American Modernity:

Jazz Rhythms and Machine Aesthetics

By Joel Dinerstein



Much of the recent scholarship on modernism and modernity focuses on literature and visual media,[1] but it is just as true that "[t]he twentieth century was built for the ear." To understand the transformation from an agrarian to an urban society, from a natural to industrial workplace, from acoustic to electric instruments, from live performance to mechanical reproduction, we must explore how people negotiated what art historians call the "machine aesthetics" of industrial society. One essayist recently suggested we "plug in the headphones and listen—to cable cars ... Jupiter rockets, surgical banter, steam locomotives, punch clocks: the work songs of the whole carbon-based enterprise." The enormous aural adaptation required of the human system has only recently engaged scholars—perhaps because "sonic memories are at once more primal than visual ones ... and more evanescent."[2]

            The historian of science Emily Thompson calls the new sonic barrage of the early twentieth century "the soundscape of modernity," and shows the "dramatic transformation" in the urban aural experience between 1900-1933. In 1896, the noises of the cities werestill agrarian and natural: horse-drawn vehicles, animals, churchbells, peddlers. In 1929, the top ten most unpleasant noises for urbanites were "machine-age inventions," according to a comprehensive report compiled by the Noise Abatement Commission of NewYork: trucks, car horns, trolley cars, pneumatic drills, riveters, and radios (in stores and homes). Nearly two-thirds of residents' specific complaints fit under three categories: traffic, transportation, radios. "The air belongs to the steady air of themotor," declared a writer in a 1925 essay entitled "Noise." The musicologist John Blacking has famously defined music as "humanly-organized sound"; in this essay I will show why jazz musicians must be considered the artistic innovators who organized the noise of machine-age civilization into artistic form.[3]

            Industrial sounds, rhythms, and systems represent a significant social and cultural revolution in daily life in the industrial period (1865-1939). I will focus primarily on the machine aesthetics in swing music and dance but a specifically African-American inquiry into technological society can be said to have begun with the collective creation of "The Ballad of John Henry” in the 1880s.[4] "Technological" here refers not only to industrial innovations and mechanical rhythms, but also to the on-going changes in human perception brought on by the experience of modernity.[5] Much of African-American musical practice before 1945 can be said to have been created for the dancehall with the intent to provide these social functions: (1) social bonding through music and dance, (2) an opportunity to create an individual style within a collective form, and (3) a dense rhythmic wave that imparts "participatory consciousness" for the audience. All three combine to a set of practices musicologist Charles Keil simply calls "grooving."[6] A generation before the development of a musical vocabulary for instruments that were themselves machines (i.e., electric guitars and basses)—and a generation before musique concrète—jazz musicians had tamed the industrial soundscape into a drive-train for a national dance pulse.

Yet historians of technology assume a mostly European canon of machine-age modernist art: the manifestos of the Italian futurists; the paintings and sculpture of artists like Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp; Bauhaus and International Style architecture, as practiced by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe; the paintings of Ferdinand Leger and the Russian constructivists; the American Precisionist school of painting (e.g., Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth); the films and novels that project fears of overmechanization (Metropolis, Modern Times, Brave New World).[7] Yet European machine-age modernists were artistically motivated more by machine worship and modernist rebellion than aesthetic integration and continuity. The Italian Futurists were "obsessed with breaking away from the past," and envisioned the future as a powerful automobile speeding away from European artistic traditions and social conventions.[8] Architects Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier dreamed of mass producing houses as Henry Ford produced cars, and the latter referred to himself as an "industrialist" in 1920. French modernist painter Francis Picabia saw in the machine "a model for his own behavior," and famously sketched individual Americans as machines (e.g., his "Portrait of a Nude American Woman" is a spark plug). For these artists, machine aesthetics were embraced as new social values, and "[t]echnology involved a commitment to such values as order, precision, power, motion, and change."[9]

            The unifying aesthetic principle of machine-age modernism was "flow," or rhythmic flow. Art historian Terry Smith has analyzed the process by which painters and photographers rendered machine aesthetics beautiful to the eye, and dance scholar Hillel Schwartz has shown how machines influenced the emergence of a new "twentieth century kinesthetic" in dance. Whether in Taylorist motion studies or motion pictures, in the assembly-line or automatic phonographs, in the ideals of modern dancers or the graceful, banked curves of an airplane in flight—these scholars perceive a quest for continuous, efficient, flowing, forward motion. "In each case, one sought a natural, fluid transition from step to step, frame to frame, task to task, bar to bar," Schwartz observes. By 1930, for example, modern dancers and progressive educators dismissed the staccato motion of nineteenth century physical training methods such as gymnastics and ballet as "antique, highly technical" and too "mechanically systematic"; they were forms that "promot[ed] not autonomy, but automata."[10]

            The model for industrial flow in the early twentieth century was the assembly line, which was the centerpiece of the enormouslypopular tours of the Ford River Rouge industrial plant in the 1920s. Before the assembly line, mechanics worked in teams around a workbench. Then between 1908 and 1913, Ford's production engineers and senior mechanics realized that if you placed benches end to end and ran a conveyor belt across them, you could create a more uniform pace for workers: it would speed up the slow workers and slow down the fast ones. Imagine setting up dozens of workbenches end to end, replacing the table-tops with a moving conveyor belt, and lining up the workers alongside, and you have the perpetual motion of the assembly line. The same ideal of rhythmic flow was already present in motion pictures, and Smith sees the assembly line as itself cinematic: workers are framed in a single, specialized job and then sequenced, just as individual photographic frames become motion pictures. In 1913, a writer from American Machinist began his description of the assembly of Model Ts with the disclaimer that it could only be rendered accurately "with a modern moving-picture machine."[11]

