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Jazz and the Popular Front: Swing


Musicians and the LeftWing Movement
of the 1930s1940s
Jonathon Bakan
Published online: 21 Apr 2009.

To cite this article: Jonathon Bakan (2009) Jazz and the Popular Front: Swing Musicians
and the LeftWing Movement of the 1930s1940s, Jazz Perspectives, 3:1, 35-56, DOI:
10.1080/17494060902778118
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17494060902778118

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Jazz Perspectives
Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2009, pp. 3556

Jazz and the Popular Front: Swing


Musicians and the Left-Wing
Movement of the 1930s1940s
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Jonathon Bakan
This paper locates the jazz music of the 1930s and 1940s1 within the context of the
left-wing political movement of that era. For during the same years that jazz was
emerging in the form of swing as a centrally important aspect of the American
popular music industry, a radical oppositional movement closely associated with, but
not limited to, the American Communist Party was growing rapidly, especially within
Americas immigrant and African American communities. Associating jazz music
with oppositional political discourses is not new, but this connection has usually been
made with regard to post-Depression jazz stylistic trends, such as bebop, or the free
jazz of the 1960s.2 Until recently, very little scholarly work had been done exploring
1

As Scott DeVeaux has noted in his important article, Constructing the Jazz Tradition (Black
American Literature Forum 25 [Fall 1991]: 525560), the notion of a singular and unified historical jazz
tradition is an historiological construct, a broad consensus forged out of decades of critical debate,
conflict, and compromise over what does, and what does not, constitute jazz music. A critique of the
assumptions implied by the notion of a singular jazz tradition goes beyond the bounds of this paper;
however, for the purposes of this discussion, I use the word jazz to include a wide range of urban
African American-inspired musics of the 1930s and 1940s, including big band swing, Harlem stride
piano, the music of performers such as Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne (who began their careers as big
band singers but later branched out in other areas of popular entertainment), as well as the music of
bebop musicians who emerged out of the big bands of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
2
In Langston Hughess The Best of Simple, for example, the character Simple seems to argue that bebop was
an inspired reaction to the police brutality frequently endured by black Americans, saying Everytime a cop
hits a Negro with his billy club that old club says BOP! BOP! BE-BOP! ... BOP! BOP! That Negro
hollers, Oool-ya-koo! Ou-o-o! Old cop just keeps on, MOP! MOP! BE-BOP! MOP! Thats where
Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negros head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys
that plays it. (Langston Hughes, The Best of Simple [New York: Hill & Wang, 1961], 117118.) Amiri
Baraka (writing as Leroi Jones) likewise argued that the Negro music that developed in the forties had
more than an accidental implication of social upheaval associated with it. Leroi Jones, Blues People: Negro
Music in White America (New York: W. Morrow, 1963), 188. Similarly, Eric Lott has linked the emergent
bebop movement of the early 1940s with the labor and civil rights movements of those years. Eric Lott,
Double V, Double-Time: Bebops Politics of Style, in Jazz Among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 244. More recently, Ingrid Monson has explored the
relationships linking jazz music of the 1950s and 1960s to the civil rights and anti-colonialist discourses of
the Cold War period. Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2007). In the 1960s, the association of the jazz avant garde with ideas of radical
political opposition was made explicit at a concert event that was labeled The October Revolution in
Music by its organizers. Rob Backus, Fire Music: A Political History of Jazz (n.p., USA: Vanguard Books,
Emancipation, Black Graphics International, 1976), 69. In so naming their concert, the organizers seem to
have linked the revolutionary musical ideas of the contemporary jazz avant garde to the revolutionary
ISSN 1749-4060 print/1749-4079 online # 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17494060902778118

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36

Jazz and the Popular Front

the connections between the jazz music of the Swing Era and the left-wing political
movements of the 1930s and early 1940s.3 This oversight is all the more striking given
the fact that New York Citys Harlem district, widely acknowledged as the epicenter
of Swing Era jazz, was also emerging during the Depression era as a key center of the
American Communist movement. Indeed, during the 1930s, many of Harlems
residents, especially among the communitys intelligentsia, found themselves
attracted to the left-wing milieu centered around the American Communist Party.
Americas labor movement grew in size and militancy during the Depression
years,4 and as it did, the Communist Party emerged as the largest, best-financed, and
best-organized section of the left-wing movement. Between 1934 and 1939, the
American Communist Party grew in size from about 26,000 to about 85,000
members.5 Of course, the left-wing movement of the Depression era went well
beyond the Communist Partys dues-paying membership, and it included activists in
political organizations such as the NAACP, a variety of labor, immigrant, and social

ideals that inspired Russias October Revolution of 1917. In 1966, saxophonist Archie Shepp stated that
jazz is anti-war; it is opposed to Viet Nam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people. That is the
nature of jazz. Why is this so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the
enslavement of my people. It is precisely that. Down Beat, Music 66 (Chicago: Maher Publishing, 1966),
20. Quoted in Backus, Fire Music, 86.
3
During the mid-1990s, a small number of American cultural historians outside of musicology did begin
to draw attention to the connections between jazz music and the left-wing movement of the 1930s and
1940s. See especially Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the
Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996); David Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal
America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); and David Stowe, The Politics of Cafe
Society, Journal of American History 84 (March 1998): 13841406. That research in turn provided the
basis for a number of more recent studies that have begun to further explore the social and political
ramifications of Swing Era jazz. See, for example, Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin the Dream (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1998); Peter Townsend, Jazz in American Culture (Jackson, MS: University
of Mississippi Press, 2000); and Kenneth J. Bindas, Swing, That Modern Sound (Jackson, MS: University
Press of Mississippi, 2001). This paper is a further contribution to this body of research. I am particularly
indebted to the groundbreaking work of Michael Denning, whose important book, The Cultural Front,
provided many of the initial leads for this paper.
4
In 1934, longshoremen in San Francisco, teamsters in Minneapolis, and auto-parts workers in Toledo
led three separate general strikes in their respective cities. In the same year, 400,000 textile workers
engaged in the largest strike to affect a single industry in American history. Irving Howe and Lewis Coser
have described the rising labor militancy of the 1930s in their history of American Communism, The
American Communist Party: In 1934 alone there had been the San Francisco general strike led by Harry
Bridges, a shrewd and ruthless unionist whose policies were seldom distinguishable from those of the
Communists; two violent teamsters strikes in Minneapolis led by the Trotskyist Dunne brothers, which
attracted national attention; and a spectacular strike at the Toledo Auto-lite plant, where workers
reinforced by thousands of unemployed, battled National Guardsmen for two days. All through 1935
wildcat strikes were bursting out in the auto plants. By May spontaneous strikes had occurred in the
Toledo Chevrolet and in Cleveland Fisher Body. In November the first great sit-down was staged in the
Akron Goodyear plantsa spontaneous outbreak, marking the real start, on a factory level, of the CIO
upsurge. From Akron the flames of industrial unionism spread to Flint, where another sit-down strike
forced General Motors to recognize the CIO auto union. Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American
Communist Party (New York: Praeger, 1962; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 370.
5
Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press,
1983), 45; see also Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New
York: Basic Books, 1984), 240, 307.

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Jazz Perspectives

37

democratic organizations, and Marxists of various stripes. But while this emergent
movement culture6 included activists from a wide range of political perspectives and
organizations, the American Communist Party played a unique and central role in the
larger movement. As the largest organized section of the left-wing movement, the
Communist Party provided resources, networks, and physical spaceswhat sociologist
Alan Sears has described in another context as an infrastructure of dissent7that
could be used for any number of purposes, both political and personal, and by all
participants in the broader left-wing movement, even those who may have had
significant political disagreements with the current Party line. Indeed, the Communist
Party provided important media space, performance venues, organizational networks,
and economic backing for a wide range of cultural events that were important in
conditioning the history and reception of jazz music. Even among those who
vociferously disagreed with the Communist Party, there were many who participated in
the activities it initiated or sponsored, and whose contributions to the popular discourse
of the period were conditioned by the political positions the Party espoused. For this
reason, this paper will address not only the Communist Party and its circle of committed
activists, but will also focus, as historian Michael Brown suggests, on those of varying
degrees of commitment who worked within and around Party organizations, and the
greater number of peoplewhether official members or notwhose experiences of
agency, moral urgency, and politics were influenced by [the Communist Party] in the
various settings in which they lived and felt the need to take action.8
During the Depression years, Harlem emerged as a major center of left-wing
activism. This represented a significant shift in the communitys political tenor. As
historian Mark Naison has observed, few Harlemites had been actively engaged in any
kind of mass-based militant political activity prior to the 1930s.9 However, with the
onset of the Depression, the mood in Harlem began to change. By the mid-1930s,
political demonstrations had become a common occurrence on its streets, and the
community was buzzing with political activity, often of a highly militant nature.10 In
Naisons words, Harlems shift towards mass political activity reflected an
extraordinary change that had occurred since the Depression. In a community
where even the most militant spokesmen had failed to disturb the peace of the
postwar era (191928) with a major strike or boycott, [now] the butcher, the baker,
and the candlestick maker were all taking to the picket line.11
6

Denning, Cultural Front, 67.


