Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom

Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom is a grassroots, web-based oral history project devoted to preserving and passing on the memory of dance in the Jazz era through the lives and words of everyday people. This is your story—please contribute by talking with a parent or grandparent, neighbor, or friend and explore the archive to see how others have shared their stories.

What If Grandma Says Something Racist? and Other Legitimate Concerns About Recording Family History

Kelly C. Porter
December 30, 2014

As a recorder of oral history, I am in the business of routinely cajoling people to engage elderly family members in conversation about their memories. There are many good reasons to do this: to pass down family history to younger generations, to find shared interest and dignity in the voices of elders, to connect generations in times of rapid change. More rarely discussed are the ways in which such histories and conversations can create real tensions, confrontations and fears in our families and lives.

As the old saying goes, "don't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table." There are some good reasons for that, most of them having to do with minimizing discord in favor of the things that keep people together. With important relationships we have to be willing to do this at least some of the time in order to focus on the bonds between us, rather than what might threaten to divide or disrupt. However, this oft-cited maxim, if applied too liberally can create its own detriments: that in avoiding emotional or controversial topics we might risk never talking about what really matters; that we keep meaningful differences and our feelings about them secret in favor of the semblance of harmony. Whether that is silence about the fact that Aunt Sally still talks about "the gays" taking over while your secretly glitter-fabulous tutu-wearing son winds his spaghetti with tears forming in his eyes, or that grandad's speech is still over-seasoned with observations about "the negro," there are a lot of families that, if it were not for the fact that they were related, they would be more likely to annihilate one another than to sit down for a holiday meal together.

American civil rights history is replete with meditations on this very topic: the difference between politeness and real understanding. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King often described the importance of creating tension so that understanding could eventually emerge. In his "Letter From The Birmingham Jail," Dr. King rebukes the white moderate who "prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." I would contend that this observation applies just as well to the family dinner table as to our politics and protests, to the many ways we shallow our dialogue with others to give the appearance of harmony when we know or fear that deeper divides are present. There can be an especially tense divide between younger and older family members on matters of race, gender, politics, popular culture.

In an oral history interview that I conducted with my own two grandmothers some years ago, I found myself in one of these tense moments, innocently enough when I asked them about their memories of listening to the radio as girls in the 1920's and 30's. The question elicited the expected stories about brothers building the first family "crystal set" radios out of oatmeal boxes, and imitations of favorite on-air characters like Barron Von Munchhausen, but it also produced a brief discussion about Amos 'n' Andy. To be clear, Amos 'n' Andy was a popular radio sitcom set in Harlem, and it featured two white voice actors, Andrew Hogg Brown and George Stevens, playing a variety of roles in what could be considered a radio version of blackface minstrelsy. As I sat between my grandmothers discussing the show, the discomfort in the room grew: theirs, mine. One reflected that the show "would never fly now" and after a long pause ". . . but it was funny." I hurried them along to another topic with the characteristic embarrassment that often follows moments in which an elder seems to display politics or opinion now considered outmoded at best, offensive at worst. Later, as I prepared the video for the web, I nervously contemplated editing out their Amos 'n' Andy discussion in an attempt to save face for all of us. Perhaps more hauntingly, I realized with some self-recrimination that I had hurried them away from an important question, and I knew that someday I should address it. It was an error of mine to fail to approach what we were all choosing not to say about race. Our conversation pointed to some of the ways in which we feel the need to edit or elide family history to make it more agreeable to the present.

One of those grandmothers has now passed on, Dorothy, who died last year at the age of 93, like her mother before her. On her deathbed I whispered into her unhearing ears all of the genuine gratitude I felt in knowing her: for taking care of me while my parents worked, playing fabulous games of make-believe when I was a little girl, for her epic stories of the many places that she had lived, her dry wit, her laugh which was hip and infectious right to the end. The fact that, like many white folks born in 1919, she listened to race comedy which would make a liberal like myself blanch, diminishes none of that. Yet if I had been a bit braver, more equipped, I could have found ways to discuss the contradictions which I knew were there before it was too late. She loved jazz and many of its black musicians. She had Jimmy Lunceford's autograph, could talk endlessly about Sidney Bechet's "licorice stick" (clarinet) with genuine emotion, and yet she admired them partially through a popular culture which was not entirely distinguishable from minstrelsy . . . may it rest in peace.

