Focusing on white bandleader Jan Garber, black bandleader Duke Ellington, white saxophonist Charlie Barnet, and black guitarist Charlie Christian, as well as traveling from Catalina Island to Manhattan to Oklahoma City, Lonesome Roads and Streets of Dreams depicts not only a geography of race but how this geography was disrupted, how these musicians crossed physical and racial boundaries—from black to white, South to North, and rural to urban—and how they found expression for these movements in the insistent music they were creating.
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Lonesome Roads and Streets of DreamsPlace, Mobility, and Race in Jazz of the 1930s and '40s
By ANDREW S. BERISH
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI Dream of Her and Avalon: 1930s Sweet Jazz, Race, and Nostalgia at the Casino Ballroom
The immense Casino Ballroom sits at one end of the city of Avalon, on Catalina Island, about twenty miles from metropolitan Los Angeles. In the institutional memory of this small Southern California island community, and in the surviving documentation and recollections of those who visited, the Casino Ballroom was a central location—in both a physical and a symbolic sense—for the era's big dance bands. Jazz historian and writer Floyd Levin recalls tuning in to the broadcasts from Catalina to hear his idol, saxophonist Eddie Miller: "I can still hear the saccharine-voiced announcer purr his introduction to the [Bob] Crosby broadcasts 'from the beautiful Casino Ballroom at romantic Catalina Island overlooking the harbor lights of Avalon Bay and the Blue Pacific.' I listened attentively to my bedside radio anxiously awaiting the Bob Cats." Yet despite its historical importance for Southern Californians, most jazz writing scarcely mentions the ballroom at all.
Part of the reason for the scholarly inattention has to do with the nature of the jazz that was played on Catalina. The ballroom rarely featured the hot jazz of groups led by Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. In the 1930s and early '40s a visitor or radio listener would most likely hear the sedate dance music of Jan Garber, Ben Bernie, and Kay Kyser. Contrary to the current-day television and film images of the era, the Casino Ballroom was not the scene of ecstatic jitterbugs dancing to driving, up-tempo jazz. Instead, the modernistic dance hall featured almost exclusively white dance bands playing sweet jazz, a style that avoided the most obvious musical signifiers of its hot sibling. In rediscovering this lost venue, we learn a great deal about how people used jazz to create a very specific sense of place in an era of social and geographical instability. For the owners of the Casino, jazz was to be the sound of modernity suffused with nostalgia for a threatened social order. Not only were no African American bands hired to play the ballroom—even black bands that played sweet—the managers listened carefully to the sounds of the white bands they hired. The story of Catalina's Casino Ballroom provides new perspectives on how popular music represented American experiences of place.
Since the actual sounds of the ballroom from its heyday have not survived on recordings, the best way to hear them is to study commercial recordings of bands favored there. I will examine several versions of "Avalon," a tribute to the island city of Catalina written by Al Jolson, B. G. DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. Although the song predates the construction of the ballroom, management appropriated it as an integral part of the island experience. Visitors would hear the song many times during their visit, as bands played it for incoming and outgoing ferries and to introduce their stage shows. Through a comparison of three commercial recordings of "Avalon" that span the hot-to-sweet spectrum, I will show how the music of sweet jazz bands popular at the ballroom differed from the hotter styles of bands that never appeared there.
Unlike the hotter sounds of the Jimmie Lunceford and Casa Loma orchestras, the sweet "Avalon" of Jan Garber's band established musical relationships and values that were easily fused to the ideology of the island's promoters—the music created a sonic place that could be brought smoothly in line with the physical place. Garber was extremely popular at the Casino, returning summer after summer to large crowds. The owners of the venue, the Wrigley family and its corporate voice, the Santa Catalina Island Company, sought very specific musical sounds as part of a larger project to create on Catalina Island what Michael Kammen calls "nostalgic modernism"—an American place that embraced the new while struggling to inject past traditions and social ideals into an unsettled contemporary life. In their embrace of this difficult position, the owners and managers of the island resort sought to resist the democratizing implications of rapid technological and social change.
In examining the history of the Casino Ballroom, we rediscover the lost sounds of these sweet bands, a massively popular segment of the American musical landscape. One goal of this chapter is to provide an analysis of sweet jazz as a musical genre with its own particular musical priorities different from hot jazz, but intimately related to it. Studying this particular dance hall, though, accomplishes much more. It illuminates a powerful contradictory impulse that ran through a large segment of American popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s: the entire ballroom experience was designed as a technologically and culturally modern event, even though it was saturated with nostalgia and a rejection of the social changes inherent in modernization. Big band music of the 1930s resonated with the strong belief, held by many people, in the rightness of the new and a steady, though seriously challenged, faith in the power of modern, reformed capitalism to lift society out of economic crisis and into a more egalitarian and prosperous future. At the same time, large parts of the American populace feared the social implications of such modernization. Writing of the 1920s, historian Lawrence Levine has aptly described this impulse as "the desire to have things both ways—to accept the fruits of progress without relinquishing the fundamentals of the old order." As automobiles, new roads, New Deal federal programs, and mass culture brought the nation closer together, Avalon remained rigorously segregated, set off from the rapidly intensifying urban nature of American life. Yet the island's growth as a tourist destination was predicated on 1930s technological and economic modernization.
