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MEXICAN AMERICAN MOJOpopular music, dance, and urban culture in los angeles 1935-1968
By Anthony Macías
Duke University PressCopyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter Onemojo in motion: the swing era
I grew up with the radio, with Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, the Jack Benny Program, the First Nighter Program with Les Tremaine and Barbara Luddy, the Lux Radio Theater, Ma Perkins, and Burns and Allen. That's my childhood. -Paul Lopez, interview by author, September 2, 1998
For nearly a decade the Lindy-more widely known as the Jitterbug-remained the sole possession of a small group ... of amateur dancers in a few big cities. As far as the general public was concerned, the dance arrived out of nowhere around 1936 to go with a new music called swing that was played by a man named Benny Goodman. -Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance
Later in the [1930s], dance halls became popular. There was the Bowery Ballroom downtown at Ninth and Grand, where Sal's Deluxe Big Band, probably the first Chicano dance band, used to play. It was a horn band playing swing, jitterbug, and traditional Mexican music-sort of like Bob Wills from the other side of the Rio Grande. Two of the other popular house bands at the Bowery, the George Brown Band and the Irwin Brothers, were black. But since there were still very few blacks in L.A., the crowd was mostly Chicanos. -Billy Cardenas, music producer, quoted in Rubén Guevara, "View from the Sixth Street Bridge"
In the summer of 1935 the Music Corporation of America booked "a barnstorming tour" from New York to Los Angeles for the Benny Good-man Orchestra. After receiving cold receptions across the hinterlands, Goodman and his big band musicians were "certain they'd be a flop on the [West] Coast." On August 21, 1935, the disappointing tour ended in Los Angeles with a scheduled three-week engagement at the Palomar Ballroom, "the most famous of all West Coast ballrooms." Located on Vermont Avenue at Third Street, between Beverly and Wilshire boulevards, the Palomar was a huge building with Moorish architecture, exotic Moorish interior décor, a mezzanine, a balcony, a patio, a palm-lined terrace restaurant, and a dance floor that could accommodate four thousand couples. After a disheartening audience response on the first evening, "about an hour before closing time" Goodman's band played several "hot" swing arrangements by African American bandleader Fletcher Henderson, whose charts Goodman had been using since 1934. Suddenly the dancers "began to break out their fanciest steps.... People whooped, stamped, whistled, and shouted for more." As "Benny Goodman's music became fashionable and attracted the Hollywood people," mostly from the grand hotel and apartments near the neighboring Bimini Baths and Hot Springs, "the combination drew unprecedented crowds to the Palomar." According to one "explanation for the sudden success in Los Angeles," Goodman's earlier hit recordings on RCA Victor "were widely played on small radio stations, especially in California," so that when he arrived "he already had a following." Earlier that year, young, hip Angelenos had been listening to live broadcasts of late-night Benny Goodman performances from New York City, on NBC'S radio program, Let's Dance, and local fans turned out to hear the band in person.
After nearly two months at the Palomar, which included coast-to-coast remote broadcasts, Goodman, swing, and the jitterbug made the headlines of national newspapers, and by the time his orchestra played in Chicago and returned to New York, journalists dubbed Goodman "the King of Swing." According to traditional jazz history periodization, the Palomar Ballroom engagement helped usher in the swing era and its youthful dance craze. The year of these historic performances also marks the beginning of the book's periodization, even though swinging jazz existed well before "white fans, journalists, and historians" crowned Goodman "the 'King' of something new called 'Swing.'" Regarding "conventional swing narration," Sherrie Tucker argues that "origin stories tend to mark white production and consumption of black musical forms," while "periodization reflects episodes of successful commodification of jazz products to white consumers."
Yet the jazz histories that discuss Goodman at the Palomar do not place the ballroom itself in the context of Los Angeles as a city, thereby ignoring the probable presence of Mexican Americans. Although African Americans were barred, Mexican Americans "were welcome" at the Palomar Ballroom, and in all likelihood they were there, dancing to Benny Goodman, the Chicago-born Jewish American clarinetist, whose hard-driving orchestra was powered by Gene Krupa, his Chicago-born Czecho-slovakian American drummer. Vicente "Vince" Ramírez, a resident of East Los Angeles, believed that his older brother, Randolph Leon "Ron" Ramírez, who loved jazz, "may have been there the night Benny Goodman came in."