If a tradition of white Americans imitating blackness with disgraceful humor created contradictions within my grandmother's memory of the swing era, then some 70 years later those contradictions become even more complex. Say what you will about the racism of the jazz era, but at the very least it was often enough right out there on the surface for all to behold. Curious music-hounds can listen to hundreds of shockingly racist swing tunes performed by white and black outfits alike-- titles like "If the Man In the Moon Were a Coon," "The Sheik of Araby," "Bigwig in the Wigwam" and "In Blinky Winky Chinatown." While the lyrics of these songs may be tough-to-stomach now, what's worse is that some of them were recorded by heavy-hitting musicians and were often almost unforgivably snappy. This is to say that many of our white grandparents and great-grandparents may have walked to work whistling "Jimmy Crack Corn" not because they were the sort of person who might burn a cross on someone's front lawn, but because racism was a central fixture of much of the popular culture of their day. Racism is still part of our popular culture, though its shape and rhetoric have changed some. Our white elders were consumers of that culture, and to some extent they benefited from the privilege it afforded them. There is always a seductive appeal to media and opinion which professes our own cultural superiority.

As I think about songs and nursery rhymes taught to me by my grandparents, they are full of the usual fond Americana like "My Darling Clementine," "Casey Jones" and "You Are My Sunshine," right along-side minstrel rhymes like "eenie meenie miney moe, catch a tiger by his toe, if he hollers let 'em go . . ."-- in my grandparents' day, the couplet would have read "catch a n----- by the toe." This kind of humor was seen as acceptable amongst otherwise "nice folks" precisely because of its cultural ubiquity. The fact that I learned the same rhyme decades later with altered words is even further indicative of what had transpired in those years. This excuses none of the harm done by structural racism, but it makes it more comprehensible. When you inspect a race-laden popular culture you can then begin to fathom how nice folks who worked hard and loved their kids could also harbor views of others that seem shockingly inequitable. The passing down of "eenie meenie " is an apt metaphor for how many white Americans personally deal with a history of racism: we're still singing the same song, but we have censored some of the words. White America has become better at monitoring our language and shushing notable signs of the unreconstructed among us, but has our public culture really come that much farther than Amos 'n' Andy? Yes it has, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Because white America has routinely sanitized its history from mention of race, we have often forgotten the darker roots of familiar and benevolent-seeming media, institutions and culture.

As it turns out, recent research in child psychology from the Children's Research Lab at the University of Texas seems to suggest that white parents are far from having taught their kids to be equanimitous regarding racial and ethnic difference. Rather they have tended to think that not talking about race will create children who are 'colorblind' or unaware of racial or cultural difference. Consequently, when valid questions about ethnic difference arise in the precocious noggins of our youth, they are recited platitudes like "everyone is equal," which is of course true, but does not go far enough to help them understand the difference and discrimination they already witness in the world. After all, what is "equality" to a 7-year-old?

After testing the effects of various media like multiculturally-themed videos which imply through diversity that all races can be friends, the U of Texas researchers discovered that they do not really improve scores on racial attitude tests for kids much. They also discovered that when you ask white parents to bring up race for the purpose of encouraging equality with their kids, asking questions like "If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?" as a jumping off point, many of them will drop out of the study because they are so profoundly uncomfortable with the task.

It seems that the study's dropout parents all had a similar song. They believed that even acknowledging differences in skin color or ethnicity would give their child negative racial attitudes, make them see difference where before they saw none. It seems many white Americans fear that talking about race will produce racism, or make them a "racist," especially if we do not feel capable of performing this task perfectly every time we do it. In effect, the result of this assumption is that it has precisely the opposite effect: in absence of direction from parents and other responsible adults, kids are left on their own to process a culture which has a lot to say about race, and not all of it very enlightened. Kids already see and wonder about differences between people and cultures, but they need guidance on what those differences mean or don't mean. Unsurprisingly, when the young children of the white parents in the study were asked straight out "Do your parents like black people?" 14% said "No, my parents don't like black people" and 38% of the kids responded "I don't know." As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in their excellent summary of what child psychology research has to say about the learning and unlearning of racist attitudes (in a chapter aptly titled "Why White Parents Don't Talk about Race"): "In this supposedly race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions-- many of which would be abhorrent to their parents." It also turns out that African American parents are somewhat more likely to discuss race and racism with young children, but often (heart-breakingly) to prepare them to withstand discrimination, slander or white violence. It seems that white Americans will have to be a good deal more explicit about the uncomfortable matter of race if they really want to raise children who understand and undermine discrimination.

