aesthetic framework has been a foundation for the construction [End Page 62] of jazz’s institutions, aesthetics, and curricula.95 It drives what Pellegrinelli identifies as jazz’s erasure of women and also leverages patriarchy to marginalize certain forms of jazz music making by implicitly or explicitly labeling them “feminine.” Just as Tucker’s work on women instrumentalists highlights a significant disruption in which women musicians transgressed the vocal roles into which female performers were comfortably relegated, Ella Fitzgerald was a girl singer whom critics had struggled to dismiss as mere “window dressing,” especially as her presence occupied more and more of the window. Fitzgerald’s talent and her overwhelming popular appeal, itself a product of her uncanny ability to connect with audiences, caused a significant disruption in the status quo, and the critical backlash to Webb’s band incited by her presence demonstrates the rigorous cultural work that built and policed the romanticized black masculine aesthetic of “pure jazz” and, in Gennari’s parlance, the white male homosocial space it maintained.96
Most white critics who reviewed Chick Webb’s band ultimately evoked the Webb-downturn narrative to some extent, even those more explicitly favorable toward Webb’s band in the late 1930s such as Metronome’s Gordon Wright and George T. Simon. One critical exception is Melody Maker’s Spike Hughes (the pseudonymous “Mike”), who never wavered in his explicit support for Webb. Hughes’s eulogy column, which ran in Melody Maker the month after Webb’s death, is striking in how thoroughly it contrasts with the then-standard framing:
Chick Webb, you see, has been almost the only figure to have kept alive my belief in jazz during the past six years or so. At the risk of giving the more casual reader the impression that Chick Webb was a dull figure, I felt about him that he was the most reliable and steady artist in jazz. In any other connection that might almost be as bad as saying that Chick Webb “meant well.” But in a hectic world like jazz, reliability and steadiness are welcome qualities, and by no means synonymous with dullness. In jazz, where sensationalism is too often the criterion of success, musical sanity is a rare virtue. And Chick Webb, above all things was sane. . . . No band ever sounded like his; and he never tried to make his band sound any different from his own conception of [End Page 63] what jazz should be. Chick Webb never “moved with the times.” He didn’t have to. He had a superb contempt for The Times as such. He was conservative in the best sense.97
Hughes’s description of Webb’s band reads as nostalgic fantasy: he describes a band effectively unchanged from his U.S. sojourns in the early 1930s. While Hughes stopped reviewing records for Melody Maker in mid-1936, he continued writing extended polemics on the state of jazz and swing. In these columns, he routinely singled out Webb for the same positive qualities—consistency, simplicity, unpretentiousness—that other critics chastised the band for abandoning. Yet in all of Hughes’s discussion of Webb, he virtually never mentioned Ella Fitzgerald or any of the songs that feature her.98 Fitzgerald’s literal absence in Hughes’s account effectively projects the implicit fantasy driving the Webb-downturn narrative: Webb’s band remained an unchanging group that was content with its local status in Harlem—a consistent source of hot instrumental (black) musical purity that had never hired a girl singer named Ella Fitzgerald, whose “tuneful trifles” were the cornerstone of its national popularity and commercial success. Hughes, in effect, anticipates by half a century Schuller’s plea for forgetfulness, a process of discursive erasure where Fitzgerald and Webb’s collaboration and commercial success are impurities to be filtered from both artists’ bodies of work and from the jazz historical record.99
While Fitzgerald later enjoyed a significant career as a respected jazz artist, her case is by far the exception rather than the rule. As jazz critics leveraged their privilege to build jazz’s aesthetic system, artists who failed to conform have been squeezed out of canonic narratives. In advancing this authentic, folkish sense of black style, white male critics’ largely well-intentioned attempts to celebrate and promote black musical achievement placed black musicians in an impossible double bind: achieving national mainstream popularity—which required “flash,” “novelty,” and “sweet playing”—would transgress jazz’s newly constructed aesthetic system, costing one critical respect and, therefore, damaging one’s reputation and access to resources. Gennari highlights the dependence that formed between black musicians and those white critics-cum-impresarios who created performance and recording opportunities for musicians they deemed important.100 When I say “black musicians,” however, I ought to specify black male musicians, as the indirect nature of criticism toward Fitzgerald demonstrates how black women—especially [End Page 64] black “girl singers”—were not afforded even the threadbare sense of subjecthood upon which such exploitive dependencies rested.101