Alan Sears, Creating and Sustaining Communities of Struggle: The Infrastructure of Dissent, New
Socialist Magazine, July-August 2005, 3233.
8
Michael E. Brown, ed., New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly
Review Press, 1993), 17.
9
The socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey each had significant
followings in Harlem during the 1920s. Both were renowned for their militancy, though they avoided the
kind of mass-based, direct-action forms of popular protest that would later characterize Harlem during
the 1930s. Naison, Communists, 21.
10
See Ibid., 115165.
11
Ibid., 115.
7

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Jazz and the Popular Front

As these protests grew, so did the Harlem Communist Party. At the onset of the
Depression, there were at most 15 black members in the Harlem Party, and by 1930
there were still less than 50. By 1933, the Harlem Party had grown to just 87 black
members. In January 1935, the Harlem Communist Party claimed 300 black
members. By August of the same year, the number had more than doubled to 700.12
However, these figures only tell part of the story, for the influence of the Communist
Party in Harlem went far beyond its own membership. Thus, in January of 1935
(when the Harlem Communist Party could still claim only 300 black members), the
Communist-led Upper Harlem Unemployed Council had 3,000 members, the
Harlem International Labor Defense claimed 1,090 members, and Communists had
organized 18 Party-led shop units in various Harlem workplaces.13 By 1938, the
Harlem section of the Communist Party had about 1,000 black members with
perhaps another 2,000 organized into Party-led organizations.14 If one includes those
who passed through the Communist Party, the numbers are still larger. According to
Naison, between the spring of 1936 and the spring of 1938, the Communist Party in
New York State recruited 2,320 blacks and lost 1,518. Naison estimates that twothirds of these were affiliated to the Harlem section of the Party.15
A June 4, 1938, article in the Saturday Evening Post described the wide scope of
Communist activities in Harlem:

12

Ibid., 25, 38, 96, 158.


Ibid., 134.
14
Ibid., 279.
15
Ibid., 280. Naison attributes the high turnover in black membership to what he calls a gap between
the political culture of the Party, and that of the Harlem masses. While Communists garnered high
regard from grass-roots Harlemites for their organizing around day-to-day issues such as housing and
social relief, the Party did have consistent difficulties holding the working-class blacks it recruited
(perhaps ironically, the Party had much greater proportional success recruiting and holding members
from among Harlems intelligentsia). Even among those working-class Harlemites who were inspired to
sign membership cards, many did not become actively involved in the Partys broader activities, or its
many social, cultural, and educational activities outside of Harlem. One source of cultural tension
appears to have been the insistence that all Party meetings and social gatherings be racially integrated,
even when black members wanted to meet separately from their white comrades. Naison cites Abner
Berry, a leading member in the Harlem Party as recalling, The thing I came up against most often in
Harlem was that the blacks wanted to be together. They didnt mind on occasion being integrated, but
in general, they wanted to be involved in something they could call their own, something they organized
and led. This was not a hate-whitey thing. Rather they had some things they wanted to discuss by
themselves, for themselves. The Party was dead set against this. Ibid., 279280. This situation reflected
an ongoing tension among Communists over the question of the independent organization of blacks
within the Party. In 1928, the Communist Party officially adopted the position that African Americans
constituted a distinct nation oppressed under imperialism, and argued for political selfdetermination in the Southern black belt. This position was attractive to those black activists who
had been introduced to politics through the pan-Africanist nationalism of the Garvey movement. At the
same time, however, the Partys national leadership insisted that all Communist Party organization be
done under the slogan of interracialism and proletarian internationalismnot on the basis of
independent organization of oppressed nationalities. See Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture,
Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1996), 103121.
13

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The most important center of Communist agitation in the [American] North is the
Negro headquarters of the party in New Yorka much-placarded building on
Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Communist Party Headquarters is a place where every Negro with a grievance
can be sure of prompt action. If he has been fired, the Communists can be counted
on to picket his employer. If he has been evicted, the Communists will guard his
furniture and take his case to court. If his gas has been cut off the Communists will
take his complaint, but not his unpaid bill, to the nearest office. There is never a
labor parade, nor a mass meeting of any significance in the colored community, in
which the Communists do not get their banner in the front row and their speakers
on the platform.16

Jazz musicians were not immune to this environment, and several prominent players
were drawn into the left-wing milieu. Indeed, at least some prominent members of
Harlems jazz community were in contact with the Communist Party as early as 1930.17
On March 22 of that year, Duke Ellingtons bandwhich was still working as the house
orchestra at Harlems exclusive Cotton Clubprovided the music at an interracial
Ball sponsored by The Liberator and Labor Unity, two publications affiliated with the
Party.18 In the words of Earl Ofari Hutchinson (who mistakenly puts the date of
Ellingtons appearance at the Communist rally in 1931, rather than 1930):
Ellington was so impressed with the spirit the Reds aroused in Harlem that he
agreed to provide entertainment for a Party-sponsored dance at Harlems Rockland
Palace in March 1931 [sic]. More than one thousand black and white activists
showed up for the affair. In between dancing to Ellington, they sang the
Internationale, watched an interracial dance troupe, and listened to speeches by
Party leaders. [Communist leader William Z.] Foster, basking in the glow of the
evenings revelry, promised to organize Negro workers side by side with white
workers and that Communists would be in the street shouting death penalty to
the murderers.19
16

Stanley High, Black Omens, Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1938, 38.
While the subject goes beyond the bounds of this paper, connections linking prominent figures in the
history of jazz to organized radical groupings may be drawn still earlier than this. During the late 1910s
and early 1920s, the African American poet and soon-to-be song lyricist, Andy Razaf, was closely
associated with the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), an early black radical organization strongly
influenced by the politics of both pan-African black nationalism and Soviet Bolshevism. ABB members,
including the groups founder Cyril Briggs, would become the first members of the Harlem Communist
Party. See Naison, Communists, 510; and Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African
Americans, 19171936 (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), 429. Andy Razaf, who
famously wrote lyrics for songs composed by Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, and many others, was an editor
and writer for the ABB publication Crusader, as well as a contributor to Marcus Garveys Negro World
and A. Philip Randolphs Messenger. See William J. Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American
Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 25; and
Vincent, Keep Cool, 1213. For an interesting discussion of Andy Razafs politics and publications in the
Crusader, and the broader significance of his work within the Harlem Renaissance literary milieu, see
Maxwell, New Negro, 1361. Ted Vincent argues that the pioneering African American composer and
musician W. C. Handy also had close relations with the ABB, and was close to the Garvey movement
for a time. Vincent, Keep Cool, 48.
18
See Liberator, March 1, 1930, 4; Naison, Communists, 3637.
19
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 19191990 (East Lansing: Michigan
State University Press, 1995), 70.
17

40

Jazz and the Popular Front

Two years later, the Communists campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys
brought several other prominent Harlem jazz players into contact with the Party. The
Scottsboro Boys were nine young black men and boys, aged 13 to 21, who, in 1931,
were arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama, on charges of rape. As Naison puts it,

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the flimsiness of the states evidence mattered little in the hysterical atmosphere
that the rape charge had created. Soon after the arrest, crowds began to gather
outside the jail, and the National Guard had to be called to prevent a lynching.
Within two weeks of the incident, the defendants had been indicted, tried, and
sentenced to death.20

The American Communist Party, through its legal group, the International Labor
Defense (ILD), was quick to offer support to the Scottsboro defendants, and soon
took charge of their case. It was their leadership of the Scottsboro defense in the early
1930s that first marked the emergence of the Communist Party as a significant
political force among African Americans, particularly in Harlem.21 In the summer of
1932, Communists initiated the Scottsboro Unity Defense Committee, a broad
coalition which attracted participants far beyond the Partys own ranks. The first
public meeting of the Scottsboro Unity Defense Committee was held in Harlem, and
was attended by about 45 people, mostly African Americans. Significantly, among
those in attendance was a young John Hammond, who would soon emerge as a
highly influential jazz promoter, writer, and record producer.22 Notably, in 1933,
Hammond wrote two articles covering the Scottsboro trial for the Nation.23
Communists led the organization of several large benefit rallies for the Scottsboro
defendants. The Daily Worker of May 17, 1932, describes one such mass meeting
and concert, at which over 2,000 people were reported to be in attendance.
Entertainment at the event was provided by a wide range of stage performers,
including Cab Calloways orchestra, Martha Graham and her dance troupe, and other
prominent performers, both black and white.24 At subsequent rallies, John
Hammond was instrumental in recruiting the participation of musicians such as
Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Fats Waller, and W. C. Handy in
20

Naison, Communists, 58.