To be sure, the task of discussing the issue of racism is not easy, with the young or the old. There are racialized elements of American culture and history that take real mental jiujitsu to comprehend. If we return to the cultural landscape of the jazz era, and many of our elders, it is easy to be reminded of how complicated the signals about race were then, and continue to be. Consider for a moment that troupes of black minstrels and dancers also performed in literal blackface. Whenever I talk about the history of American minstrelsy in a classroom setting one of the first questions posed (and almost always by a white student) is about how blackface minstrelsy could be seen by anyone as racist if black folks participated in it, too. Likewise black students frequently wonder about a practice that on the surface would seem to be a self-imposed debasement for black practitioners, or worse, an acquiescence to the caricature of black life provided by white supremacy. Though here, too, the story is more complicated.

From a time preceding the Civil War right up through the beginning of the 20th Century, blackface minstrelsy was by far America's most popular form of stage entertainment. In fact, let me reword that for appropriate emphasis: for over 60 years the most popular form of stage entertainment in America was the racist satire of black life. Indeed, very few black performers were even admitted to the public stage without the greasepaint and self-deprecation. When you consider that context, the racist threads which ran through the white affinity for jazz and swing are a good deal more predictable (even if they are still hard to forgive), as is the decision of many black performers to 'cork up.' In a culture still processing the psychic wounds of minstrelsy--a practice which simultaneously elevated and denigrated black American culture--the humor of the minstrel show may have been largely offensive, but can be viewed in historical context as simply a part of stage-business for many black performers.

From behind the mask, many black minstrels attempted to exceed the caricature that they were obliged to accommodate. Where troupes of white minstrels competed with each other to achieve the most 'authentic' impression of black life (and succeeded at least as often in delivering little more than their own racist fantasies), many black musicians and entertainers felt that in minstrelsy they had at least gained a popular audience for black performance, even if it was created through hideous caricature.

Louis Douglas of the black minstrel troupe Belle Davis' Georgia Pickaninnies, who later produced his own European tour of "A Trip to Coontown" with Will Garland's Negro Opera Troupe once commented: "Of course, I had burnt cork on my face, and my lips were painted like they were big and white, but since everybody was doing it, I didn't let it get to me." There are an abundance of similar reflections from black performers of this era. When dancer/musician Dawn Hampton was asked how she felt about her family band's early names for a documentary about her very musical upbringing (they were called "Deacon Hampton's Pickaninnies," and later "Deacon Hampton's Cottonpickers"), she remarked "We didn't know, we didn't allow those things to enter into our lives . . . we did what we had to do." If the psychic wounds of minstrelsy were the price of admission to the stage, many black artists were willing to pay it for the opportunity to make a living as a performer, and perhaps to even be seen to outperform the trappings of minstrelsy itself. Indeed, the Hampton family performed all the way to Carnegie Hall, for some years from behind a bass drum painted with a grinning Topsy and an outsized chunk of watermelon. All of this is to say that racism is complicated, both then and now, and the contemporary gentleman's agreement amongst liberal white folks to avoid talking about race is not necessarily a step towards enlightenment. It often just creates different and more subtle breeds of misunderstanding. That fear still renders us incapable of listening to the opinion of black folks when we most need to do so.

How do we talk about memories which touch on race, gender, contentious sexualities or politics, especially with elders whose reflections may cause tension in the present? While I do not for a moment wish to infantalize the elderly, I think that some of the findings on children and race still apply just as well to people of all ages. Far too often our only question when confronted with an unwanted opinion in the family is "Why would you say that!?" It is a response borne largely out of a will to save our own ego and a pleasant time. We do not want to be reminded that people with whom we associate might harbor such sentiments. We would much rather everybody talk about something else. Yet there are ways to explore these sorts of utterances, rather than sweep them under the rug.

So how do we do this? Most people respond defensively to being put on the spot or being judged, so sometimes it's better to wait for a more private situation, lest a conversation turn into a public roast. People can use their own good judgment about how to gain the trust and ensure the relative calm of particular family members. Yet there are better questions for those situations than "why would you say something so awful?" They include: Why do you/did you feel that way? What made you worried about _______? What do you think will happen if ______? Even exploratory questions about when and how someone had occasion to interact with people of different ethnic backgrounds, and how those interactions went are both valuable to history and to understanding the attitudes of family members who are sometimes the hardest to deal with.