Fitzgerald’s early criticism also illustrates a dynamic by which the jazz canon’s erasure of women, of singers, and of “crossover artists” serves to center the relationship between black masculinity and elite white male listeners. As both Charles Carson and Guthrie Ramsey have argued, discourse in jazz studies frequently marginalizes artists with popular appeal and dismisses the taste and lived experiences of black audiences in favor of, as Carson describes them, constructions of blackness that are “at best patronizing, and at the very worst, racist.”102 Such centering of white male desire, even when fueled by antiracist intention, has injured not only black artists but also white male critics. This “crisis of masculinity” emerged from internal conflicts faced by white male critics due to their own nonconformity to dominant narratives of (white) masculinity, affirming the now widely expressed feminist position that patriarchy also deeply hurts men—including, in this case, those critics who knowingly or unknowingly perpetrate(d) microaggressive dis-cursive acts of both misogyny and antiblack racism. Fitzgerald’s early criticism shows us that gendered and raced aesthetic systems impact which artists—and which types of artists—are foregrounded and which ones are marginalized and also how racism and sexism can persist in discussions of individual artists’ trajectories over time through more subtle, indirect derision of oppressed groups. Resisting Schuller’s palpable sense of relief that Fitzgerald’s early songs “have long been forgotten,” as well as the massive body of raced and gendered jazz critical discourse underwriting it, we should consider Fitzgerald’s widely successful early songs wholly a part of, rather than a troubling precursor to, her legendary body of work. [End Page 65]
christopher j. wells is assistant professor of musicology at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute School of Music and managing editor of the Journal of Jazz Studies. His research interests include jazz historiography, musical life in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s, and dancing as a form of embodied listening. His Ph.D. dissertation (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2014) received the Society for American Music’s Wiley Housewright Dissertation Award and UNC’s Glen Haydon Award for an Outstanding Dissertation in Musicology. A social jazz dancer for over a decade, Dr. Wells is currently writing a book about the history of jazz music’s ever-shifting relationship with popular dance.
1. Nell Dodson, “10,000 Bid Farewell to Chick Webb,” Baltimore Afro American, June 29, 1939, 1.
2. “‘My Buddy’ Is Sung by Ella at Services,” New York Amsterdam News, July 1, 1939, 2.
3. Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 297.
4. I use the verb “articulate” throughout this article in line with its use in cultural studies scholarship, which emphasizes the interplay between its dual meanings—“to express” and “to join”—to highlight the interplay between discourse, strategy, and power. See Jennifer Daryl Slack, “The Theory and Method of Articulation in Cultural Studies,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuang Hsing Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996), 112–30.
5. Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Tammy Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004); Lara Pellegrinelli, “Separated at ‘Birth’: Singing and the History of Jazz,” in Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, ed. Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 31–47.
6. Bruce Boyd Raeburn, New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009).
7. Of course, criticism of elite white jazz critics is far from new and, in addition to the predominantly white jazz scholars I’ve cited above, has a far longer history among African American critics and scholars of jazz. The most famous such example is “Jazz and the White Critic” by poet and scholar LeRoi Jones (Imanu Amiri Baraka), which emphasizes the centering of white desire, experience, and institutional culture in the formation of jazz aesthetic discourse. This essay can be found in LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Black Music (1968; New York: Akashic, 2010), 15–24.
8. As hooks explains, “I began to use the phrase in my work ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ because I wanted to have some language that would actually remind us continually of the interlocking systems of domination that define our reality” (bell hooks, transcript of Cultural Criticism & Transformation, directed by Sut Jahry, Media Education Foundation, 1997, 7, https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/402/transcript_402.pdf).