See Ibid., 57; Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds, 69.
22
Naison, Communists, 71.
23
See John Hammond, Due Process of Law in Alabama, The Nation, December 20, 1933, 701702;
and John Hammond, The South Speaks, The Nation, April 26, 1933, 465466. John Hammond will
reappear throughout this paper as an active participant in the left-wing movement. In his recent book,
Blowin Hot and Cool, John Gennari describes Hammond as an anticommunist liberal[], citing
Hammonds disagreements with the Communists on various issues. John Gennari, Blowin Hot and Cool:
Jazz and Its Critics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 34. However, the use of the term
anticommunist in this context seems to oversimplify Hammonds relationships, criticisms, and
alliances with various Party activists and organizations during the 1930s and 1940s. Gennari does
however acknowledge both that Hammonds activism grew out of the tradition of Leftist politics in the
jazz world that started in the early 1930s and intensified with the Popular Front initiative of the
Communist Party after 1935, and that Hammond was part of a group of young blacks and Jews
associated with the Harlem branch of the CPUSA. Ibid.
24
See Naison, Communists, 70; 2000 Pledge Support to Mass Fight for Scottsboro Boys at Harlem
Meeting, Daily Worker, May 17, 1932, 2.
21

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41

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the defense campaign.25 In his autobiography, Hammond described his involvement


in the campaign:
In December of 1932, [Harlem Communist Party leader William Patterson26] asked
me to arrange the entertainment for a benefit the ILD [International Labor
Defense] was planning for the Scottsboro Defense Committee. I knew Pats
position, just as he knew I was not a Communist sympathizer, but I was as
interested in the new trial as he was, so I agreed to do what I could.
The benefit was held at the Rockland Palace at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue,
underneath the elevated tracks next to the Polo Grounds. It was dingy and decrepit,
but as large as the Savoy Ballroom. I got Benny Carters orchestra and Duke
Ellingtonsoloand the benefit was a great success. Miriam Hopkins and
Tallulah Bankhead were there, and it also was the show-business debut of a fifteenyear-old singer named Martha Raye. Martha, the daughter of vaudevillians, was a
protegee of Irving Mills, Ellingtons manager and mentor, who met her through
another of his clients. My best memory is of the young girl singing in front of
the Carter orchestrawith Duke at the pianoat this benefit.27

The Communists success in leading the Scottsboro campaign was undoubtedly


due, at least in part, to a willingness on the part of Harlem Party activists to tone
down the sharply polemical attacks against both Harlems middle class and African
American popular music that had characterized much of their literature during the
early 1930s.28 Indeed, the fact that Communists were willing to organize Scottsboro
25

See John Hammond and Irving Townsend, John Hammond on Record (New York: Summit Books,
1977), 85; Burton W. Peretti, Jazz in American Culture (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), 72; and Naison,
Communists, 72.
26
Patterson was a prominent Harlem lawyer who joined the Party in the mid-1920s. He rose to become a
leader in the national organization, leading both the Partys legal organization the International Labor
Defense, and serving as a member of the Partys leading Political Bureau (Politboro). Patterson played a
significant role in shaping the cultural politics of the Harlem Communist Party. He would eventually
marry Louise Thompson, another important figure who helped to bring several leading members of
Harlems artistic intelligentsia into the Communist milieu. Thompson was well-known among leading
Harlem Renaissance thinkers, and in the early 1930s she began hosting political discussions at her
apartment. These meetings included many of Harlems most prominent artists and intellectuals. She
herself joined the Communist Party around the same time. Interestingly, Thompson was also a friend of
John Hammond. In 1932, Hammond, Thompson, and others became involved in a Soviet-sponsored
project to produce a film about working-class blacks in America. Hammond provided the funding that
sent a delegation of black writers and actors to the Soviet Union for work on the project. See Denning,
Cultural Front, 65; Naison, Communists, 4243, 68, 100; and David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in
Vogue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 288291.
27
Hammond and Townsend, John Hammond on Record, 85.
28
During the early 1930s, popular jazz music had often been condemned by leading Communists as a
non-proletarian art form. For example, in the February 1930 issue of New Masses magazine, editor Mike
Gold wrote that the Harlem Cabaret no more represents the Negro Mass than a pawnshop represents a
Jew, or an opium den the struggling Chinese nation. Quoted in Naison, Communists, 92n53. Gold also
wrote that This cabaret obsession is but an infantile disease, a passing phase. Negroes are plowing
into the revolutionary movement. It is the Negroes [sic] only remaining hope. And among these masses
the Negro will at last find his true voice. It will be a voice of storm, beauty and pain, no saxophone
clowning, but Beethovens majesty and Wagners might, somber as night with the vast Negro suffering,
but with red stars burning bright for revolt. Quoted in George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in
Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 272. This negative
attitude towards popular African-American culture was also expressed in the poem Break That Banjo,

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Jazz and the Popular Front

events featuring such an array of prominent jazz and popular music performers
points to the inconsistencies and ambiguities of official Communist views regarding
popular music (and especially African American popular music) during the early
1930s. It also indicates the relative independence of the Harlem Party from the
national Communist leadership during those years, a situation that generated
significant tensions between the Partys national leadership and its Harlem activists.
As Robin D. G. Kelley has argued, many of the earliest black members of the Harlem
Party were strongly influenced by nationalist notions of racial self-reliance and PanAfricanism, a situation that sometimes caused friction between the Partys leadership
and its Harlem section.29
The independent organizational attitude of Harlem Party activists was reflected in
the Scottsboro defense campaign, where Harlem Communists began, in practice, to
reject the virulently sectarian rhetoric that had until then characterized much of the
Partys literature and political activities. As it happens, the Harlem activists
newfound openness to nonsectarian organization was extremely successful, and the
Scottsboro campaign firmly established the Communist Party on Harlems political
landscape. Later, when the national leadership of the Communist Party officially
adopted the broadly tolerant Popular Front strategy in 1935,30 the nonsectarian
approach that had characterized the Scottsboro campaign became more generalized
throughout the national Partyand made the Communists appear still more
congenial to Harlems intelligentsia. While there had been a small number of highprofile black intellectuals in or around the Party since at least the early 1930s, as
written by I. D. W. Talmadge, and published in the Daily Worker of August 2, 1929: Break that banjo,
Black Man, / Sing no more them blues / Our foes fear not our sighs / This soft euphonious wailing
/ Damn Booker T. and all his pious crew / Were Uncle Toms no more / We know our foe. / There are
no race distinctions / Were colored all: / Our color is RED / Let yellow-livered curs lick the white
plutess boots / We, Reds, have learned to fight! / Come LOuverture, / Blast forth your call again. / In
battle we shall win our rights / Or / die as men. (Ellipses in original. I. D. W. Talmadge, Break That
Banjo, Daily Worker, August 2, 1929, 6. Courtesy of Peoples Weekly World, www.pww.org.)
29
For example, in 1930, Harlem Communists launched the auxiliary organization, the League of
Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR). The LSNRs newspaper, Liberator, was presented as the agitator
and organizer of the Negro Liberation Movementa role the national Communist Party was jealous to
claim for itselfand published material written in a similar language, tone, and spirit as that published in
the Garveyist newspaper Negro World. This was apparently too much for the Partys Central Committee,
which insisted in 1931 that the Liberator not be presented as a racialized, Negro publication, and that
the LSNR not substitute for the Party, which at all times must retain its leading role in the struggle for
full equality. Naison, Communists, 42; Liberator, February 21, 1931, quoted in Kelley, Race Rebels, 110;
for Kelleys discussion of the similar tone and style of the Liberator and Negro World, see ibid., 103104,
and 112.
30
In response to the growing threat of fascism in 1935, the international Communist movement formally
initiated a major change in political strategy known as the Popular Front. The new policy urged
Communist Parties around the world to cease advocating for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist
system, and instead concentrate on building broad coalitions of all individuals and organizations that
were opposed to fascism, including non-revolutionary social democrats, trade unionists, and even nonsocialist liberals. With the adoption of the Popular Front strategy, the primary and overriding task of
Communist Parties around the world became building the widest possible movement against fascism.
See, for example, Albert Fried, Communism in America: A History in Documents (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1997), 227247.

