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.

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.