            In a similar quest for rhythmic flow, Bauhaus architects and the creators of streamlined design eliminated all ornament from their work to emulate the clean, straight lines and flowing masses familiar to functional engineering forms, like grain elevators, ocean liners andthe steel skeleton construction of Chicago-school skyscrapers.[12] Gone were the gingerbread bric-a-brac of the Victorian aesthetic, the exposed industrial workings of the machines from the "gear-and-girder" era, or the regal, brick-solid symmetry of beaux-arts architecture. Machine-age modernist photographers and painters then "aestheticized" the machine by "stilling [its] motion... excluding the human, implying an autonomy to the mechanical, then seeking a beauty of repetition, simplicity, regularity of rhythm, clarity of surface."[13] For example, in his influential paintings Classic Landscape (1930) and American Landscape (1931), Charles Sheeler represented the centralized power of mass production of Ford's River Rouge plant through precise, controlled, flat renderings of smoke stacks, steel pipes, trains, and even mounds of industrial slag. In displaying the new mechanical order, both Sheeler and fellow painter Charles Demuth nearly always "omitted people from their technological landscapes."[14]

            Was there any way for human beings to participate in these new technological landscapes? Only Diego Rivera's murals and Lewis Hine’s photographs integrated human beings into artistic visions of industrial society in this period. In Rivera’s immense murals of the assembly line at River Rouge, the workers are individuated (many were the artist's friends), rendered with dignity, clothed in distinct styles, and shown cooperating within the bowels of the great industrial machine. The central mural on the South Wall features an enormous stamp press producing fenders out of long sheets of steel while workers attach cylinder head covers and other parts to the engine block. Produced in 1931 at the new Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, Rivera interweaved machines and workers as if they were the intestines of a freshly-minted Meso-American body politic reigned over by Aztec gods who—like foremen—supervised the unification of the four races (white, black, red, yellow) in the same way industrial processes turned raw materials into mass produced goods. In envisioning a productive synergy of the natural and mechanical orders, and a perceived unification of the "North" with the "South," Rivera’s was a rare optimistic vision of New World humanity in the Depression built around what he called "the collective hero, man-and-machine."[15] Less cosmically, Lewis Hine’s acclaimed photographs of the Empire State Building’s construction workers suggested human beings at home in the immaterial ether. Sitting on girders suspended in space, the workers entrance us with visions of skyscraper castles in the air. The workers converse, eat lunch and weld steel at altitudes most people are still thrilled simply to look out from.

Rivera and Hine provide visions of men at work, not at play or in creative engagement with the new technological regime. Butmen, women and children participated in technological landscapes in riding trains, trolleys and cars, and in using such common devices as sewing machines and telephones. As Thorstein Veblen theorized at the turn of the twentieth century, by their work as"attendants" of machines, Americans by necessity adapted to machine imperatives.[16] For example, in The Octopus (1901), Frank Norris describes the jolt of machines to thehuman frame, implying that any California farmhand running a thresher sat at the threshold of a new human-machine interface. “Underneath him was the jarring, jolting, trembling machine; not a clod was turned ... that he did not receive the swift impression of it through his body, the very friction of the damp soil, sliding incessantly from the shiny surface of the shears, seemed to reproduce itself in his finger-tips and along the back of his head.”[17] Not through art or deep play, not through choice or volition, but through the workplace and the industrial city people learned (and had to learn) to adapt minds and bodies to machines.

A set of machine aesthetics evolved simply because humans need to make sense—and beauty—of any environment. Victorians found it difficult to conceive of machines as objects of artistic beauty, and even exhibited triumphs such as the Corliss Engine or the Crystal Palace were seen as feats of engineering. Observers may have felt what David Nye has called the "technological sublime"—awe in the face of unimaginable power—but neither artists nor writers had yet conceived of an aesthetic vocabulary of stylization.[18] Machines were still associated with materialism, dirt, capitalism, noise, and physical exertion. But in the transformation of an agrarian society to an industrial one, and from natural metaphor to mechanical metaphor, it was a matter of survival to aesthetically organize noise, power, and repetition, and to adapt to the new demands upon the human organism.

            Thorstein Veblen first theorized such an adjustment by workers to the rhythms, requirements and aesthetics of factory work in his discussions of "the machine process" in The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) and The Instinct of Workmanship (1914).[19] Veblen argued that people who worked with machines adapted themselves to the pace and time of machines; they came more and more to admire mechanical qualities and adjusted to the merits of mass production. A worker was more a shepherd than an artisan; the machine was the superior worker, the human being its assistant. "Perfection in the machine technology is attained in the degree in which the given process can dispense with manual labor; whereas perfection in the handicraft system means perfection of manual workmanship... [The workman needs] to adapt his movements with mechanical accuracy to its requirement."[20] Veblen did not at all question the effect of factory work on individual human bodies, but his perception of such a shift remains important.

Yet human work directed by a machine threatened something essentially human and offended workers across class, gender, ethnicity and epoch. The Lowell "factory girls" of the 1840s despised the "ceaseless din" of the belts, wheels and springs in constant motion; the skilled machinists of the 1890s loathed the stopwatch of the Taylorist consultant; the striking General Motors workers of the 1930s resented the tyranny of “the line.” Even the prosperous, unionized Cold War assembly-line nine-to-fivers who enjoyed the lifestyle made possible by well-paid factory work always complained of working at “the machine’s pace."[21] Such dissatisfaction peaked in the Depression as the economic reality of what was then called "technological unemployment" dimmed the national pride in technological progress.