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43

Naison notes, it was only during the Popular Front period that the Harlem
Communist Party really emerged as an important focal point of political and
cultural activity by Harlem intellectuals.31
Significantly, after the adoption of the Popular Front strategy, and following on the
success of the Scottsboro campaign, a number of young American Communists
outside of the Harlem Party also began to articulate a strong interest in jazz music,
describing and advocating for the music in terms of its social implications and
political potential.32 This was reflected in Party-sponsored literature, which began to
feature articles praising hot jazz and swing with increasing regularity. 33 For
example, writer James Dugan declared in the Young Communist Review that Hot jazz
is a democratic music, and Swing is as American as baseball and hot dogs. There
is a good deal of audience participation in swing, a kind of give and take and mutual
inspiration for the musician and the crowd, a rough democratic air invading the
sacred halls of music.34 In these discussions, the leading role of African Americans
was often emphasized. Dugans article in the Young Communist Review thus states,
Hot jazz comes right out of the music of the American Negro, the oppressed
Negro. Slick musicologists, forced at last to notice the phenomenon, are busy weaving
other origins, but you listen to the music and you know they talk nonsense.35 Daily
Worker writer Max Margulis similarly declared, Negro musicians have been the
decisive figures behind [swings] history, development, and course.36
As a result of this new official openness to the music, by the late 1930s,
Communist-led organizations were frequently featuring jazz or swing bands at their
social functions and benefits. For example, Chick Webbs band with Ella Fitzgerald,
the Savoy Sultans (the house band at Harlems Savoy Ballroom), and the prominent
31

Naison, Communists, 193; see also Harvey Klehr and John Earle Haynes, The American Communist
Movement: Storming Heaven Itself (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), 7791.
32
Naison, Communists, 211. It is interesting to note that a number of influential white American jazz
writers of the 1930s and 1940s were also informed by their involvement in the left-wing movement, and
some even before the Popular Front years. John Hammond (whose involvement in the Scottsboro
campaign has been mentioned above) continued his involvements in the left-wing movement into the
1940s. In 1933, Charles Edward Smith, another important jazz writer, contributed an article to the
Communist Daily Worker under the headline Class Content of Jazz Music, where he stated that the
revolution must be fought out on every front, cultural as well as economic. According to John Gennari
and James Lincoln Collier, writers Otis Ferguson and B. H. Haggin can also be counted among those
jazz writers who were involved in the leftist discourse of the 1930s. Bruce Boyd Raeburn adds jazz writer
Al Rose to this list, noting that Rose was involved in the non-Stalinist left, eventually joining the postTrotskyist organizations of Max Schachtman and C. L. R. James in the 1940s. See Charles Edward
Smith, Class Content of Jazz Music, Daily Worker, October 21, 1933, 7; John Gennari, Jazz
Criticism: Its Development and Ideologies, Black American Literature Forum 25 (Autumn 1991): 472;
James Lincoln Collier, The Faking of Jazz: How Politics Distorted the History of the Hip, New
Republic, November 18, 1985, 37; and Bruce Boyd Raeburn, New Orleans Style: The Awakening of
American Jazz Scholarship and Its Cultural Implications (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1991), 3839.
33
Naison, Communists, 210, 224n75.
34
James Dugan, Stop Before You Jitter, Young Communist Review, July 1939, 3.
35
Ibid.
36
Max Margulis, Swing-Hi-De-Ho, Sunday Worker, September 12, 1937, 4. Note that the author of
this article appears to be the same Max Margulis who later went on to cofound Blue Note Records.

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Jazz and the Popular Front

swing bands of Lucky Millender, Reggie Childs, and Charlie Barnet, were among
those featured at Communist sponsored events in 19381939.37 Furthermore, unlike
the earlier Scottsboro benefits, these events were neither geographically limited to,
nor primarily directed towards, Harlems black community (although Harlem itself
remained a major center of Communist Party activity). Beginning in the late 1930s,
jazz events presented under the auspices of Popular Front organizations were
becoming more commonplace not only in Harlem, but also in downtown Manhattan
and as far afield as Los Angeles, where the film industry was emerging as a center of
left-wing activity. For example, in 1937 and 1938, a number of major jazz concerts
were staged under the sponsorship of Popular Front organizations. These included
events put on by the anti-fascist Musicians Committee for Spanish Democracy,38
which presented two concerts at Carnegie Hall involving performances by leading
jazz performers Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Fats Waller, and Jimmy Lunceford, as
well as the composer W. C. Handy.39 Similarly, the American Labor Party (which at
that time was heavily influenced by Communist Party trade unionists and
37

According to David Stowe, in 1938 Harlems Communist Party founded an interracial swing club
and promoted jitterbugging, while the Young Communist League sponsored a Swing America pageant
at its 1939 convention. Stowe, Swing Changes, 65. These sorts of events were fairly common. For
example, Chick Webbs band was featured with Ella Fitzgerald at shows hosted by the Harlem Bureau of
the Daily Worker. Denning, Cultural Front, 334. Likewise, on November 23, 1938, the Young
Communist League presented a Night O Swing featuring the orchestras of Charlie Barnet and Reggie
Childs. Daily Worker, November 22, 1938, 8. And, on December 3, 1938, the Twenty-Seventh New
Masses Ball featured Dancing until three to the music of the Savoy Sultans. See Daily Worker,
December 2, 1938, 10. The Savoy Sultans were also featured at the New Masses Spring Ball held on
March 31, 1939, and at a dance advertised under the slogan Swing Against Fascism sponsored by the
Federal Writers Anti-Fascist Committee, held on March 5, 1938. See New Masses, February 28, 1939,
30; New Masses, March 8, 1938. On December 17, 1938, the Fur, Floorboys, and Shipping Clerks
Union held a benefit dance for the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade. The event featured a Battle of
Swing between Lucky Millinder and his Blue Rhythm Band and Charles Barnet and his Make
Believe Ballroom Orchestra. See Daily Worker, December 16, 1938, 4.
38
Naison has written: The [Communist] partys campaign in behalf of the republican government
dwarfed [other Communist-led anti-fascist campaigns] in breadth and political significance. The revolt
of the Spanish army against a freely elected, popular government, undertaken with German and Italian
support, provided a textbook case of the conflict between democracy and fascism which Communists
constantly spoke of. Astonishingly, not one Western government would provide military aid to the
Spanish Republic; the United States, Britain, and France all kept out of the conflict while Mussolini sent
troops and Hitler used the war to test his most advanced military technology. The Soviet Unions
decision to send arms to the Spanish Republic, and the Cominterns sponsorship of an international
brigade to fight on the republican side, inspired a groundswell of goodwill among U.S. liberals. Spanish
aid committees quickly formed throughout the country, incorporating trade unions, religious bodies,
ethnic associations, and artists and writers groups, as well as the party. But the most dramatic
manifestation of U.S. support was the formation of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a contingent of more
than 3,000 young Americans who volunteered to fight with the republican armies. Although people of
many political backgrounds participated in the brigade, rank-and-file Communists, drawn from unions
and neighborhood organizations, composed more than 60 percent of the recruits. Their experience
dramatized the spirit of heroism and sacrifice which U.S. Communism could inspire in its best moments.
Half of the brigade died in battle; half of those who returned had serious wounds. Mark Naison,
Remaking America: Communists and Liberals in the Popular Front, in New Studies in the Politics and
Culture of U.S. Communism, ed. Michael E. Brown (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), 56.
39
Denning, Cultural Front, 334.

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45

community activists40) sponsored a concert of Negro Music, Past and Present,41


and in December 1938 John Hammond staged the first of his well-known Spirituals
to Swing concerts with funding provided by the Communist sponsored New Masses
magazine.42 Hammonds and James Dugans program notes for the latter concert
notably declared hot jazz style is uniquely American, the most important cultural
exhibit we have given the world. Playing the biggest role in originating and nurturing
it is the American Negro, the oppressed American whose musical qualities have long
been recognized in Europe and neglected at home.43 In October 1939, the
pioneering African American composer and music publisher, W. C. Handy, was a
featured lecturer at the Communist-run Workers School, where he spoke on the role
of African Americans in American music. Likewise, on February 2, 1939, Daily
Worker columnist Mike Gold and James Dugan gave a public lecture titled Has
Swing a Social Significance?44
Meanwhile, at least some leading jazz musicians were also finding themselves in
sympathy with the anti-Fascist and anti-racist politics of the broader Popular Front
movement. For example, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman were both highprofile members of the Musicians Committee for Spanish Democracy.45 In fact, Duke
Ellington was an extremely active participant in the Popular Front movement,
although in spite of his earlier willingness to play at the Communist Partys functions,
Ellington appears to have been quite critical of the Party itself.46 Nonetheless, his
40

See Naison, Remaking America, 51.