9. Howard Becker uses the term “aesthetic system” to describe not just individual aesthetic judgments but the consensus standards within an arts-related discourse community that create the terms of debate on which contests of “goodness” or “badness” are staged. Becker argues that professional critics have tremendous influence in forging and maintaining these aesthetic systems. Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 131–34.
10. Karl Hagstrom Miller makes a related argument regarding the discipline of folklore’s relationship with minstrelsy. In romanticizing the idea of white engagement with primitivist misperceptions of black culture, folklore reproduces minstrelsy’s core logics even as it explicitly rejects the practice. Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 4–6.
11. John Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
12. Raeburn, New Orleans Style, 82.
13. Monica Hairston, “Gender, Jazz, and the Popular Front,” in Rustin and Tucker, Big Ears, 69–71.
14. Jonathon Bakan, “Jazz and the ‘Popular Front’: ‘Swing Musicians’ and the Left-Wing Movements of the 1930s and 1940s,” Jazz Perspectives 3, no. 1 (April 2009): 37.
15. Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool, 28–43, 61–67.
16. Todd Reeser, Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 27.
17. Reeser, Masculinities in Theory, 27.
18. Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 51.
19. Norma Coates, “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques: Girls and Women and Rock Culture in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 15, no. 1 (June 2013): 65–68; Elijah Wald, “How the Smart Kids Study Popular Music, or Why Are There No Papers on Katy Perry?” (Popular Music Section keynote lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Indianapolis, Indiana, November 14–17, 2013).
20. Kristin McGee, “The Feminization of Mass Culture and the Novelty of All-Girl Bands: The Case of the Ingenues,” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 5 (2008): 635.
21. While focusing on a similar time period to McGee, my work here is more closely an extension backward in time of Coates’s account of 1960s “rockism” and the heroic self-identification achieved by shaming ostensibly feminine modes of music making and music fandom. See Coates, “Teenyboppers,” 66.
22. Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, and Aisha M. B. Holder, “Racial Microaggressions in the Life Experience of Black Americans,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 39, no. 3 (2008): 335.
23. Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010), 9. Averse racism refers to the subtle behavior changes, often driven by stereotypes, that self-identified nonracists make when interacting with marginalized and/or oppressed populations.
24. Kelsey Klotz, “Racial Ideologies in 1950s Cool Jazz” (Ph.D. diss., Washington University in St Louis, 2016), 42–43.
25. Perry A. Hall, “African-American Music: Dynamics of Innovation and Appropriation,” in Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, ed. Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 34.
26. Hammond’s first gig as a jazz columnist was as Melody Maker’s American correspondent in the early 1930s before Downbeat’s founding.
27. Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool, 23. Gennari does make clear that both Hammond and Leonard Feather did see themselves as different from “slummers” like Carl Van Vechten. Still, their own sense of righteous purpose does not erase, and perhaps even amplified, the “redemptive” desire common to white advocates for racial justice that framed their engagement with black culture nonetheless.
28. John Hammond, “Spike and I Go Places,” Melody Maker, March 1933, 185.
29. John Hammond, “Up Harlem Way,” Downbeat, June 1935, 12.
30. This last item was a significant feature of European jazz publications, since their readership lacked access to the ballrooms of Harlem and other American hot spots and thus relied on vivid accounts to give flesh to music enjoyed on records. To meet demand and establish credibility, European critics made “pilgrimages” overseas to experience Harlem in person. Indeed, Hughes counted Chick Webb’s band among his favorite bands based largely on his experiences hearing them play live in the early 1930s. See Howard Spring, “Changes in Jazz Performing and Arranging in New York: 1929–1932” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1993), xix–xx.
31. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, May 26, 1934, 5.
32. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, January 19, 1935, 5.
33. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], “Records Consigned to the Dustbin,” Melody Maker, June 15, 1935, 5.
34. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, June 30, 1934, 5, emphasis in the original.