Early industrial researchers into "the human motor" (as it was called in the nineteenth century) or "the human machine" (as many doctors referred to the body) cared little about their workers’ lives and studied only how to maximize productivity over a ten-to-twelve-hour shift.[22] Businessmen were only concerned with how to get the most of the human machine, or of the factory "hand." (In the revealing trope of the hand, the body part is both reduced to a mechanical aid and becomes a metonym for the whole human being.) Two crucial philosophical questions were never raised by these nineteenth century professionals: (1) How can a human being reclaim his or her human motor from workplace demands?; (2) How can a person integrate the newly revved-up machine-driven human motor into the entire human organism? In looking back at the obsession with speed at the turn of the twentieth century, James Gleick astutely perceived the subtext: "Why not change the speed of the human machine as well?"[23]

            In 1929, the prominent American technological analyst Stuart Chase first began to see and hear machine-age modernism. In Men and Machines (1929), he identified the machine aesthetics in modernity that cultural forms needed to reflect and contain: "mass, size, speed, fleeting images, repetition, sharpness of line; oral experiences of the staccato, precise timing, and rhythm of completed operation." These then are machine aesthetics: power, speed, repetition, precision, efficiency, rhythmic flow. Chase quoted an American art critic who found "the interaction of the machine on art" in forms such as cubism, futurism, streamlining, jazz, skyscraper bookcases, "modern plane and angle furniture, and new color combinations in factories." These remain the basic forms: Futurist and Cubist painting, jazz, streamlined design, the skyscraper, Bauhaus architecture and planar furniture. Chase was still tentative about these forms but admitted that skyscrapers, photography, motion pictures, automobile design, airplanes, and mass-produced goods suggested some hope for "art … in the Power Age."[24]


Swinging the Machine


In 1938, columnist Damon Runyon wrote that swing music's dynamic noise echoed "the sounds of the machine shop," and that this "violent" strain in the music was an important element in its cross-generational popularity. Runyon didn't like swing but had to admit it was "the most tremendous vogue of any style, form or system of noise-making in the history of the USA." American youth were "lunatics on swing music.... [and] old folks, too, are pretty much swing-minded." Like many other observers, Runyon was shocked to find that swing bands outdrew the movies at urban cinema palaces, and that young swing fans hooted for the movie to end. After watching a Mae West movie lose out to "the huffle-scuffle of Mr. Goodman's following," Runyon quipped that it was the first time "Miss West ever ran second to a slide trombone."[25]

            Benny Goodman, the so-called "King of Swing," recalled the crucial aesthetics of the first wave of swing popularity: "the essence of swing was drive and power." What Runyon called "the sounds of the machine shop," Benny Goodman called "high-pressure powerhouse thumpings." The new swing-era rhythm section "hammered out" the "power of swing," and chased the "sweet music" of the early Depression away; the band "pounded away at the audience" using massed sections of instruments and "jungle-style drums." The music was made more exciting by its unpredictability, by "the sound of surprise," and "the excitement of improvisation transmit[ted] itself to the audience with the certainty of an electric spark." What Damon Runyon called the swing "vogue," Goodman called "the swing gospel."[26]

             Otis Ferguson, the jazz critic of the New Republic, also caught the interplay between big bands, human bodies, and machines. Upon leaving a Benny Goodman show in New York in December 1936, Ferguson recalled that he could still hear the music "ringing under the low sky" and pulsating beneath his feet, "as if it came from the American ground under these buildings, roads, and motorcars (which it did)." The Goodman band created a "clangor in the ears" that pumped "the air ... full of brass and of rhythms you can almost lean on" (or dance with). Veteran swing bassist Gene Ramey riffed on the big band machine this way: "No [big] band was great unless it had a strong rhythm section. It had to have a motor."[27]

            "Swing is the tempo of our time," a New York Times declared enthusiastically in 1938, and the nation's third controversy on jazz was engaged.[28] Was the music a healthy, vigorous outlet or a "manifestation of ... restless hysteria"? If everyone agreed that swing was "a reflection of the American emotional state," did that indicate a healthy exuberance and energetic optimism?[29] Or were Americans irrationally drawn to repetitive sounds and mechanical dances, motor behavior that suggested trance-like behavior and indicated passivity? Or did swing represent the exact opposite, "a protest against mechanization," as one psychologist claimed, a release from the drab monotony of the machine age?"[30] The answer can only be yes.

Big band swing was a synthesis of the two dominant jazz forms of the 1920s: the rhythmic drive of New Orleans music and the "symphonic jazz" espoused by Paul Whiteman's orchestras. Whiteman muffled the pulse and surprise of New-Orleans-based syncopation to achieve a grander symphonic vision that rhythmically retained only what was then called the "businessman's bounce." Gilbert Seldes approved Whiteman's achievement in 1924: "All the free, the instinctive, the wild in negro jazz, which could be integrated into the music, he has kept; he has ...worked his material until it runs sweetly in his dynamo, without grinding or scraping. It becomes the machine which conceals the machinery."[31] Just as streamlined design hid the inner workings of industrial machines, Whiteman's symphonic jazz hid the self-expression and call and response of jazz in its muted horns, soft rhythms and lack of improvisation. On the eve of Benny Goodman's triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, the New York Times specifically delineated what had been hidden to enable the rise of symphonic jazz to respectability:"It had disowned and erased from its memory its forebears.... the darky workers on the levees of the lower Mississippi, the hell-holes of New Orleans, the riverboat bands... Memphis and the blues, the sawdust and smoke-beery air of the Chicago joints."[32] As Seldes astutely perceived, it was a slick artistic "machine which conceal[ed] the [creative] machinery."

