The New Jazz Era Voices: A Local History Collective
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 the privileged. 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. Yet this is not the only record of history that exists, nor should it occupy a special place in our imagination simply for having been made by and for those who wielded power, wealth or fame. 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 of 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 practice history daily in the ways most meaningful to us.
It is with this in mind that I welcome you to Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom, which is now a little different and a little 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, and a calling-of-attention to the everyday experience of jazz culture, which was a meaningful reactant in American culture and around the world. VJEB took 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, pop culture, and that this legacy 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 VJEB's powerful collections 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 VJEB 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, along with 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 (Phoenixville, PA) where he was rehabilitated after being badly-wounded near Normandy at the age of 19. New articles, interviews and research will be published here with at least monthly regularity.
The changes do not stop there. I have added some new technologies to the website which will allow me and other invited 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 oral history and community history which relates to the subject matter of VJEB. I do this in the hopes especially that young people, but 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. 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 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 great as those we read about in history books or see on the news, but it bears repeating, and it should make us all interested participants in what history shall say about those multitudes. 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 that record, and each one teaches the next generation what it will know about the past, creating both 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 and oral 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 89th birthday. Welcome to the new VJEB.
Norma Miller Chats with Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom
We caught up with the celebrated dancer, performer and comedienne Norma Miller on her recent book tour to chat about her memories of dance, 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's doing 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, experiences of 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 before big band swing had truly made the full leap across the pond. She also talks about the hard times--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 I wish her well with her many projects.