35. Ronald Wimble, “Some Thoughts and a Definition Inspired by a Recent Feature,” Swing, November/December 1935, 248–49.
36. Hughes Pannassié, Les Disques, Le Jazz Hot, April 1935, 9.
37. George T. Simon, Dance Band Reviews, Metronome, June 1935, 19.
38. George T. Simon, “What’s What among Who’s Who,” Metronome, September 1936, 24.
39. Billy Mason, “Recorded Swing Music: Billy Mason Reviews the July Releases,” Swing Music, July 1935, 124.
40. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, January 19, 1935, 5.
41. Hughes Pannassié, Les Disques, Le Jazz Hot, November 1936, 20.
42. John Hammond, “Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?,” Downbeat, November 1937, 3.
43. John Hammond, “Anticipating a Sensation,” Rhythm, April 1937, 7–9. Hal Kemp was a commercially successful white bandleader.
44. “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, March 25, 1939, 7.
45. George T. Simon, “Roasts and Toasts,” Metronome, March 1939, 21, parenthetical comment in the original.
46. The band, in fact, never conformed to this image and was always well regarded among African Americans for playing both sweet ballads and hot music. See Christopher J. Wells, “‘Go Harlem!’: Chick Webb and His Dancing Audience during the Great Depression” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2014), 108.
47. Filene, Romancing the Folk, 63.
48. Filene, Romancing the Folk, 63.
49. Lewis Erenberg argues that many swing bandleaders in the mid-1930s thought “girl singers” were necessary concessions to popular taste made begrudgingly by male bandleaders. However, he also contends that their upbeat singing offered a more empowering model for young women than did the “torch singers” of the 1920s. See Lewis Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 85–86. Though “girl” is an always problematic and often offensively infantilizing substitute for “woman,” I use it here to reflect the language used at the time and also following Sherrie Tucker’s practice from her work on all-girl bands in the 1940s. As Tucker explains, “It is my hope that, even quote free, the term all-girlbands will resound with historic dissonance—in relation to the women who played in them, the circuits they traveled, and the work they performed. The label summons the complexity of working under an umbrella of both opportunity and devaluation, of the easy dismissal from history of the whole category in later years, and of the disparate repertoire of memories and stakes narrated cross-generationally in the 1990s by women musicians of the 1940s all-girl bands” (Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All Girl” Bands of the 1940s [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000], 2).
50. Stuart Nicholson, Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 34–35.
51. George T. Simon, Dance Band Reviews, Metronome, June 1935.
52. George T. Simon, “Pick-Ups / Roasts and Toasts,” Metronome, January 1936, 27, ellipses in the original.
53. This nineteen-week streak was its chart position on the radio show Lucky Strike Hit Parade. Van Alexander with Stephen Fratallone, From Harlem to Hollywood: My Life in Music (Albany, GA: BestManor Media, 2009), 37.
54. One Chicago Defender writer in particular, Jack Ellis, repeatedly refers to Webb’s band as the “Tisket a-Tasket Orchestra” throughout 1938. “’rophone” offers a related, subtly emasculating dig in an otherwise positive review of two sides featuring Fitzgerald in early 1937, before the release of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” offering that Webb’s band would be more appropriately billed as “Ella Fitzgerald with Orch” (Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, January 9, 1937, 7).
55. Elijah Wald has linked popular music’s broad disdain for popular female singers as an aesthetic reinforcement of patriarchy fueled by dismissively shaming the taste of preteen girls (“How the Smart Kids Study”). For rigorous discussion of the complex dynamics of play, voice, and popular music among girls, particularly African American girls, see Kyra Gaunt, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop (New York: New York University Press, 2006); and Jennifer Woodruff, “Learning to Listen, Learning to Be: African-American Girls and Hip-Hop at a Durham, NC Boys & Girls Club” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2009).
56. Leonard Hibbs, Hot Records Reviewed, Rhythm, July 1939, 45; “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, November 26, 1938, 7.
57. “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, March 27, 1939, 7.
58. Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool, 34–39, 44.