            The musicians of one of the best Euro-American big bands of the 1920s, the Jean Goldkette band, were torn between players who preferred the Whiteman style and those who "had a looser [i.e., jazz] style." Arranger Bill Challis was on the "jazz" side of the argument, and summed up the schism this way: "You couldn't make the one [jazz] ... go over into their [Whiteman] type of thing, which had been very, very successful." That is an understatement: Whiteman had an amazing 169 hits between 1920 and 1930, yet almost no hits after March of 1936. By mid-decade, symphonic jazz had lost its hold on Depression-era Americans. Benny Goodman took the nation by storm with brilliant soloists like Teddy Wilson, Harry James, Lionel Hampton (and himself) all grounded in drummer Gene Krupa's "rock-solid foundation."[33]

            New Orleans jazz guitarist Danny Barker remembered the early 1930s as the moment small-unit jazz bands turned into big band "machines." In the 1920s, in small-unit New-Orleans jazz bands (like King Oliver’s band or Jelly Roll Morton’s Stompers), the guitar players and banjo players participated as independent musical voices. The banjoist or guitarist helped the drummer keep the rhythm, but also took as many solos (or "breaks") as the clarinetists or cornetists in the melodic front line. One day, Barker looked around and noticed that "all the virtuoso guitar and banjo players weren't working”; they were "out there scufflin'" or scraping by "working in dives."[34] The new guitar stars were rhythm guitarists, like John Trueheart in Chick Webb's band, "who was the master and boss of rhythm. Everybody remarked how great he was.... He was a master. He would never take a solo, maybe a little break." In the newer, larger, big bands, "[y]ou wouldn't be no virtuoso." The era of the rhythm section had arrived, and the guitarist had become a rhythm provider, or, to adapt African-American musicians' vernacular, a "foundation-maker."[35]

            "You sat down with the bass player, the piano player and the drummer," Barker remembered, "you got together and you had a machine going there." The big bands of fourteen or more musicians needed four instruments just to create enough strong, loud, steady, stylized mechanical rhythm to provide percussive grounding for the horn sections and keep them on-task. Fletcher Henderson's band featured guitarist Clarence Holiday (Billie Holiday's father), who was "no virtuoso, but... the pivot in the band; he was the solid foundation in the band." There was Buddy Johnson in Harlem's Charlie Johnson's band, "who ... didn't have much to say, [just] tended to business." The new integrated function of the guitarist was to be one of the pistons providing engine-like power to drive the big band train.[36]

            New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet perceived the same set of changes less favorably. Big bands had turned his beloved New Orleans music into a flashy machine whose arranged power mattered more than the creativity and improvisation of the individual musicians. To Bechet, bandleaders sold their personalities rather than the music, and arrangements moved jazz towards a written-score-centered set of musical practices. "They've got themselves a kind of machine. And so to make sense out of whatever it is the machine is doing, they get a whole lot of composers and arrangers to write it all down, just the way the machine is supposed to run." Gone was the conversation of one musician to another of the small New Orleans units, "all that freedom, all that feeling a man's got when he's playing next to you." Bechet compared big band arrangements to "running a ball through a pinball machine"; with fourteen to eighteen men, "you've got a whole lot of noise." For Bechet, the big band sound removed the Black historical experience from the music. "Those new musicianers, they lack the memory of it."[37]

It is significant that, according to Barker and Bechet, big band swing was not New Orleans music. I am suggesting here that swing musicians were in dialogue with the cultural desires of the entire nation. The new musical role of the guitarist, for example, had social and cultural ramifications. "I found out that you keep appearance and watch the clock and be on time," Barker remembered about big band success. "You had to be competent and you had not to be an obnoxious character." Musicians admired Clarence Holiday as much for his cool, urbane style as his guitar work: "He was immaculate... and neat and cool." Neither Holiday nor Johnson nor Trueheart had "much to say" on their guitars—i.e., they did not solo much—but they played crisp, immaculate four quarter notes to the bar in 4/4 rhythm, and kept big bands on track.[38]

            Despite big-band swing's enormous popularity, there is little cultural analysis on why bands nearly doubled in size (from an average of eight to an average of sixteen), why the section superseded the soloist in importance, why the groove was smoothed out. "[S]wing music was the answer for the American—and very human—love of bigness," Marshall Stearns theorized in 1955. Thirty years later, James Lincoln Collier added only that "it was a time when leaders and fans liked a lot of power."[39] Why bigness? Why power? Because the tempo of life was increasing as mechanicalrhythms pervaded the workplace and urban environments. It seems logical Americans would choose music—"the temporal art par excellence"[40]—as the art form to negotiate the shift from a natural/agrarian environment to an industrial/mechanical one.

            There were two major structural changes from small-unit jazz to big-band swing: first, the different massed sections (trumpets, trombones, saxophones) "talked" back and forth, building up rhythmic tension only to release it; second, the rhythmic underpinning became much more sophisticated.[41] As arrangers, Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson perfected the call and response of the sections by the late 1920s, but smoothing out the rhythmic groove took about six years (approximately 1928-1934). There were three main elements: string basses replaced tubas; guitars replaced banjos; drummers like Jo Jones transferred the time-keeping from the heavy, thudding bass drum to the light, shimmering high-hat cymbal.[42] By the time this groove revolution was complete, one jazz scholar could compare dancing to Count Basie's rhythm section with "riding on ball bearings."[43]

            One veteran trumpeter of the early 1920s defined "swing tempo" as "feeling an increase in tempo though you're still playing at the same tempo." A jazz critic of the time defined swing as "an exhilarating rhythmic feeling created around a fundamental pulse that suggests—but does not actually realize—a quickening of tempo."[44] In other words, swing tempo is deceptively fast, a musical illusion produced by playing what jazz musicians call "on top of the beat," as if pushing the music forward. It was also called "the push beat" or the "kick-your-ass beat"; Albert Murray calls the "velocity of celebration."[45] This illusion was provided by a resilient, flexible rhythm section playing four even beats to the bar, freeing soloists to soar away from the ground beat; the jerky two-beat syncopation of the 1920s dissolved into "a more flowing, streamlined four-beat rhythm."[46]

            Big band swing was also the fastest popular dance music in American history. This is observable through the dance-beat measurement of beats per minute (bpm). March tempo is 120 bpm; ragtime also hovers around this rate, two beats per second. A fast rock'n'roll song might be taken slightly faster, at 140 bpm. The "bpm" measurement was created in order that club DJs in '70s discos could create seamless dance grooves; but disco rarely surpassed 140 bpm. Yet there were dozens of swing tunes above 200 bpm—an amazingly fast tempo—and Chick Webb's "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie" (1936) clocked in at 260 bpm.[47] Two new terms were coined by musicians for these super-fast songs: "flag-wavers" and "killer-dillers."[48] Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom became a must-see tourist stop in the 1930s in part because Euro-Americans wanted to see how African-American lindy hoppers danced gracefully to such fast music.