When you start exploring experience rather than immediately contradicting it, exploring how a person has arrived at their understandings, even if they may seem misguided, you can begin to find ways into people's thinking, and the experiences that have formed it. We can also gently offer our own feelings in return, demonstrate that a person's utterances have both practical and psychological consequences for people who they love and value. Sometimes the sharing of our own stories and experiences which have yielded different understandings of the same controversial topic are a powerful antidote in and of themselves. Agreement is not always to be found, and yes, sometimes these conversations erupt into indignation like a pressure-cooker filled with Mamie dolls and racial-slurs, but it seems that any chance we have at real understanding depends upon our willingness to sincerely explore human experience where it gets prickly, furthermore to do it with curiosity rather than dread. We may not have time or energy to do this with everyone close to us. If we are lucky we might have the opportunity to engage this way with even one family member who still harbors regrettable stereotypes or even outright hatred. Yet, in my experience people often underestimate the ability of elders both to make sense and to change their minds. Much to the contrary, in the many conversations I have had with people in their 80's and 90's, I have found that just having an opinion solicited or questioned can be refreshing to our elders in the sense that it assures them that their voice still matters at least enough to be reckoned with.

Many older relatives from Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and East-European immigrant families formed opinions of racial minorities in the United States primarily through popular culture, and through perceived competition for work brought on by waves of African American workers migrating to manufacturing hubs out of the same financial desperation that plagued white immigrant families. Many black families found that the brunt of their quotidian racism came from the white working-poor who were worried about being undercut for wages and labor. It's the same familiar animus that currently has some Americans screaming with insensate rage at buses of refugee children on their way to amnesty hearings along America's southwest border. There is a sense of both desperation and entitlement in this anger, then and now. When we fear we will not have enough to survive, people's sense of humanity tends to reliably retract to ever-smaller groups, to protecting "our people," whomever we perceive them to be.

Through the jazz years we also discovered that one of the things that could bring black and white performers to agreement on race was the disparagement of various other immigrant cultures. Chinese and other East Asian immigrants got their share of derision, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Politically this translated into actions like culturally-specific immigration quotas or the internment in prison camps of 120,000 blameless Japanese-Americans on our own soil. In the recording industry the amount of anti-Japanese propaganda recorded by black musical outfits alone during the war years could go for weeks. I remember gaining a whole new set of conflicting feelings about popular dance orchestras like Lucky Millinder's, after hearing them play tunes like "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap." This is to say that racism is complicated, and it is always interlacing with other fears and inequalities to create new and puzzling breeds of itself.

While many American families pass down heroic tales of immigration, poverty and labor, the darker chapters of contempt, violence and misunderstanding are often glossed-over. We fear what it means for our own identity if our ancestry were rendered in full unedited detail. The same applies just as well to sexism, homophobia, disability, classism, to the real schisms in our family history. It extends, too, to our contemporary debates over history curricula in public schools. So often we are unwilling to contend with histories of discrimination unless our ancestors were the glorious victims-- humanity's David to the world's Goliath. Yet we do not need to lionize or disavow our ancestors in order to be assured of their humanity, and certainly not to preserve ours as their descendants.

The real pain and discord caused by white supremacy in American society is part of many family histories, and it is still fresh. For those of us in the younger set, it is good to be reminded that our actions will be judged by future generations, maybe one day by family we have yet to meet. Thus, having a culture which engages our elders with dignity will one day be important to us, too, and not in the least because a large part of human dignity is culpability-- the acknowledgment that a person is able to be responsible for his words and deeds, his beliefs. When we fail to engage our elders about the real effects that their speech and actions have on loved ones, we fail to fully dignify them as we would a true equal, as equally-human. Except in cases where an elder may not be responsible due to dementia, Alzheimer's Disease or other mental health issues, our silence on these important matters may not only maintain attitudes of hate, but also inadvertently deflate the sense of dignity that a person maintains only by being acknowledged as an intellectual participant in the world. There is not always a good opportunity to do this, most often not a comfortable or quickly-apparent way, but perhaps the primary problem is that we frequently opt for comfort over the risk of understanding, that we do not try and have not tried hard enough.