59. Farrah Jasmine Griffin, “When Malindy Sings: A Meditation on Black Women’s Vocality,” in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 104.
60. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream, 84–85.
61. Gayle Wald, “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and Cultural Constructions of Female Youth,” Signs 23, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 588–89.
62. This assessment comes from Hibbs’s own column after Webb’s death in which he wrote: “I AM not going to add my quota to the eloquence that Chick’s death has inspired. I lack both the romanticism of a ‘Mike’ (he is still the greatest romantic of us all despite his classic idealism) and the matter-of-factness of a ‘Rophone’” (Leonard Hibbs, “Hot Records Reviewed: Reflections on the Passing of Great Figures in Jazz,” Rhythm, August 1939, 40).
63. “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, September 3, 1938, 8, and August 28, 1937, 7.
64. “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, March 27, 1939, 7.
65. “’rophone” [pseud.], Hot Records Reviewed, Melody Maker, August 5, 1939, 11.
66. “’rophone” [pseud.], “Commercialism Was Too Strong for Chick Webb,” Melody Maker, July 8, 1939, 6.
67. “’rophone” [pseud.], “Commercialism,” 6.
68. John Hammond, “Bongo Player Thrills New York—Fletch Henderson’s Band Ragged,” Downbeat, March 1937, 3.
69. John Hammond, “Chick Webb’s Standard of Musicianship Too Low,” Downbeat, November 1937.
70. Gordon Wright, “DISCussions,” Metronome, March 1937.
71. Tracey McMullen traces both the specific exclusion of women from male-dominated instrumental ensembles in the 1930s and 1940s to the same “cult of the collector” that gave rise to jazz criticism. Tracy McMullen, “Bands, Orchestras, and the Ideal I: The Musical Stage as Constitutive of the I Function” (Ph.D. diss., University of California San Diego, 2007), 16–17. This dynamic remains pervasive in the present day. In his work on gender and competitive turntablism (DJ battles), Mark Katz explicates “how male technophilia has shaped the turntablist landscape” (“Men, Women, and Turntables: Gender and the DJ Battle,” Musical Quarterly 89, no. 4 : 581).
72. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream, 86–87.
73. Bob Bach, “Swing Bands Take Place of Sleepy Orchestras,” Downbeat, May 1937, 27.
74. George T. Simon, “Roasts and Toasts,” Metronome, March 1939, 21.
75. While applying the term “crossover” to issues of race and audience during this period may be anachronistic, David Krasner demonstrates the concept’s relevance to black vaudeville performers’ appeal to white audiences through skillful marketing that tied black authenticity with both dignity and virtuosity. David Krasner, “The Real Thing,” in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890–1930, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 101.
76. Floyd J. Calvin, “Chick Webb Likes His Music ‘Sweet,’ but He Can Dish It Up Plenty ‘Hot,’” Pittsburgh Courier, October 9, 1933, A9.
77. Nicholson, Ella Fitzgerald, 33–34.
78. “Chick Webb and Band in Boston Run,” Chicago Defender, June 22, 1935, 7.
79. “Chick Webb Now on NBC Network,” Atlanta Daily World, August 29, 1934, 3.
80. Nicholson, Ella Fitzgerald, 34.
81. McMullen recounts how her own disruptive presence as a female musician within a “tribute” swing band playing music of the 1930s and 1940s disrupted the band’s “physical coherence.” She points to a broader paradigm wherein bands exclude women and people of color to maintain the band’s sense of self as a “unified body.” See McMullen, “Bands, Orchestras, and the Ideal I,” 9–13.
82. Alexander, From Harlem to Hollywood, 35–38.
83. Ina McFadden, “Ella Fitzgerald Native of Virginia,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 3, 1938, 13.
84. Porter Roberts, “Praise and Criticism,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1938, 20, November 26, 1938, 20.