            As for precision, the instrumental sections reflected gear and piston efficiency. The "section" was the key distinctive structural innovation of big-band swing, and a musician had to learn how to blend in without losing his or her own voice.[49] In big band swing, the average song was only "25% solo" and "to 'swing the sections' was the most important part."[50] For example, three trumpets wouldstand up and play an ensemble passage and try to achieve a sonorous blend of tones. Sections stood up to play in turn, like different parts of the machine kicking into gear.[51] Each section was like a piston and any section musician a part of that piston’s rhythmic drive. A major technical advance of the average 1930s musician was in proficiency and precision. Meanwhile, the arranger who scored the sections became one of the most important members of the big band (and often the highest paid).[52]

            The swing band was also a visual icon: it was, in a sense, a machine built of humans. Swing bands embodied dynamic order visually and musically: fourteen to eighteen men in identical suits sat calmly in sections behind musical desks monogrammed with the company name waiting to explode in a controlled fashion.[53] One fan recalled the excitement of seeing the big band rise out of the orchestra pit as the movie ended at the Paramount:

The stage lights burst aglow and out of the pit rose this marvelous ark filled with 16-20 men, gleaming golden instruments flashing in the spotlights... [T]he band was already pulsating with life, the front sax section filling the hall with sweet notes, the brass setting your ears afire... [drummers] flailing their snares, tom-toms and cymbals, a row of trombonists executing precision drill.[54]

The big band was a machine whose human "workings" were visible to all. It was also a "machine" whose working "humans" often appeared to enjoy their work. Musicians often claimed they were as thrilled to hear Billie Holiday or Chick Webb or Benny Goodman every night as the audiences—or that they looked forward to what the band would produce on any given night.

            The guitarist's new role was a crucial element in swing's modern flow, and in its transition from New Orleans jazz to big band swing. For example, Count Basie's rhythm section was unanimously considered the nation's best (even by other musicians)—i.e., the most fluid, powerful, stable, driving force—and was dubbed "the All-American Rhythm Section." "Basie's rhythm section...was probably the most brilliant percussion combination in jazz history," musicologist Wilfrid Mellers reflected in Music In A New Found Land (1964), and "Basie's music...accepts the consequences of a machine-made world."[55] Yet despite the innovative virtuosity of drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page and pianist Bill Basie, many band members believed the foundation of the band was guitarist Freddie Green. Green "holds things together," Basie admitted, and "kept time" in a lean, efficient fashion. Green’s steadying role was as important as Jones' more famous sizzling hi-hat symbol or Page's powerful walking bass.[56]

            At a 1982 party, veteran bassist Red Mitchell expressed hisrespect for Green for playing "the most swinging quarter notes of anybody ever." He read this short ode to Green and his swing beat:

                        It isn't really rigid metronomic time that counts

                        It's sound and soul, communication, love, support and bounce.

Green responded that he "couldn't have said it better than that." When Mitchell asked for advice, Green told him that no matter who is leading the melody, "the bass player has to live, has to sort of sleep with the groove, make love to it." To "make love" to a groove, mechanical or otherwise, cannot be confused with assembly-line work, despite the common qualities of repetitious motion. Such metaphors remain common among contemporary rhythm section players.[57]


Repetition and Musical Modernity

            Where did the practice of maintaining a functional, evolving, pulsating dance groove in American culture originate? Tricia Rose suggests that the crucial difference between European- and African-derived musics has been in their approach to "the inevitability of repetition." To Europeans, rhythmic repetition was long considered boring and static, in contrast to the goal of "harmonic resolution" and linear melodic narrative. Yet to the Yoruba, for example, repetition represents "stability and predictability," and in drumming, can be experienced as "a steady, unbroken flow." African-derived cultures perceive repetition as "circulation, [and] equilibrium"; in Afrodiasporic musics, there is a constant return to the original rhythm "with a signal difference"—that is, each time something new is added to "the rhythmic and percussive density and organization."[58] Maintaining a dense percussive layer for the purpose of stability provides the conditions by which new rhythms and sounds can be "mixed in" to African-derived musics. African-Americans have managed to create unifying idioms that are recognized as "black" music and dance, yet that continue to absorb other cultural influences and develop aesthetically. As Rose asserts, "Rhythm and polyrhythmic layering is to African and African-derived musics what harmony and the harmonic triad is to Western classical music."

            Logically then, certain stylistic elements of West African dance also lend themselves to integrating new rhythms and gestures, such as repetition, layering, and flow. While visiting West Africa in 1934 for the first time, anthropologist Edward Gorer was stunned by the speed, originality, and power of the dancing. West Africans "dance with a verve, a precision, an ingenuity which no other race can show; the smallest [village] group had its own ballet, distinct in costume, movement and tempo." Watching an afternoon of dance among the Hausa and Pelk peoples, Gorer recalled how one powerful dance of "frenzied rhythmic precision" changed his biological tempo. "It affected me physiologically... my heart beat faster with the mounting rhythm; I forgot my watching body and seemed to dance with the dancers." An awe-struck Gorer wrote that the dance "could only be judged by the highest standards of choreography."[59]

            Musicologist Charles Keil lived among the Tiv peoples of West Africa, where he found that large-scale costume dramas combining music, dance, text and drama were the primary form of culture. Several original full-length "musicals" (so to speak) of social commentary (and critique) were produced every year; groups practiced for six to seven months before their first performance. The aesthetic values in Tiv dance were speed, precision, power, fluidity and "smoothness." In their rehearsals, Keil observed the painstaking effort expended "to achieve perfect synchrony within the line and between the dancers and the drummers." The dance groups "represent[ed] the highest degree of organizational complexity to be found in Tiv society." Out of a total population of one million Tiv, Keil identified between five hundred and one thousand regular composers, more than two hundred full-time dance organizations, and forty to sixty current dance styles. In this one small area of Africa, Keil noted that every small town had its own distinct rhythms, dances, and musical phrases—known to all the surrounding groups—and wondered at the musical complexity of the African continent.[60]