Naison, Communists, 212.
42
See Hammond and Townsend, John Hammond on Record, 199206; and New Masses, December 20,
1938, 23. Hammond staged a second Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1939. He later claimed
that he sought financing for the first of these concerts from the New Masses editor Eric Bernay only when
he was refused support by both the NAACP and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Ibid,
199200. Interestingly, Bernay later went on to found the independent record label Keynote, where John
Hammond served first on the companys board of directors, and later as its president. According to
Denning, Keynote began as a small left-wing folk and jazz label, releasing Marc Blitzsteins No for an
Answer, the Almanac Singers Talking Union, and Josh Whites Southern Exposure, as well as small
sessions with Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, and Count Basie. Denning, Cultural Front, 95. Whitney
Balliett has underscored the historic importance of Keynotes jazz recordings, writing that artists and
repertoire man Harry Lim supervised fifty or so small-band sessions for the Keynote label, nearly a third
of which are among the best of all jazz recordings. Whitney Balliett, The Keynotes, in Goodbyes and
Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz, 19811990 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 189.
43
James Dugan and John Hammond, program notes for the From Spirituals to Swing concert, Carnegie
Hall, New York, December 1938; reprinted in The Black Perspective in Music 2 (Fall 1974), 194.
44
See Naison, Communists, 299; and New Masses, January 31, 1939, 26.
45
Stowe, Swing Changes, 71.
46
In the April 1939 issue of Down Beat, Ellington went so far as to engage in some mild red-baiting against
John Hammond, who, he argued, lacked impartiality as a swing critic. Here, Ellington claimed that
Hammond, has consistently identified himself with the interests of the Negro peoples, to a lesser degree,
the Jew, and to the underdog, in the form of the Communist Party. Ellington further argued that Perhaps
due to the fever of battle, Hammonds judgment may become slightly warped, and his enthusiasm and
prejudices a little bit unwieldy to control. Situation Between the Critics and Musicians Is Laughable
Ellington, Down Beat, April 1939, 4, 9. It should be acknowledged, however, that in spite of the negative
rhetorical spin of his comments, Ellington was not wrong to point out that Hammonds multiple roles as
music producer, talent scout, music critic, and even financial backer of various musical enterprises, precluded
him from being considered an impartial judge of the musical merits of various swing or jazz bands.
41

46

Jazz and the Popular Front

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activities in the Communist-led Popular Front movement were enough to bring him
under the suspicious eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to David
Stowe,
In May 1938 [Ellington] was listed as an endorser of the first All-Harlem Youth
Conference, and in July 1941 he appeared with part of his band at a barndance
for the Hollywood chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Later that year Ellington was a sponsor of a dinner given by the American
Committee to Save Refugees, the Exiled Writers Committee, and the United
American Spanish Aid committee, all regarded by the FBI as suspect
organizations.47

In 1941, Ellingtons musical revue, Jump for Joy opened in Los Angeles.48 This
social significance show49 appears to have been consciously crafted as a statement
of political protest. In Ellingtons own words,
In 1941 a team of scholarly Hollywood writers decided to attempt to correct the
race situation in the U.S.A. through a form of musical propaganda. This
culminated in meetings at which the decision was made to do Jump for Joy, a show
that would take Uncle Tom out of the theater, eliminate the stereotyped image that
had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway, and say things that would make
the audience think.
The show was never the same, because every night after the final curtain we
had a meeting up in the office. All fifteen writers would be present whenever
possible, and we would discuss, debate, and make decisions as to what should come
out of the show the next night.
The show was done on a highly intellectual levelno crying, no moaning, but
entertaining, and with social demands as a potent spice. Anyone who attended
those backstage meetings for twelve weeks got a full college education in social
significance.50

In a similar manner, pianist James P. Johnson began work in 1938 with Langston
Hughes on De Organizer, A Blues Opera in One Act. De Organizer was performed
in 1940, at a convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union
(ILGWU).51 According to Johnsons biographer, Scott Brown:
The action takes place on a backward plantation in the South. The sharecroppers
have gathered and await the arrival of the Organizer who will help them establish a
union.

47

Stowe, Swing Changes, 6970.


The original score and script to Jump for Joy have not survived intact, nor has the score been recorded
in its entirety. What has been recorded has been collected on Jump for Joy, Smithsonian R 037 DMM 10722, 1988; these recordings have also been released on Duke Ellington, Jump for Joy, Jazz Hour
00022752, 2005, compact disc. See also Denning, Cultural Front, 524n63.
49
Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), 460.
50
Ibid., 175176.
51
Scott E. Brown and Robert Hilbert, James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Metuchen, NJ:
Scarecrow Press and the Institute for Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1986), 219220.
48

Jazz Perspectives

47

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The Organizer expounds not only racial equality but [also] socialist ideas
involving unionization. Ideas concerning social reform were of great importance
to Langston Hughes and pervade much of his work. Johnsons interest [in social
issues] was almost certainly more than passing. Willie The Lion Smith hinted at
Johnsons interest in social reform and people he associated with who shared his
[political] views.52

It is of course difficult to determine all the factors that may have led musicians
even those who appear to have made no strong political commitments one way or the
otherto participate in the left-wing milieu. However, one can speculate that for
those musicians who became active in left-wing cultural activities, and for whom
there is no record of any political commitment, it is likely that many did find
themselves aligned in various ways with the Popular Front movement.53 For some,
this alignment may have simply involved finding the left-wing movement to be a
more-or-less congenial environment in which to find employment. For others, there

52

Ibid. Unfortunately, Brown gives no indication where, when, or how Smith made this known to him.
The words alignment and commitment are used here in the sense described by Raymond
Williams. See Raymond Williams, The Writer: Commitment and Alignment, in Resources of Hope:
Culture, Democracy, Socialism, ed. Robin Gable (London: Verso, 1989), 7787. With these terms,
Williams provides a useful way to understand the complex and multiple relationships that existed
between the Communist Party and the broader left-wing movement. Following Marx, Williams argues
that the act of becoming consciously committed to a specific political or class outlook is predicated on
the achievement of a self-conscious awareness of ones immediate needs, interests, desires, etc., which all
individuals must pursue if they are to survive in their life circumstances. These immediateand initially
unconsciousinterests constitute what Williams calls our political alignments. As Williams states,
Marxism, more clearly than any other kind of thinking, has shown us that we are in fact aligned before
we realize that we are aligned. For we are born into a social situation, into social relationships, into a
family, all of which have formed what we can later abstract as ourselves as individuals. Much of this
formation occurs before we can be conscious of any individuality. The alignments are so deep. They
are our normal way of living in the world, our normal ways of seeing the world. [O]ur own actual
alignment is so inseparable from the constitution of our own individuality that to separate them is quite
artificial. Ibid., 8586. These alignments inform much of what we do, providing the basis for our
most pressing political choices. For example, while the majority of the rank-and-file participants in the
left-wing political movement of the Depression era (such as those who participated in the strike wave of
1934 and the CIO organizing drives that followed) found themselves aligned to the left-wing
movementto its fight for industrial union rights, fair employment practices, economic security, and an
end to racial and ethnic intoleranceonly a minority of those participants were prepared to commit
themselves to the various organizations that provided the political and strategic leadership of the
movement, and, in the case of the Communist Party, much of its infrastructure. In this understanding,
alignment does not exist in opposition to commitment, but rather provides the unconscious
prerequisite from which political commitment can develop. Indeed, Williams argues that political
commitment is simply a result of the conscious recognition of the deeply social nature of our
alignments and the changes in attitude necessitated by that shift in consciousness. As Williams states,
political commitment means becoming conscious of our own real alignments. This may lead to us
confirming them, in some situations. Or it can often lead to changing or shifting or amending them, a
more painful process than it sounds. In fact even when we confirm our deepest alignments, but now
very consciously and deliberately, something strange has happened and we feel quite differently
committed. Because really to have understood the social pressures on our own thinking, or when we
come to the wonderful although at first terrible realization that what we are thinking is what a lot of other
people have thought, that what we are seeing is what a lot of other people have seen, that is an
extraordinary experience. Ibid., 8687.