The dance band music of the era—even in its sweet guise—was a thoroughly hybrid music, the product of a complex fusion of African American and European American musical practices. The quest to absolutely match sound and place was impossible, and the music at the ballroom, with its audible crosscurrents of influences, testified to a multicultural reality. This truth heard in the music helps to explain, in part, why the Casino owners sought white sweet bands when African American bands could easily have accommodated the preferred musical style. In these choices, the administrators of the ballroom were not just hiring particular musicians but were making an argument—a spatial-social argument—about the desirable relation of music, social structure, and place. Black sweet bands would challenge the illusion of the particular social order being created and reveal the inherent contradictions behind the Catalina Island project—a white fantasy California where racial others were confined to servicing the basic infrastructure of the island. There were to be no black bodies onstage and a minimum of black sounds echoing in the venue.
The Avalon Experience
Although not nearly as popular as it was in the first half of the twentieth century, Avalon remains a tourist destination today, and on weekends day-trippers fill the streets of the small town. Island historians credit the birth of a tourist industry to George R. Shatto, who purchased Catalina in 1887 and, rather than mining the island for precious metals or other natural resources, decided the real gold was in tourism. Allegedly at the suggestion of Shatto's wife, the new town was christened Avalon, after a passage from Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Development accelerated when a local shipping tycoon, Captain William Banning, acquired the island in 1892. Over the next twenty-seven years, however, the financial costs of maintaining and developing the resort proved too much, and in 1919 the Bannings sold Catalina to the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Wrigley sank millions into improving the island's water supply, housing, and roads and was committed to making Catalina an affordable getaway: "There is to be nothing of Coney Island flavor about Santa Catalina. It would be unthinkable to mar the beauty of such a spot with roller coasters and the like." For Wrigley, "Catalina was developed to put within reach of the rank and file of the United States—the people to whom I owe my prosperity—a playground where they can enjoy themselves to the utmost, at such a reasonable figure of expense that all can participate."
Wrigley's aversion to Coney Island and its roller coasters was not an antitechnological position but a social and aesthetic critique. Catalina was not going to be mobbed by massive working-class crowds enjoying cheap, lowbrow entertainment such as freak shows and thrill rides. The island was to retain its natural beauty while not compromising on modern amenities. By the time of Wrigley's death in 1932, Catalina had been transformed into a popular middle-class vacation spot. The island had affluent visitors and upscale accommodations to cater to them, but Wrigley, through various promotional plans, was committed to middle-class affordability. Besides fishing and water sports, he developed an array of attractions to take advantage of the island's natural resources: a bird park, a horse farm, and glass-bottom boat tours. Wrigley also made Catalina the spring training home for his Chicago Cubs. Under his guidance, the island became a tourist destination that provided modern comfort, entertainment, and natural experiences that showcased the island's beauty.
William Wrigley's son Philip inherited the island at the nadir of the Great Depression. Philip not only managed the island through the economic crisis but expanded on his father's vision, adding his own distinctive nostalgic touches. Along with an array of cosmetic enhancements such as importing palm trees and sand to replace the island's natural pebble beach, he hired troupes of performers to dress as early Anglo and Spanish "settlers" and wander the downtown streets greeting visitors and singing to them in a sanitized performance of California history. For Philip K. Wrigley, "The historical background of Catalina Island, the last Spanish grant, its natural beauty and romance lend themselves admirably to the preservation of the atmosphere of old California.... Gradually we may be able to make all of Catalina Island a monument to the early beginnings of California." This nostalgic presentation of early California was in sharp contrast to its reputation for modern Hollywood glamour, the result of vacationing movie stars and frequent film productions on and around the island. Used as a military base during World War II, Catalina Island reverted to tourism after the wartime mobilization, though it never fully recovered its earlier glamour and popularity. From the end of the war through the 1960s, the island lost many of its large hotels, including the grand Hotel St. Catherine. In 1975 Wrigley, through the Santa Catalina Island Company, deeded nearly 86 percent of the island to the recently created Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, effectively stopping most commercial development and ending the Wrigley family's great Catalina project.