            For the Tiv, as for most Africans, dance is the fundamental artistic expression. "[It] represents the most positive, life-affirming forces and values in Tivland, a powerful collective antidote to the negative or individualistic aspect of tsav [a Tiv term for selfishness]." In 1979 Keil called upon scholars to try to understand Tiv "musico-choreographic" expressive culture on its own terms. "Why apply our spatial-visual-vertical-hierarchical-intellectual games with [to] their temporal-aural-horizontal-egalitarian life energies?.... We should be tapping their energies to ... criticize and revitalize, if possible, our existence." In Tiv dance, the tensions of the individual and the group are mediated; analogously (and not at all essentially), perhaps we might think of African-American music and dance as criticizing and revitalizing American society since the beginnings of jazz and blues.[61]

            As with the Tiv, so with the Yoruba, among whom repetition, improvisation, creativity, and artistic complexity are also highly valued. Anthropologist Margaret Thompson Drewal connects West African and African-American musical approaches through Gates's theory of "signifying." "'To signify' is to revise that which is received," Drewal observes of Yoruba ritual, and "repetition with revision" is one definition of the Yoruba concept of "ere," or "deep play." "Ere" assumes an improvisational performance, "an engaging participatory, transformational process" in which performers and spectators invent scenarios in which they attempt "to disorient [others] and be disoriented, to surprise and be surprised, to shock and be shocked, and to laugh together—to enjoy." For example, "dancers and drummers… negotiate rhythmically with each other, maintaining a competitive interrelatedness." In the "ere" mode, one "test[s] the stuff opponents are made of," and uses the "insight" gained in this test of wits to apply "to any life situation."[62]

            Drewal refers to Yoruba culture as "modernism beyond modernism"—a set of approaches that assumes radical shifts in tempo, complete audience participation, constant improvisation and "vital alertness." Drewal connects this idea of aestheticsurprise with the goal of modernist artists in the West. "Unfixed and unstable, Yoruba ritual is more modern than modernism itself," she claims.[63] In working among the urban Yoruba, anthropologist Christopher Waterman observes the same "modernist" processes at work in "jùjú music," the most popular urban Yoruba musical form from the 1960s through the 1980s. Waterman is fascinated by how this musical idiom contains so much non-Yoruba material, yet manages to remain recognizably Yoruban. In its overlapping rhythmic textures are found "deep Yoruba praise singing and drumming, guitar techniques from soul music, Latin American dance rhythms, church hymns, and country-and western melodies, pedal steel guitar licks and Indian film music themes"—yet jùjú musicians still "effectively evoke traditional values" for its audiences in Nigerian cities. Waterman calls their aesthetic approach a "utilitarian syncretic ideology." As one jùjú bandleader told him, "'You know, our Yoruba tradition is really a modern tradition.'"[64]

            The difference between West African and African-American rhythmic approaches is that the former is conceived in rhythmic sequences, and the latter from a steady pulse—due to the encounter with European music. For example, the steady backbeat of early jazz and rock and roll does not exist in traditional African music. Strong-beat and weak-beat (on-beat/off-beat) notions are related to the "1 and 2 or 3 and 4 in European music," notes a Nigerian scholar who has worked in the United States, and "the African neither makes nor comprehends his music in terms of numerical beats..... [but] in measured idiomatic phrases." African music is more "an idiom—indeed, a language," and is "syntactically conceptualized": rhythms are functional and communicate translatable messages that the in-group can understand. It is always "more than just the pulse in a rhythm," and more akin to "a message as in speech."[65]

            Scholars have suggested that the jazz drummer gradually took on the role of three or four separate drummers in a West African drum ensemble. In the process, however, the polyrhythmic quality of African music became narrowed to a densely textured single rhythm: the inexhaustible 4/4 of swing-time. The adjustment "to the white man's music consisted precisely of translating these polymetric and polyrhythmic points of emphasis into the monometric and monorhythmic structure of European music." Significantly, the standard trap-set (snare, bass drum, tom-tom, hi-hat, cymbals) was developed during the swing era and reflected the growing Africanization of American popular music, as playing "trap drums is [like] being a traditional drum ensemble all by yourself."[66]

Drums are considered both sacred and alive in West African societies: rituals are built upon the foundations laid by drums. According to master drummer Babatunde Olatunji, the combination of drum and drummer creates a medium for cosmic forces due to the synergistic unity of tree-spirit (the body of the drum), animal spirit (the skin) and human spirit (the drummer). The result is "an irresistible force, a trinity, a balance that gives the drum its healing power."[67] According to Grateful Dead drummer and drum scholar Mickey Hart, the rhythmic power to heal emerges from playing "a rhythmic cycle .... over and over" until there is "a foundation you can build on. The stronger the groove the higher the building you can erect."[68]

            The quality of big-band swing that creates the foundation of a dance-hall ritual of mind-body integration was called just that by swing-era musicians: the "foundation" or "foundation quality" of the music. "Foundation" is a trope used by swing-era musicians to describe the ground on which any socially engaged music is built. Many swing-era musicians discuss this "foundation quality" as a palpable physical presence, as if sound waves actually built a platform to walk on. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton claimed that the crucial elements of jazz were accurate tempos, strong riffs, breaks in the music (for solos) and a sense of open space. He defined a piano riff as "what you would call the foundation, as like you would walk on." W.C. Handy was more philosophical: "We [African-Americans] look for truth in music... What we want in music is something to build on."[69] Stride pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith claimed that ragtime pianists "had no left hand," a reference to a renewed emphasis on strong bass rhythm after 1920. Duke Ellington declared simply that any "Negro musician" in his time uses "the black beat [as] his foundation" to reflect the social concerns and aural environment.[70]