WWII Veteran Art Schultz, Blinded and Injured After Normandy, Reflects on Dancing as Rehabilitation and What Vets Need

Kelly C. Porter
February 4, 2014

When you meet 90-year-old Art Schultz, you find yourself in the presence of somebody who has 70 years of experience putting people at ease with his physical appearance. Art was severely-wounded at the age of 20 after being drafted into World War II. He is missing an arm, an eye, his sight, and needed years of skin grafts and plastic surgery to reconstruct his face. He can catalog for you all of the ways that people have reacted to his visage, from fright, to pity, ridicule, or sometimes probing and inappropriate questions. People react to Art's body, for better or worse. They wonder about it. It evokes strong emotions as a record of the sacrifice truly demanded from our military, as a contradiction to much of our thinking about what it means to live the "good life"— and Art has lived a good life. He is proof that catastrophic injury often enough can present a clarifying way of looking at the world, but only with substantial support, good medical care, and unwavering encouragement to always be curious about what an injured body can do, rather than what it cannot.

Art describes finding out months after the fact that men he had befriended while recovering from his injuries at Valley Forge General Hospital were black men who he presumed were white. Having been fairly impaired at calibrating ethnicity even before the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, his personal experience as a white man encountering minorities has been fairly unique. Likewise Art has convictions about women that may seem uncharacteristic for a man his age. His wife, Pearl, was a WAC (member of the Women's Army Corps), a nurse who he fell in love with as he recovered from his injuries and later married. Art is a vehement supporter of women in the military, and thought it was absurd that the WACs were disbanded after the war: these were the women who brought him his pills, rubbed his shoulders, taught him how to function with his disability, oversaw his therapy, coaxed him down to dances in the hospital commons. They were clearly indispensable to him. His daughter Sherri is also very aware that her relationship with her dad was different than many young women growing up in the 1960's. She simply would not be critiqued at home about her looks in the ways that so many young women were and are. Art would be the first one to tell you that the way his world was reshaped by his injury was not always for the worse, and while nobody here is suggesting that Art was some sort of futuristic liberal for his time, it is clear that his disability and the way it shapes people around him has yielded a rare vantage point from which to comment upon human history.

Art's story intersects with the mission of the Jazz Era Voices Project at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, PA: a sprawling military hospital complex that was built to receive the war-wounded during the Second World War. There, one of the ways that Art began to gain confidence in his physical abilities was by learning to dance— jitterbug, foxtrot, whatever he could manage with the classes offered through the Salvation Army at the hospital. He did not dance prior to his injury and in true form says that he wanted to learn primarily because people suggested he could not do it. Art wanted to see what he could do, and it turned out that he could do a lot: raise a child, become an avocado farmer, work in real estate, even get a degree in social work. Art has lead a full life, a life filled with accomplishments that became conquerable with tremendous support, and because he first tackled smaller but meaningful challenges like figuring out how to map out the foods on his plate, getting to the bus stop, learning to quick-quick-slow with the local ladies at USO dances. Art understands and frequently talks about the "great help" that he received from others in all of these challenges, and plenty of volunteers still come to help him weekly with small chores, his gardening, or to read to him. His door is covered in snapshots of his 'helpers' and the many places they volunteer. People who know Art feel something reassuring in his presence. Perhaps it's just the obvious fact that if Art has managed to overcome so much and flourish, and to do so with a sense of gratitude and compassion for those who provide the help that he needs, then we can probably figure out a way to be nicer to our kid, or learn that aggravating new software we have been putting off for months, or . . . pretty much anything.

I have learned many things from Art and his daughter Sherri: how to walk beside a person with a red-striped cane without getting in the way, how to dance with an amputee who cannot see you (you'll be treated to some brief footage of Art and I in the interview), how to say "ok" or "mm-hmm" instead of nodding your head in affirmation to let blind folks know that you are listening and understanding, how to narrate a movie for somebody who can hear it but not see it. These are all small skills which I am glad to know, and it is small skills like these that become more necessary as veterans returning from our current wars become neighbors, clients, members of our houses-of-worship or community college class, new colleagues and friends. Certainly Art's experience of returning home as a U.S. veteran in 1944 is an interesting backdrop against which to read the return of our newest veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. From his interview you can glean a sense of just how implicated the entire Valley Forge community was in Art's recovery. Nearby townspeople routinely invited wounded veterans to soirees in their homes, organized Red Cross canteens, showed up in droves to USO functions, arranged square-dances, hayrides, sports teams, radio clubs and barbeque for recuperating vets and their caregivers. It is clear when you hear Art speak about the people and the experiences of his initial recovery, that there was a tremendous civilian investment in the mission of the hospital and in the wounded soldiers themselves.