By beginning at this moment, the book inserts Mexican Americans into the history of big band swing music, and therefore into the cultural history of the United States more broadly. As the chapter epigraphs suggest, the members of the Mexican American generation were raised on the radio, including adventure, theatrical drama, soap opera, and vaudevillesque comedy series. They also grew up on Hollywood cinema, and of course, on jazz music and dance. By the late 1930s Mexican Americans were avid swing fans and jitterbug dancers, but they still wanted a little "traditional" Mexican music thrown into the live mix, as well as Latin music. This chapter will follow a cohort of Angeleno jazz musicians, music lovers, and social dancers who helped to create a distinct Mexican American expressive culture while contributing to the consumption, and production, of American culture. They also exposed the cracks in, and thereby chipped away at, the city's segregation, from which they suffered, and at times, relative to blacks, benefited.
David Stowe argues that swing music proved "the possibility of tolerance, mutual respect, even affection" between whites and blacks, that it "inaugurated a new chapter in race relations," and that the dance-centered youth culture of the late 1930s represented a "swing ideology" of "ethnic pluralism and democratic equality" which became part of a national "cultural mobilization" against fascism during World War II. As Lewis Erenberg contends, swing represented an unprecedented "creolization of American youth culture," and it "offered a new model of social democracy and group life" based on the pluralistic potentials of the jazz world. Indeed, Benny Goodman hired black musicians like pianist Teddy Wilson (1935), vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (1936), guitarist Charlie Christian (1939), and pianist Fletcher Henderson (1939). Goodman insisted that his band play for mixed-race audiences and that all of his musicians receive the same hotel accommodations. He refused to tour the South entirely. Similarly, Duke Ellington's "classic elegance" and "deep-seated sense of dignity" showed "that he was beyond the humiliations of segregation." As Eric Porter notes, swing could be a means toward dignity and self-respect, as well as a commodity capable of bringing monetary reward and "respectability through popularity."
But before big band swing music and jitterbug dancing burst into the general public's imagination in the mid-1930s, these two African American art forms had been evolving together at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where the nation's best black orchestras and its finest black dancers pushed each other to perfection. Swing as a verb refers to a propulsive rhythmic quality emphasizing the second and fourth beats in the 4/4 time signature, or meter. Swing as a musical style refers to large orchestras playing artful arrangements that showcased riding rhythms, catchy melodies, call-and-response between brass and reed sections, and standout improvisatory solos. For all of Duke Ellington's classy compositions and melodic master-pieces, his famed orchestra, with its star soloists, could swing and improvise with the best of them, yet perhaps the driving beats of the big band era were best represented by the drummer Chick Webb's Savoy Ballroom house band and by the pianist Count Basie's Kansas City orchestra.
In other words, swing music meant dancing, and that meant the jitter-bug. The basic jitterbug move is "a syncopated two-step or box-step accenting the offbeat," but the dance cannot be reduced to "an isolated step." Rather, it "is a fundamental approach," and like the music, it flows "horizontally" with "rhythmic continuity." Furthermore, as one dancer explained, "You have to sway, forwards and backwards, with a controlled hip movement, while your shoulders stay level and your feet glide along the floor." The man's right hand was held low on the woman's back, while his left hand enclosed hers at his side. Then, whenever the arrangement led into a solo, the dance partners would slip into the breakaway, separating from one another to "improvise individual steps" before returning to the original synchronized footwork. During the breakaway, dancers could incorporate existing moves or create new ones like the truck, a move that mirrored the loose strut of urban "hep cats" and hustlers, head bobbing, arms swaying, and fingers snapping to the beat. Thus, just as jazz arrangements serve as "frameworks in time" that allow for a band's communal and individual improvisations, the basic jitterbug steps served as a framework, with the breakaway allowing for flights of fancy and creative "cutting." As Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns explain, "the breakaway is a time-honored method of eliminating the European custom of dancing in couples, and returning to solo dancing-the universal way of dancing, for example, in Africa."
The dancers at the Savoy Ballroom had long been performing the earliest version of what would be named the jitterbug, but they called it the lindy hop. When Count Basie's visiting Kansas City band played Harlem, its high-hat cymbal-riding, twelve-bar bluesy riff romps created a "lifting momentum," which inspired new flash dance-or acrobatic-moves like the hip-to-hip, side flip, and over-the-back, as the male Savoy dancers flung their female partners above and across the floor. The "nervous energy" generated by the "constant pressure" of city life was reflected in the lindy hop's "tireless vigor and daring invention." Even more so than earlier two-step dances, the lindy hop's smooth flow, complicated routines, and swinging rhythms enchanted young people. Gaining ardent adherents throughout the country, the jitterbug revolutionized popular dancing, carrying people away with its free physical expression. Along the way, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford's bouncy 1939 swing song "Rock It for Me" reassured Americans, "Ain't no shame to keep your body swaying." As a youth culture, swing crossed racial and class boundaries, and in most cities uninhibited working-class white youths were the first to pick up the jitterbug from blacks, introducing the energetic, athletic moves to middle-class whites. After high society dance studios began teaching a mild, genteel version of the lindy hop along with the standard fox trot and Charleston lessons, the general public discovered some variation of it for their social dancing.