            Significantly, the jazz rhythm section—rhythm guitar, bass and drums—was created in the swing era, and specifically between 1928 and 1934. Even the best 1920s jazz bands had "no bottom," according to one of the decade's best arrangers, and the drummer was simply considered a "time-keeper."[71] In these six years, the guitar replaced the banjo, the string bass replaced the tuba, and drummers built the standard trap set as we know it today, adding the high-hat, the tom-tom, cymbals and wire brushes to increase their ability to create a lusher world of sound, to support soloists with different rhythms, and most importantly, "to push big bands around."[72]

            The emergence of individual identities for the string bass and the drummer, and of a new relationship between the two, created the stronger rhythmic "foundation" of swing music. "[T]he foundation ... is rhythm ... and this is between the bass violin and the bass drum, between the two of them," recalled Hinton's partner, Panama Francis. "[They] set the pulsation for people to pat their feet and dance to."[73] Two influential swing-era bassists (Milt Hinton and John Simmons) took up their instrument precisely because it had no identity in jazz in the 1920s; they enjoyed the challenge of creating the sound of their instrument. Often the bass, like the drums, functioned as a noise-maker ora novelty instrument, "a personality [thing]... slapping the bass, you know," recalled Cab Calloway's bassist, Milt Hinton, "single slap, double slap, triple slap, spin the bass."[74]

             In the swing era, a new rhythm foundation was built for American popular music through instruments, relationships between players, and the sound of the "beat" itself. Eddie Durham, arranger and guitarist with Count Basie, described the change from tuba to bass. "Without amplification, a lot of guys weren't strong enough on bass ... [b]ut Walter Page [the Basie bassist] you could hear! He was like a house with a note."[75] As New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds put it: "You can’t get into a locked house without a key, and the drum is the key to the band."[76]

            The drummer's job was to uplift the band, so the band could then better together uplift the audience. According to one swing drummer, his job was to "lift that band, just lift it right off the floor and push it."[77] Jimmie Lunceford's drummer, Jimmy Crawford, explained his role: "Lunceford [brought] ... his stick down for the opening beat, but from then on the drummer had to control the tempo, make the transitions, watch the music, the feet of the dancers, the gestures of the singers, and everything.... [If] I didn't look at the dancers' feet as well as the music, I couldn't make those transitions right."[78] Cozy Cole noted that a drummer must get to know a musician in order to enhance his performance and provide a dialogue with it: "I'm not going to play solo drums behind your solo, but I'm going to feed you a certain foundation that will make you feel good while you're playing."[79]

            The Italian Futurists recognized a rise in the noise level of industrial society and a cultural hunger for more "noise" in music.[80] The fast-but-buoyant swing tempos were developed in response to unarticulated needs of the American dance public for sonic power in a time before electric instruments. The drummer became a star instrumentalist, and drum solos were the highlights of many shows. Gene Krupa was the charismatic teen idol of the Benny Goodman band (and a drum guru for many); Chick Webb was the star, bandleader and emotional flashpoint of the Savoy Ballroom's house band (which launched Ella Fitzgerald). The biggest audience responses at Cab Calloway's energetic concerts were for the drum-solo-based features of Cozy Cole, "Paradiddle" and "Crescendo for Drums."[81]

            In the late nineteenth century, American audiences responded to drumming showmen in many areas of popular culture: in circuses, carnivals and minstrel shows, in military parades and brass marching bands, and as creators of sound effects from the orchestra pit of silent movies.[82] Many swing drummers began at jobs like these (like Jo Jones, Chick Webb and Sonny Greer), or apprenticed with such a drummer.[83] However, in commercial bands, hotel dance bands, and in the classical tradition, the drummer was still mostly a timekeeper.[84] As drummers became the point-men for producing smooth, flowing rhythms that offset—and evened out—the brassy power of big bands, they began to take on roles akin to West African master drummers. In West Africa, the master drummer must be a tempo leader, "ensemble conductor," philosopher, psychologist, "coordinator of dance and song," and the point-man of spiritual uplift.[85]

            In this short survey of West African and African-American cultural practices, I have attempted to show some artistic elements of music and dance (e.g., speed, power, repetition, flow) that provide a background for African-American cultural encounters with "the machine" (abstractly) and with machine aesthetics (concretely).


African-American Popular Modernism

Pre-1945 jazz qualifies as "modernist" art within European ideas of artistic innovation and self-expression, but its artists created music with an entirely different social and aesthetic agenda. African-American swing-era jazz modernists did not consider themselves apart from their audiences, nor in defiance of bourgeois taste or archaicartistic convention. Their goal, more often that not, was to encourage a unifying spirit in a public dance-hall ritual more indebted to a West African aesthetic than either a folk, classical or vaudeville tradition. The artists' most rewarding moments came in-the-moment: when audiences of average people responded with emotion, enthusiasm, and physical grace to their art, it made them play harder and better for the temporary community created by the dance-hall ritual. Like the goal of much West African ritual, the big-band swing dance-hall ritual yokes seemingly opposite social demands together: in this case, a rebellious modernist defiance in aesthetics combined with the unifying act of social dance. As Brian Ward has pointed out, music is the cultural form that mediates between oppositional and assimilationist trends for African-Americans, between resistance and accommodation.[86]

            African-American music is no longer referred to as primitive, folk, or unconscious, yet even an astute scholar like Martha Bayles refers to African-American musicians and dancers as "culturally innocent" of "the attitudes and beliefs of modernism." This is true only if we accept European ideas and ideals of modernism. When Marshall Berman defines the experience of modernity as "a life of paradox and contradiction," one that involves being dominated by "immense bureaucratic organizations," to which modernists must "be undeterred ... to fight to change"—how can African-Americans be "culturally innocent" of such an experience? Berman admires Marx and Dostoevski for speaking to the necessity of "embrac[ing] the modern world's potentialities without loathing and fighting ... its most palpable realities." For African-American artists, this was literally a life or death act, both at an individual and cultural level.[87]

            Swing music and dance is precisely about this very modern tension, but African-American bandleaders consciously attempted to communicate with a popular audience. Black musicians and dancers created and performed within an aesthetic tradition they felt strongly about honoring, not rebelling against. Thus, the cultural production and artistic experimentation of what one might call African-American popular modernism emerged from a non-European set of cultural practices and artistic intentions.