Perhaps for the fact that our most recent wars have been deeply unpopular and have not involved a draft, the conditions to which our veterans return home today are somewhat different by comparison. Approximately one in four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return home with a service-related disability. That is over a million people, and over 50,000 of them are "polytrauma" sufferers like Art. According to the last quarterly report from the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, over 58% of disability and survivor's claims have been waiting for over 125 days with no response to the claimants, many taking years longer. A recent Pew Research poll showed that 44% of post-9/11 veterans say they had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, as compared to around 25% from previous wars. They return to a public in many ways either ambivalent about the war or very weary of it, and this is the lens through which their needs and suffering are often viewed. Compared to WWII's public ad campaigns telling housewives to save meat-drippings for munitions and reminding people to mind their rations for the sake of their sweetheart abroad, it does seem the public stake in war has shifted and with it the footprint of public empathy for service members. To that end, Art would have me remind you that if anyone reading here feels moved to volunteer time, money or resources towards helping veterans like Art, the man himself suggests investigating The Wounded Warrior Project or The Disabled American Veterans.

The interview above is edited from a series of informal conversations, filmed with minimal equipment in Art's apartment with the assistance of his daughter. There were originally over 4 hours of footage, which have here been edited down with a strong focus on how the culture of dance, music and community at Valley Forge assisted in the recovery of veterans. It also contains some knowledgeable advice that Art has for people who are just returning home from war with injuries ("beginners" as he likes to call them). To the extent that there is an editorial or curatorial eye to this site and for this piece, it is my own, so if you love it or hate it, you may joyfully blame me, Kelly C. Porter. By way of "seeing what you can do if you just try," I have been teaching myself how to use some new pro-editing software for video, and after wrangling with enough footage, the video content of this site will hopefully begin to look a little more Ken Burns and a little less home-movie.




The New Jazz Era Voices: A Local History Collective

Kelly C. Porter

We have the record of kings and gentlemen ad nauseum and in stupid detail; but of the common run of human beings, and particularly of the half or wholly-submerged working group, the world has saved all too little authentic record, and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved  -W.E.B. DuBois (1951)

The histories we learn in school have much to tell about the very visible lives of those 'in-charge.' It is they, after all, who typically negotiate our treaties, build our institutions, run our governments and command our attention through whatever media the times have to offer. But this is not the only record of history that exists, nor should it occupy a special place in our imagination. History is an enterprise that we all do each day in a surprising number of places without thinking much about it: when we tell stories from childhood to our children, when we write in diaries or on blogs, when we arrange a Facebook timeline, when we decide never to speak about something ever again, when we save photographs, letters, news clippings and concert tickets to remind us of events we mean to remember.

We all consume and produce history, intentionally and unintentionally, in a hundred ways, and as we arrange and make sense of it for ourselves we decide what the world has been, and what it can be. Perhaps this seems like an exaggeration, an overstatement, but it is not. The importance of the practice of history lies in the fact that it's a primary way that people constitute their identity (Who am I? Who are my people? What's my relationship to the rest of the world?), and their possibilities (What can I do? What can my people do? What should my relationship to the rest of the world be?). To give history entirely over to academics, journalists and the "highly qualified," is to ignore what most of us remember, and how most of us use history in the ways most meaningful to us.

It is with this in mind that I welcome you to the new Jazz Era Voices Project, which is now a bit different and a bit more than it used to be. VJEB began in 2010 as part of my thesis work: an experiment to see what kinds of meaningful history we can do together online. It called attention to jazz culture, which was a meaningful reactant in American society and abroad, one that brought to the surface many tensions. The project takes its bearings from the notion that the rise of jazz shaped the way several generations understood and experienced things like American music and history, race and gender, sexuality, violence, fashion and pop culture. Moreover, that the legacy of their thought and action is upon us now. This is still true of the project, which has mostly served as a place to quietly collect photographs, old printed matter and oral history interviews online, but the time and ambition has come for an expansion of the project by creating community and curation.