53

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Jazz and the Popular Front

may have been a full or partial agreement with various aspects of the movements
ideological thrust. 54 For example, Count Basie does not appear to have committed
himself to any particular political organization. Nonetheless, he was a prominent
participant in the Popular Front milieu. In January 1938, Basie performed at a New
Masses-sponsored event, Hitting a New High, which also featured the music of
Marc Blitzstein and Aaron Copland.55 In 1939, the Communist Partys Daily Worker
ran an extended article on Count Basie entitled New Miracles in Music. In this
article, Basie is quoted as telling reporter William Wolf, when the bonds of race
discrimination have been broken, the world of music, for one, will witness miracles of
achievement, never before dreamed of.56
In 1940, on the urging of John Hammond, Basie recorded the political song, Its
the Same Old South. According to the songs lyricist, Ed Eliscu, this number
expressed what I felt about the vicious racial injustice that was so common in the
30s.57 The lyrics present a biting parody of Southern American life, declaring, Its
the same old South, a regular childrens Heaven, where they dont start to work til
theyre seven. The text goes on to describe the American South as a culture
characterized by conservatism, bigotry, and pellagra, where the bloodhounds that
once chased Liza, [now] chase the CIO organizer.58
Interest in the civil rights agenda of the Popular Front also grew across racial lines,
and extended to involve white as well as black jazz and popular music performers.
For instance, white bandleader Artie Shaw was a high-profile participant in the
movement. According to Denning, Artie Shaw supported various left-wing peace
groups and was active in the campaign for civil rights in employment.59 Denning
adds that Shaw was a self-described activist in the crucial organization of the
Hollywood Popular Front, HICCASP (the Hollywood Independent Citizens
Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions).60 As a result of these activities,
Shaw was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in
1953.61
54

Of course it should also be noted that not all jazz musicians who came in contact with the left-wing
movement found themselves comfortable within its social and political milieu. For a negative account of
the relationship between left-wing activists and jazz musicians during the Popular Front era, see Willie
The Lion Smith and George Hoefer, Music On My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist (New
York: Da Capo Press, 1964; reprint, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 234237.
55
Denning, Cultural Front, 334.
56
New Miracles in American Music, Sunday Worker, June 4, 1939, 7.
57
Quoted in Michael Brooks, liner notes to Count Basie Super Chief, C 31225 Columbia Records, 1971,
LP.
58
Count Basie, The Chronological Count Basie and His Orchestra: 19401941, Classics Records, Classics
623, 1991, compact disc. In Stowes words, the lyrics sharply satirized southern poverty and racial
practice. Stowe, Swing Changes, 71.
59
Denning, Cultural Front, 334.
60
Ibid. Jon Wiener writes that HICCASP had been a broad coalition of pro-Roosevelt liberals and
leftists, ranging from Thomas Mann to Rita Hayworth. Jon Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red,
in Professors, Politics and Pop (London: Verso, 1991), 265. Duke Ellington served on the organizations
executive board. See Stowe, Swing Changes, 70.
61
Denning, Cultural Front, 334.

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Singer and actor Frank Sinatra was likewise connected to the broad left-wing
movement during the 1940s. In 1945, Sinatra played the lead role in an explicitly
anti-racist short film scripted by Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz entitled The
House I Live In.62 The films title song, recorded by Sinatra, was composed by former
Composers Collective member Earl Robinson.63 The songs lyrics were written by
Communist Party member Abel Meeropol.64 As cultural historian Jon Wiener has
argued, The House I Live [I]n was a [political] turning point for Sinatra, and he
remained active in the Popular Front until the postwar right-wing backlash nearly
ended his career in 1949.65
Like Shaw, Sinatra was an active participant in HICCASP, and he even served as
vice president of the organization in 1946. And while Sinatra never joined the
Communists,66 he was nonetheless working closely with them during this period. Jon
Wiener writes,
Sinatra moved closer to the Communist Party when he served as vice president
of [HICCASP]. Sinatra became an officer [of HICCASP] during a faction fight
in which Communists pushed liberals out of the organization and steered it toward
Henry Wallaces left-wing challenge to Truman in 1948.67

Sinatra appears to have been primarily attracted to the anti-racist stance that
characterized the Popular Front movement, and Communist activists in particular.
Sinatras anti-racist and anti-fascist sympathies were evident in a letter, dated
August 31, 1945, written to Albert Maltz in praise of the left-wing screenwriters
script to Pride of the Marines (Warner Bros., 1945). Here Sinatra praised Maltzs
work, saying,
my anxiety and interest in our social and discrimination (or what have you)
problems have been hungrily awaiting such valuable assistance [as is provided by
Pride of the Marines]. When I think of the tremendous amount of Americans who
will see and hear and be made aware of this deplorable problem, I tell you, Albert,
its wonderful.
Please dont think Im going completely overboard on this thing; its just that
Im completely convinced that the greatest, most effective weapon has suddenly

62

Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red, 263.


Denning, Cultural Front, 35. The Composers Collective was a radical grouping of modern
American composers. The group took upon itself the task of developing a new music, simultaneously
revolutionary in content and form, which would inspire class struggle and uplift the musical tastes of
American workers. David Dunaway, Charles Seeger and Carl Sands: The Composers Collective
Years, Ethnomusicology 24 (May 1980): 159160; see also Denning, Cultural Front, 288.
64
Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allen, also composed the anti-lynching song
Strange Fruit, which was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 (see footnote 87 below). It is interesting
to note that in later years, Meeropol adopted the two young children of Communists Ethel and Julius
Rosenberg, who were put to death by the United States Government in 1953. See Donald Clarke,
Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday (London: Penguin, 1994), 163.
65
Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red, 263.
66
Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red, 264.
67
Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red, 265.
63

50

Jazz and the Popular Front


come to life for the millions of bigoted, stupid, anti-everything people. Youve
got to hit em right in the kisser with it and, baby, you really did.68

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Maltz replied with another letter, dated September 24, 1945, in which he praised an
article recently written by Sinatra for Modern Screen magazine. Here Maltz wrote,
Often one reads a general article about tolerance. This is okaybut the very person
who says, carelessly, I see they lynched another nigger in Georgia, will read the
article, nod his head in agreement, and go right on in the path of unthinking
prejudice.
But your [Modern Screen] article makes that impossible. [You] posed the issue
in day to day language, about day to day problems, and each reader was forced by
you to decide whether he was going to continue to say sheeny, mick, wop
[sic].
A few years ago, when [right-wing populist, Father] Coughlin was on the air and
publishing his magazine, I would listen to him and read him, and turn away
physically sick, seeing already the marching storm troopers in our cities. And I
would think, where are the decent voices, where are the major American figures to
oppose their weight and prestige to the power of Coughlin and his allies?
That you have chosen to fight on the particular question of race prejudice,
seems to me an awfully lucky throw of the dice. Your instinct has brought you to a
main battleground, in which we will either win or lose, and in which your weight
can be worth an army of other men.69

Sinatras involvement in the Popular Front eventually attracted the suspicions of


right-wing politicians. At hearings of the House Committee on Un-American
Activities (HUAC), Sinatra was named twelve times as a suspected Communist
sympathizer.70 By 1950, the backlash against him was in full swing, and Sinatras
career was in disarray. Says Wiener:
Sinatra wrote an open letter in The New Republic to [Progressive Party presidential
candidate Henry] Wallace at the beginning of 1947, calling on him to take up the
fight we like to think of as oursthe fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any
fight for peace. Within three months headlines appeared linking [Sinatra] to the
Communists. A month later he was fired from his radio show; six months after that
his New York concerts flopped. By December 1949 his affair with Ava Gardner
had become an open scandal. Columbia Records was trying to get back the advance
they had given him. In 1950 he was released from his MGM contract, and his own
agent, MCA, had dropped him.71

68

Frank Sinatra to Albert Maltz, August 31, 1945, photocopy in authors possession. Original in the
Maltz collection at State Historical Society of Wisconson.
69
Albert Maltz to Frank Sinatra, September 24, 1945, photocopy in authors possession. Original in the
Maltz collection at State Historical Society of Wisconson. I am indebted to historian Paul Buhle for
providing me with a photocopy of this written exchange between Sinatra and Maltz.
70
Wiener, When Old Blue Eyes Was Red, 264.
71
In the 1950s, Sinatra managed a comeback and his career recovered. He remained politically active
in the Democratic party, contributing to the campaigns of both Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F.
Kennedy in 1960. Ibid., 255266.