The Detroit dancer George Wendler recalled that the jitterbug "did eventually open up dancing for white people. The sophisticated mask was discarded, you were permitted to get with it and be carried away." The swing "beat made you come out of yourself, out of your seat; it made you want to dance." As dance music, swing offered entertainment and escape, yet still "moved one to elegance and refinement." At the same time, it "unleashed primal forces" and "released pent-up excitement and physicality." According to Lewis Erenberg, swing evoked "the promise of the city" and "the aura of urban freedom," it encouraged improvisatory moves, and it enabled both individual and collective freedom via the body. Indeed, Gena Dagel Caponi argues that black dance contains intellectual properties, preserves an improvisatory aesthetic, and transmits a communal worldview. As Jacqui Malone claims, African American vernacular dance arms and celebrates life, "even in the face of tremendous adversity." It is "a source of energy, joy, and inspiration; a spiritual antidote to oppression" that "teaches the unity of mind and body and regenerates mental and physical power." Black dance is marked by, among other things, "a certain ecstasy of motion," coupled with a "concern for elegance" and for the originality of one's ideas.
Dance as theory and practice will be highlighted in spots throughout this book, but dance as an integral part of the city's music scenes remains constant. In particular, Mexican Americans' spirited expressive culture included a tradition of vernacular dance and bodily style, as well as a knack for adaptation and improvisation, for revitalizing the ethnic group in the face of hard times, segregation, and discrimination. In short, Mexican Americans had their mojo working. They demanded respect, publicly asserted themselves throughout the city, imprinted their mark on American popular culture, and made big band swing music and jitterbug dancing their own. Often they did so in the face of opposition. For example, in May 1940, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) refused to issue La Fiesta Club a permit to host a concert featuring the Benny Goodman Orchestra at the Shrine Auditorium, a Moorish-style building across from the University of Southern California (USC), just southwest of downtown Los Angeles. La Fiesta Club was probably one of the many Mexican American social organizations, common at the time, whose members sponsored local dances. As reported by the California Eagle, the city's oldest African American newspaper, the police commission told the club "that the permit was denied because white, Filipino, Mexicans and Negroes were permitted to dance together." South Central Los Angeles community leaders responded with "widespread indignation," branding the action "unfair." Also in May 1940, Mayor Fletcher Bowron prohibited public entertainment establishments from serving alcohol after two in the morning, in an attempt to curtail what a California Eagle reporter called the "swarms of white visitors making the rounds" on Central Avenue, the heart of the city's African American jazz district.
As these instances illustrate, popular music and dance performances provoked reactionary regulation by the authorities. This antagonistic relationship suggested a broader social dynamic in which two contrasting models of civil society-one of multiracial musicians, dancers, and entrepreneurs, the other of white urban elites and law enforcement-played out in multiple music venues, with the public freedom and cultural values of Los Angeles at stake, as I will discuss further in later chapters. Beginning in the 1930s, when Mexican deportation drives, restrictive housing covenants, and antimiscegenation laws were the order of the day, successive generations of Angelenos defied the city's rule of racial separation and white domination, creating a multicultural urban civility as they intermingled in dance halls, ballrooms, and auditoriums. Mexican Americans, along with African Americans, maintained their own expressive culture and spearheaded a liberating public sphere in which bodies in motion both combined and circulated throughout the region. This civility was far from utopian, given the existence of sporadic racial prejudice within and between different groups. Nevertheless, dancee music facilitated intercultural affinities that went beyond mere politeness or courtesy to include respect and tolerance. Although black, Mexican American, and Latino popular music and dancing could not completely erase all sterotypical preconceptions, cross-cultural contact and understanding flourished for many years in Los Angeles. In diverse music scenes, people sustained egalitarian social relations in the face of blatant attacks on their civil liberties. As part of a cultural corollary to ongoing political struggles for dignity and equality, jitterbugs and, in the next two chapters, zoot suiters and low riders, exercised their right to freedom of assembly in public spaces.
Excerpted from MEXICAN AMERICAN MOJO by Anthony Macías Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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