85. Billy Rowe, “Out of Billy Rowe’s Harlem Notebook,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 15, 1938, 20.
86. Frank Davis, “Rating the Records,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 10, 1938, 16. That Davis would offer this exceedingly rare example of musical criticism of Fitzgerald in the black press may be explained in part by his own “crossover” status as one of the very few black record reviewers who also wrote for jazz specialty publications. He was also the Chicago chapter of the United Hot Clubs sole black member. John Gennari, “‘A Weapon of Integration’: Frank Marshall Davis and the Politics of Jazz,” Langston Hughes Review 14, no. 1 and 2 (1996): 16–17, 24. Stories discussing Fitzgerald’s weight include Ashton Stevens, “Ziegfeld Would Have Starred Ella, Chick!,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 4, 1937, 20; “Chick and Ella Bring Norfolkians Real Jam Session,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 24, 1938, 16; Louise Johnson, “Race Chauvinists,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 22, 1938, 14.
87. McFadden, “Ella Fitzgerald,” 13.
88. Buster Vodery, “Doing the Big Apple with Buster Vodery,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 13, 1938, 11.
89. James Dodson, “Ella Fitzgerald Example for Those Waiting for a Break,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 2, 1938, 8.
90. Jeffrey Magee, Fletcher Henderson: The Uncrowned King of Swing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 29–30.
91. Nicholson, Ella Fitzgerald, 25–26.
92. Jim Haskins, Ella Fitzgerald: A Life through Jazz (London: New English Library, 1991), 35.
93. Haskins, Ella Fitzgerald, 37.
94. Pellegrinelli, “Separated at ‘Birth,’” 42.
95. Kenneth E. Prouty, “Toward Jazz’s ‘Official’ History: The Debates and Discourses of Jazz History Textbooks,” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 1, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 19–43. While Prouty does not make this point about gender, he does extensively outline the process of canon formation Pellegrinelli critiques and that process’s domination by white male voices.
96. Fitzgerald would, of course, go on to great success as a respected jazz artist. One interesting example of a different relationship with a white impresario is her work with Norman Granz, who featured her prominently in “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Interestingly, Fitzgerald’s presence helped expand the series’ popular audience, yet its credibility as legitimate was not threatened by her presence. Two likely reasons are the self-conscious positioning of jazz as “art” rather than “folk” music and Fitzgerald’s shifting performance style as she “traded fours” with musicians, functioning more like an instrumentalist. For more detailed discussion, see Tad Hershorn, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 127–65.
97. “Mike” [Spike Hughes, pseud.], “‘Mike,’ Our Critic-at-Large, Declares a Truce,” Melody Maker, October 7, 1937, 5.
98. I write “virtually” because Hughes mentions her once in 1937 to project that she is likely to win a fan poll ranking top singers. Melody Maker, October 23, 1937, 5.
99. Alf Arvidsson discusses Hughes’s role in bringing elite cultural discourse from art criticism to the discursive sphere of jazz criticism. Alf Arvidsson, “‘Mike’ Disc-courses on Hot Jazz: Discursive Strategies in the Writing of Spike Hughes, 1931–33,” Popular Music History 4, no. 3 (2009): 251–69.
100. Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool, 9.
101. While the nature of jazz media in the 1930s leaves more traces of white male critics’ voices than Fitzgerald’s, Judith Tick’s forthcoming biography of Fitzgerald will do much to balance these scales. In a presentation at the 2015 Society for American Music annual meeting, Tick presented unpublished scrap-books penned by Fitzgerald that shed light on her own feelings regarding Benny Goodman’s alleged attempt to “steal” her from Webb’s band. I look forward to the more balanced sense of voice and agency Tick’s work will contribute to scholarly discourse on Fitzgerald. Judith Tick, “Ella Fitzgerald’s Scrapbooks: New Sources for a Revisionist Interpretation of Her Early Career” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music, Sacramento, California, March 4–8, 2015).
102. Charles D. Carson, “‘Bridging the Gap’: Creed Taylor, Grover Washington Jr., and the Crossover Roots of Smooth Jazz,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 1–2, 13–14; see discussion of Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, and Cootie Williams in Guthrie P. Ramsey, Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 56–73.