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51

The connections between jazz and the Popular Front movement were perhaps
most prominently manifested at the Manhattan nightclub known as Cafe Society, and
later its sister club, Cafe Society Uptown. The first of these venues, Cafe Society,
opened in Greenwich Village in December 1938. It was notable not only for being a
favored nightspot of New Yorks left-wing artistic and intellectual circles, but also for
being Manhattans first major nightclub with a strict policy of racial integration.
Significantly, many of those involved in Cafe Societys day-to-day operations had
close personal associations to the Popular Front movement, and to the American
Communist Party in particular. The club was owned and operated by Barney
Josephson, whose brother Leon Josephson was a leading American Communist. As
David Stowe has noted, Leon Josephson was not only a business partner in Cafe
Society, he was also one of the more prominent and outspoken American
Communists of the era, and a lawyer for the Communist-led legal organization, the
ILD (International Labor Defense).72 Barney Josephson later claimed that he too had
joined the Communist Party in 1937, but he only remained a member for six
months.73
According to Stowe, those in attendance at Cafe Society (and later Cafe Society
Uptown) constituted a microcosm of an important segment of the urban Roosevelt
coalition: labor leaders, intellectuals, writers, jazz lovers, celebrities, students, and
assorted other leftists.74 Cafe Society also became a favored gathering place for much
of New Yorks left-wing African-American intelligentsia. In the words of writer Gail
Lumet Buckley, Cafe Society was the favorite night spot of the intellectual black
middle class. [C]onversation was terrific. Barney Josephson basically considered
his nightclub to be a seminar with drinks and entertainment.75
John Hammond played an important role in bringing Cafe Society many of its
performers by serving as an unpaid musical advisor to the clubs owner, Barney
Josephson.76 And while Josephson held the ultimate responsibility, Hammonds
influence was evident in Cafe Societys musical programming during its first years of
operation. Hammond organized the first house orchestra at Cafe Society around the
African American trumpeter Frankie Newton. Newton had known Hammond since
at least 1932.77 Newton too was an outspoken leftist, and was almost certainly either a
member of the Communist Party or very close to it. Newton was featured at various

72

David Stowe, The Politics of Cafe Society, Journal of American History 84 (March 1998): 1396,
1397. Leon Josephson had been involved in left-wing politics since at least 1924, when he became a
member of the Workers Party. In 1935, Leon Josephson was arrested in Copenhagen on charges of being
involved in a Soviet conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. In 1947, Leon Josephson was sentenced to
imprisonment for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ibid., 1397.
73
Ibid.
74
Ibid., 1391.
75
Gail Lumet Buckley, The Hornes: An American Family (New York: Applause Books, 1986), 144145.
76
On Hammonds role as a musical advisor, see Whitney Balliett, Ecstasy at the Onion (Indianapolis:
Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971), 251; Helen Lawrenson, Whistling Girl (Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
1978), 88.
77
Hammond and Townsend, John Hammond on Record, 67.

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Jazz and the Popular Front

Party sponsored dances and shows, and at the Communist resort, Camp Unity.78 Jazz
historian John Chilton quotes an unnamed musician from Cafe Society as saying At
Cafe Society, Frankie Newton, who could be a very serious guy, would get some
listeners round him, and hed talk about pretty deep subjects like the economics of
Marcus Garveys return to Africa scheme, or The Soviet Five Year Plan.79 In
another context, Chilton notes that Newton was deeply interested in politics and
often propounded left-wing views.80 Dizzy Gillespie also remembered Newton as
being very outspoken politically.81 Furthermore, Cotton Club dancer and
Communist Party activist Howard Stretch Johnson wrote in his autobiography
that Newtons politics inspired Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm to write The Jazz
Scene82 under the pseudonym Frances Newton:
Sir Eric Hobsbawm, leading British Marxist political scientist did a book on African
American classical music called The Jazz Scene [sic]. It was under the pseudonym,
Francis Newton. From curiosity, knowing that Frankie Newtons real name was
Francis, I wrote Sir Eric asking had he used that name Francis Newton after
Frankie. He replied, Yes, because Frankie was the only Black Marxist in jazz that I
know. I had spent many pleasant hours with Frankie when he had an all-star band
that included my dear friend and magnificent pianist, Calvin Jackson, on piano at
Camp Unity discussing the class and the ass struggle. I also informed Sir Eric that
there were many more Black Marxists in the jazz field.83

Other performing artists at Cafe Society may also have had ideological
commitments to the left-wing movement. In her autobiography, In Person Lena
78

See, for example, John Chilton, Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz (Hong Kong: Macmillan Press,
1987), 144. Newton performed with his Cafe Society Orchestra at the Young Communist Leagues 1943
convention, Unity Dance. Daily Worker, October 15, 1943, 6. He again performed with the Cafe
Society Orchestra on Saturday, November 6, at the Freedom Follies, a weekly revue and dance
produced for, of, and by young people sponsored by The N.Y. State Organizing Committee,
American Youth for Democracy. Daily Worker, October 30, 1943, 6, and Daily Worker, October 31,
1943, 6.
79
John Chilton, Billies Blues (London: Quartet Books, 1975), 67. These were topics that any active
Communist Party member would have been quite conversant with.
80
Chilton, Sidney Bechet, 119.
81
Dizzy Gillespie, To Be, or Not to Bop: Memoirs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 287. Gillespie
was himself well acquainted with the left-wing movement, and for a time he held membership in the
Communist Party (although he later claimed that he joined the party for work-related reasons rather than
ideological concerns). Other members of Gillespies family also appear to have been involved in
progressive politics. For instance, in his autobiography, Howard Stretch Johnson remembered
Gillespies brother as a leader of the Cheraw chapter of the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America
(UNAVA), an advocacy group for black veterans that was initiated by Communist Party activists in
the years following World War II. Johnson writes: In Cheraw, Dizzy Gillespies brother was the key man
in organizing its [UNAVA] chapter. The Gillespie family had a long history of struggle against the
crackers and helping every positive thing that took place in the community. Part of this heritage
explained to me why Dizzy had always been such a great admirer of Paul Robeson and rarely spoke in
interviews or even at his jazz performances without mentioning what a great man he felt Paul Robeson
was. Howard Johnson, unpublished manuscript for autobiography, n.d., 101. I am grateful to Wendy
Johnson who supplied me with a copy of her father Howard Johnsons unpublished autobiography.
82
Francis Newton (a.k.a. Eric Hobsbawm), The Jazz Scene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1960;
reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975).
83
Howard Johnson, unpublished autobiography, 103.

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Horne, singer Lena Horne remembered performing for political benefits while
employed at Cafe Society:
The surprises rained down upon me thick and fast. As I recall it, I was first left
open-mouthed by the other performers in the cast [at Cafe Society]. Id never met
Negroes like them before.
I got my first inkling that they were different when one of them came to me
about my second week on the job [at Cafe Society] and said, Say Lena, weve got a
request here to do a benefit next Monday night. Theres a bunch of people [who]
want to raise some money to force the landlords in Harlem to do something
besides collect rent. Want to go up there and sing for em?
This was to be the first of many, many benefits I was to play with the Cafe
Society cast. At Cafe Society, as with any other company, we did benefits that
would be good publicity for the house. However, I was to learn that these
performers gave most of their spare-time efforts to organizations which were
fighting to help themto help all our people.
I can still remember my astonishment on that initial Monday evening. The
address we were given was a big, barren, drafty hall in Harlem. When I arrived the
place was jammed to overflowing.
It was a long program, and very little of it was entertainment. Oh, I sang the two
numbers Id prepared and the others in the Cafe Society company played their
instruments, but everybody else on the platform made a speech.
The quality and content of those speeches baffled me. Some of them were
impressive and legal-sounding and some of them were in simple, easy words that
anyone could understand. But every single one of themwhether the speaker was
black or whitewas a denunciation of the very things I had been complaining
about. It seemed that all these people were holding a meeting to talk about the
housing conditions we hated so, and to organize to do something about them.
And the audience roared its approvalpoured its pennies and nickels and dimes
into the hats that were passed around like a church collection.
While one part of my mind listened, another part of it was saying, I like this. I
dont believe it, but I hope its true. I dont know what its all about, but I like it.84

The pianist Teddy Wilson and the singer Billie Holiday were two other major
African American entertainers who became involved in the left-wing milieu around
the time of their tenures at Cafe Society.85 For example, in 1941, just months after
finishing her engagement at Cafe Society, Holiday was billed to sing the anti-lynching
song Strange Fruit86 to 75,000 unionists at a Communist-led May Day
84

Lena Horne, Helen Arstein, and Carlton Moss, In Person Lena Horne (New York: Greenberg
Publishers and Ambassador Books, 1950), 174177.
85
Billie Holiday worked at Cafe Society, with short interruptions, from the clubs opening in December
1938 until November 1939, and again from October 17, 1940, until December 24, 1940. With the
exception of the period from mid-February 1941 through May 1941, Teddy Wilson was at Cafe Society
and Cafe Society (Uptown) almost without interruption from the week of June 30, 1940, until the week
of May 20, 1944.
86
Holiday first introduced Strange Fruit into her performances while working at Cafe Society. The
song was a powerful statement of protest against the racist practice of lynching, and it represents a clear
link between the left-wing movement of the late 1930s and the jazz world. Written by Abel Meeropol, a
union activist and Communist Party member, the song also proved to be a pivotal part of Holidays
repertoire. For more on Strange Fruit and its historical significance, see David Margolick, Strange
Fruit (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000).