I have begun inviting other neighborhood and oral historians who work with the history of jazz and the preservation of dance and music to contribute to the site. They can log into its powerful collection software to upload and curate their own collections and comment on public submissions online. These contributors will be writing articles which will appear right here on the main page, adding new materials to the collection, and hopefully forming a community that lends insight and context to the items gathered here. I am happy to say that two of the young researchers I have asked to contribute, Christian Frommelt and Jennifer Shirar, will soon be sharing interviews, research and collections on the history of swing and jazz dance in St. Louis, Missouri: St. Louis Shag, "Dago Hop," and "Imperial Swing." I am also awaiting the clean footage of an interview that Mike Thibault kindly conducted on behalf of the project with the late Eddie Jenkins, who was Bunny Berrigan's drummer in the 1930's, and who may carry the distinction of being the only white man to ever sit-in for Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom. Other things to look forward to include a never-before-seen photograph of Billie Holiday backstage at the first Esquire "Esky" Awards in 1944, and an interview with Jesse Mittleman (94), who snapped it; an interview with 89-year-old WWII veteran Art Schultz who tells us about learning to swing dance at Valley Forge General Hospital after being wounded near Normandy at the age of 20. New articles, interviews and research will be published here with some regularity.

The changes do not stop there. I have added some new technologies to the website which will allow our contributors to easily build online exhibits and timelines using media in the collection and across the web. I will also be highlighting examples of excellent work in oral history and community history which relates to the subject matter of the project. I do this with hopes that young people, and truly anyone who does not consider herself a "historian," may begin to see ways in which she can be a voice for history that includes all of us, or even can begin to gather and consider that history in her community or family. To that end, I will also be occasionally interviewing experts and giving tips on basic preservation and organization for our own family archives and personal collections, which are precious for a reason and should last for as long as we need them to last.

These changes are a personal response to the situation that I described at the beginning of this article: a world in which history — the act of remembering alone or together — is often subject to fear and politics, too interested in the privileged, prone to exclude the kinds of lives that most humans have led (or even suffered). I would not be the first to suggest that those lives are just as rich, their tragedies and joys just as significant and instructive as those we read about in history books or see on the news, but it bears repeating. That thought should make us all interested participants in what history shall say about those multitudes, about us.

As people who remember the height of jazz culture grow older and pass away, we are left each day with fewer first-hand witnesses to question. The deep-knowledge of any historical moment extends only as long as its living witnesses. Some think of history as a fixed record, as a list of things we know to have happened or to be true. In truth, each living generation is trusted with the history of all that went before them, each generation changes and scribbles their footnotes in that record, and each one teaches the next generation what it will know about the past, creating both their identity and possibilities. In the sense that we are all responsible for that process, I take up the project with great humility, however small my piece of it is.

I hope that the audience for this new extension of the project will include musicians and dancers, community historians, codgers and neighborhood gossips with decades of worn photos, jazz collectors, people interested in their family history, bloggers, the young and the old, people questioning what it means to engage in historical practice and confront the challenges that it presents, people whose burning questions involve ethnicity, gender, jazz, blues, American music, labor, localism, politics and culture. You, whomever you are, are welcome.

Our first new piece, Art Schultz's interview and an accompanying article will be released for Art's 90th birthday. Welcome to the new VJEB.




Norma Miller Chats with Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom

We caught up with celebrated dancer, performer and comedienne Norma Miller on her recent book tour to chat about dance in the Swing Era, VJEB which she was kind enough to promote, and about all of the many things that still keep her swinging at 90-years-young. Norma was an original Savoy Ballroom dancer and one of the early innovators of Lindy Hop. Her film credits include some of the most iconic sequences in swing, such as A Day at the Races (1937), Hellzapoppin' (1941), and Hot Chocolates (1941).

Norma, simply put, is a force of nature. At 90 she does more, and has more to say than most people a quarter her age. She told us about her mother's rent parties in the 1920's, bringing lindy hop (the dance of the Savoy Ballroom) to Europe as a 15-year-old in 1935, smuggling American jazzmen through European customs checkpoints, and what dance music sounded like in Europe before big band swing had made the full leap across the pond. She also talks about the hard times, like moving around when rent couldn't be paid, WWII, segregation.

Nowadays Norma is sharing the dances she loves with a new generation. Inspired by Michelle Obama's efforts to curb childhood obesity and promote youth fitness, Norma is pushing for dance in the curriculum of our young people as the kind of joyful exercise that stays with you for life. She also recently authored a book about the history of swing dancing, called Swing Baby Swing, and is the subject of the documentary The Queen of Swing. It was a joy speaking with her, and all of us at VJEB wish her well with her many projects.




All contributions to Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported license. To inquire further about rights to this resource, please contact the project at kelly@jazzeravoices.org