One of the centerpieces of that development program, of course, was the giant Casino Ballroom, pictured in figure 1.1 ("casino" was used in an older sense describing any place of entertainment; there was never gambling). Built between 1928 and 1929, the massive theater and ballroom complex was constructed on the small Sugarloaf Point that straddles Avalon harbor and neighboring Descanso Bay. The circular edifice, with its orange-tiled roof and whitewashed walls, rises twelve stories and is nearly 180 feet in diameter—it was (and remains) one of the first sights of Avalon visible from the ferry.
A grand theater occupies the first floor, and two sets of six ramps lead up to the second-floor ballroom, an enormous space that, at its 1929 opening, allegedly had twenty thousand square feet of dancing space (with subsequent remodeling and modifications the dance area is now ten thousand square feet). The building's chief designers, architects Walter Webber and Sumner A. Spaulding, created a cantilevered structure capable of holding up both theater and ballroom ceilings with no supporting columns. Figure 1.2 shows a large crowd of dancers filling the especially broad dance floor. Buttresses reach out from midway up the building's outside walls to support a balcony that circles the upstairs ballroom, offering impressive views of land and ocean. The Casino was designed, in both form and function, as a scientific, state of-the-art building. Wrigley built a radio broadcast room "equipped with all the latest sound devices" adjacent to the ballroom, allowing for transmission of its musical entertainment to listeners on the island (the ability to broadcast nationally would come several years later). The first-floor movie theater was built in consultation with engineers specifically to handle the new "talkie" films.
The modernistic art deco decoration—specifically the many murals on the inside and outside of the building—wrap all this modern technology in a fantastical ambience that emphasizes what the island promoters called the "romance and adventure which is the essence of Catalina." The giant tile mural outside the main ticket booth features an underwater scene presided over by a lithe, naked mermaid. Inside, the movie theater walls depict highly stylized historical and mythological figures—hooded Spanish friars, Native Americans on horseback, and Venus and Neptune surrounded by abstract patterns evocative of the sea. Publicity material created by Wrigley's office for its opening in 1929 celebrates this mixture of fantasy and modernism: "Nothing has been omitted that ingenuity, imagination, experience, skill, with unlimited means, could devise to make the Casino one of the world's outstanding pleasure palaces.... [T]he Casino is alone worth a trip to the Magic Isle."
The grand opening of the building on May 29, 1929, featured a fashion revue, marching bands, dancing, and speeches. The proceedings were highlighted by the amphibious arrival of "King Neptune" and his six pirate "lassies," who carried a "pleasure chest" containing the "golden key" that symbolically opened the building. Figure 1.3 reproduces a photograph of the festivities, staged just outside the building's grand entranceway with its sea-themed murals. We see Neptune, trident in hand, holding forth before a faux treasure chest, surrounded by women in elaborate costumes. David M. Renton, the general manager of the Santa Catalina Island Company, is holding the giant golden key with which he will officially open the new building, the island's real-life "pleasure chest."
A close look shows two adolescent African Americans dressed in uniforms flanking the main scene. The names of the black teens are unknown (along with the names of many of the women), though Catalina historian Patricia Moore has identified several other figures in this scene. The young men are clearly subservient to the main action; they are decorative touches to this theatrical opening. In their uniforms and peripheral position, they embody long-standing ideas about African Americans as the servants of white fantasy. They are also evidence that African Americans were involved in the island's functioning at various times, though as laborers rather than vacationers. Published histories of the island do not discuss any permanent or part-time African American residents of Catalina or its main city. A survey of the island's only newspaper, the Catalina Islander, from the mid-1930s through 1941, also reveals no presence of any African American community. 34 Photographs like the one reproduced in figure 1.3 seem to be the only archival materials that document an African American presence on Catalina. On display at the Catalina Island Museum (located in the Casino Ballroom building) is another telling image, an undated photograph titled "Porters, Stevedores, and Concessionaires of the S.S. Catalina." The photograph shows a large group of uniformed African Americans, twenty-four men and one woman, arrayed before the ship. It is another brief acknowledgment of the role African Americans had in the operation of the resort island. This island "pleasure chest" was for whites only.
Excerpted from Lonesome Roads and Streets of Dreams by ANDREW S. BERISH Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction 1 I Dream of Her and Avalon: Jan Garber, Sweet Jazz, and Race at the Casino Ballroom 2 From the “Make-Believe Ballroom” to the Meadowbrook Inn: Charlie Barnet and the Promise of the Road 3 A Locomotive Laboratory of Place: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra 4 Travels with Charlie Christian: Between Region and Nation Conclusion: Air Spaces Notes Bibliography Index