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Jazz and the Popular Front

demonstration in which the main slogans were against involvement in the war in
Europe. According to the Daily Worker, 10,000 ILGWU members attended the
demonstrationdefying the orders of ILGWU President David Dubinsky to stay
away.87
In 1940, Holidays association with the left-wing milieu attracted the attention of
FBI agents, who, in August of that year, forced the singer to remove The Yanks Are
Not Coming, an anti-war song associated with the Communists, from her
performances at Kellys Stables, a well-known swing club.88 New York Amsterdam
News columnist Bill Chase wrote of the incident, saying that FBI agents got wind of
it and had the management restrain Miss Holiday from singing this type of song.
Just why its hard to say, except possibly that they felt it was very un-American for a
Negro to sing a pacifist song.89
As noted, Teddy Wilson also became an active participant in the left-wing
movement. In a 1988 interview with historian Gerald Horne, Howard Stretch
Johnson went so far as to describe Wilson as the Marxist Mozart.90 Similarly, in his
autobiography, Johnson again writes, we used to call Teddy Wilson a Marxist
Mozart in Mocha.91 According to Denning, Wilson was
a key figure in Cafe Society circles, both musically and politically. By the time Cafe
Society opened, he was already the Jackie Robinson of swing, the first black
musician in a white big band, appearing with Benny Goodman92. Wilson taught
jazz at the left-wing Metropolitan Music School, appeared at New Masses benefits,
[and] took part in the Russian War Relief benefit organized by Marc Blitzstein,
Music at Work, in May 1942.93

In 1943, Teddy Wilson became the chairman of the Artists Committee to elect
Communist leader Ben Davis to New Yorks City Council. In this capacity, Wilson
brought a large number of artists, many of whom had worked at Cafe Society, into the
campaign to elect the Communist councilman. In the words of Gerald Horne, Teddy
Wilson, who was chair of Daviss Artists Committee, played a key role in getting Lena
Horne, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Billie

87

For May Day, Daily Worker, May 1, 1941, 7; 75,000 in May Day March for Peace, Daily Worker,
May 2, 1941, 1.
88
Holiday was between stints at Cafe Society. This phrase (i.e., The Yanks are not coming) was a
slogan advanced by Communists during the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 19391941. See Fried,
Communism in America, 241.
89
All Ears, New York Amsterdam News, August 31, 1940, 11.
90
Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 352n54.
91
Ibid.
92
As Whitney Balliett has written, Wilson joined the Goodman band in 1936, and stayed three years.
Jess Stacey was Goodmans regular pianist, so Goodman had Wilson appear only with the trio and, later,
the quartet. It was a courageous time for Wilson. He was the first black musician to be attached to a big
white jazz bandthe big white jazz band, in fact. He was cheered on the bandstand but off the stand was
relegated to colored hotels and boarding houses. Balliett, Goodbyes, 50.
93
Denning, Cultural Front, 339.

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Holiday, Jimmy Lunceford, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Lucky Roberts, Josh White,
Pearl Primus, and Fredi Washington to express public support for Davis.94
Finally, it appears that the relationship first established in the early 1930s between
at least some members of the jazz community and the Communist Party may have
continued into the 1950s and perhaps beyond. In 1952, saxophonist Charlie Parker
and drummer Max Roach played a benefit dance in Harlems Rockland Palace for
Communist leader Ben Davis. According to jazz writer Gary Giddins,
The event was a benefit for Benjamin Davis who was the last Communist to hold
elected office in the United States. In a trial that flagrantly violated due process,
Davis was sentenced to five years for advocating the violent overthrow of the
country. The case became a cause cele`bre on the left. Bird played four or five sets
that night, with his quintet as well as the strings, and he was robust.95

According to Gerald Horne, the presence of leading jazz figures at the Communist
benefit
was not atypical. Just before this event [i.e., the benefit at Rockland Palace], Miles
Daviss Orchestra, with J.J. Johnson and Sonny Rollins, played at the preconvention
dance of the New York Labor League, a fraternal organization allied with the party.
Miles Davis was blunt about this group [saying of them]: Theyre on the ball. They
know whats happening.96

Conclusion
To sum up, Harlem was not only a key geographic center of an emergent and
developing jazz music scene during the Depression years, it was also a highly
politicized community and a major center of activity for the left-wing movement of
the day. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1930s a vibrant and dynamic
relationship developed between jazz and politics, eventually spreading and having
ramifications far beyond Harlems black community. The Scottsboro campaign of
1932 to 1934 marked the first major involvement of the Communist Party in the lives
of Harlems residents, and several leading jazz figures performed at rallies and
concerts in support of the jailed youths. In the years that followed, from the mid1930s into the 1940s, several more leading swing musicians took part in the growing
Popular Front milieu and its activities. As the Popular Front movement grew, and as
swing became more and more popular among mainstream Americans, political
events that were sponsored by Popular Front organizations began to feature jazz
musicians with increasing frequency, both within Harlems black community and

94

Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 108; see also Paul Robeson to Head Cast at the Ben Davis Victory
Show Tomorrow, Daily Worker, October 23, 1943, 7. Michael Denning describes the mobilization of
support for Daviss 1943 election campaign as the apex of the jazz Popular Front, Denning, Cultural
Front, 334.
95
Giddins, Celebrating Bird, 113.
96
Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 250.

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elsewhere. New Yorks first major nightclub with a policy of racial integration, Cafe
Society, was established in downtown Manhattan by active participants in the
Popular Front, and the venue became a prominent gathering spot for participants in
the left-wing movement.
Among the jazz musicians who were involved in this milieu, there were widely
varying degrees of commitment to the political movement and its organizations. For
some, their involvements in the Popular Front involved little more than performing
at left-wing gatherings, or providing interviews for publications such as the Daily
Worker. For otherssuch as Frankie Newton or Teddy Wilsonthere appears to
have been a much higher level of commitment to the politics or organizations of the
Popular Front movement, and sometimes the Communist Party itself.97 In the words
of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, There were a bunch of musicians more socially
minded, who were closely connected to the Communist Party. Those guys stayed
busy wherever labor was concerned.98 Howard Stretch Johnson (who joined the
Communist Party in 1938 and quickly rose to become a leading member) later
recalled the heady mix of politics and expressive popular culture that permeated the
Harlem Communist Party during the Popular Front era. As he put it, Being a
communist in Harlem was like being the swinging present [sic] and the swinging
future simultaneously you were enjoying all the boogying and boozing and
everything in the present, while you had your socialist perspective to give you
inspiration to continue.99
Abstract
This paper locates the jazz music of the 1930s and 1940s within the context of the
radical political movement of that era. During the Depression, Americas preeminent African American community, Harlem, underwent a profound political
transformation, emerging as a center of the left-wing Popular Front social
movement. Many of Harlems residents, especially among the communitys
intelligentsia, found themselves attracted to the left-wing milieu centered around
the Communist Party. By the late 1930s, Communist-led organizations in Harlem
and elsewhere were frequently featuring jazz bands at their social functions and
benefits. It was in this context that many musicians, including several of the most
prominent jazz musicians and bandleaders of the Swing Era, became actively engaged
in the left-wing milieu of the 1930s and 1940s.

97

In this paper, I have intentionally avoided discussions of the impact of the Popular Front on the formal
content of jazz music itself and the ways that the political discourse of that movement was reflected in the
music and its reception. These issues remain a matter of ongoing research.
98
Gillespie, To Be, or Not to Bop, 287.
99
Quoted in Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 5354.