            Duke Ellington's artistic goal was to establish two-way social and aesthetic communication with his audiences. "[I]f a guy plays something and nobody digs it, then he hasn't communicated with the audience. And either he goes somewhere to an audience that does dig him, or else he adjusts what he's doing to the audience that he has." This is not a modernist attitude but a culturally democratic one. When Ellington wrote "improv" or "ad lib" on his scores for trumpeter Cootie Williams or altoist Johnny Hodges to create their own solos, he believed he worked in service to the musicians and audiences. From a Western perspective that valorizes the individual artist, such cooperation makes him a lesser composer; from an American perspective, such an approach seems democratic and populist in striving to create functional music that mediates tension between the individual and the group. "[T]he music of my race ... [is] something which is going to live, something which posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of the music of the ballroom today."[88]

            In the same period, Louis Armstrong similarly identified this artistic tension between individual style and popular reception. In a short 1932 piece written to promote his London performances, Armstrong declared that "the famous musicians and bands all have a style of their own. I determined from the start to cultivate an original style, and … I tried out all sorts of ideas, discarding some, practicing others, until I reached, not perfection, since that is unattainable for the true musician, but the best that was in me." Therein lies his artistry, but communication results only if the audience resonates with that created style. “[T]he real test is entertainment. Does it interest your audience? Of course, you can gradually teach them to appreciate new styles and absorb new ideas, but it must be gradual and they must have no idea that you are 'teaching.'"[89] The call-and-response of Afrodiasporic music contains this performer-audience aspect: the artistic call must earn the audience’s response, or else no "conversation" is taking place.

            Ralph Ellison best expressed this innovating-traditionalist approach of swing-era jazz musicians. Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City, the home-base of the influential territory band, the Oklahoma City Blue Devils; he was also a close personal friend of Jimmy Rushing, the band’s vocalist, and a regular at their performances and jam sessions. Anchored by bassist Walter Page, trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Rushing, and tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the Blue Devils effectively merged with Bennie Moten's band in Kansas City in the early 1930s to form the Count Basie band. I must quote at length to honor the passion (and acute analysis) of Ellison's homage to his own hometown heroes:

These jazzmen ... lived for and with music intensely. Their driving motivation was neither money nor fame, but the will to achieve the most eloquent expression of idea-emotions through the technical mastery of their instruments (which ... some of them wore as a priest wears the cross).... The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization.... [T]he end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition and that this tradition insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame. He must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision. Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form [my emphasis].[90]

If that is not the point of artistic endeavor—and if experimentation with new forms was not a modernist ideal—then these terms are meaningless. Gunther Schuller adds that all black bands knew their limited "options for professional survival,” and balanced artistic and aesthetic concerns with "economic and social" ones. They knew that "a music which cannot attain and then maintain an audience also cannot survive."[91]

Yet the first band to combine raw speed and technical precision was the Euro-American Casa Loma Orchestra, and it was also the only band Downbeat ever labeled as purveyors of "machine jazz." The Casa Loma Orchestra came out of 1920s Detroit—the epicenter of American mass production—and its sound reflected machine aesthetics: fast tempos, precision execution, limited soloing, and a driving-but-stiff rhythm section that produced a "steamroller" effect.[92] Arranger Gene Gifford was a Southerner and trained draftsman whose scores required a high level of technical expertise and exhaustive rehearsals; trombonist Billy Rausch intimidated the band members into playing with "machine-like precision."[93] Black bands admired them: Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra recorded their influential 1930 hit, "Casa Loma Stomp"; Chick Webb's trombonist Sandy Williams admitted that besides Ellington's band, only Casa Loma "really gave us a headache ... I hate to say it, but they outplayed us."[94] Benny Goodman said they were "the band we had started out to buck." They may have been mocked as embracing "[s]oulless efficiency and ... military precision," but their stiff mechanical rhythm was central to the band's aesthetic, to their college fans and to musicians aspiring towards technical perfection in the early 1930s. The repetitive mechanical rhythms organized the industrial soundscape. One incarnation of Casa Loma was called "Glenn Gray and his Mechanical Marionettes."[95]

            But by 1937, the Casa Loma Orchestra had shifted their emphasis to ballads. Downbeat pondered the change in white musical taste in a 1936 cover story: "Casa Loma's music is not the most relaxed swing ... but they are one of the most brilliant ensemble groups that ever swung sixteen men in a single groove.... When did 5 brass or saxes phrasing as one, beautifully voiced and perfectly executed, cease to be [as] worthwhile as a solo man with a simple rhythm background?"[96] My guess would be the middle of 1935, the period when Benny Goodman rose to fame, and that the key phrases here are "solo man" and "simple rhythm background." It was as if once humans could replicate machine aesthetics—noise, speed, precision, efficiency, relentless drive—the need for human dynamics, and individual self-expression, reasserted itself.

            Duke Ellington disdained the "soulless" quality and "continual churning" of certain rhythm sections. Uninspired metronomic time-keeping caused "apathy in the section[s]," he wrote in 1931, and a loss of interest among the musicians, whose "performance becomes stodgy and mechanical." The most important element in dance music was the groove generated by the rhythm section of bass, drums, guitar, and piano: the pulse they generated kept the other musicians in gear, and thusin touch with the dancing audience. The rhythm section drove individual soloists, kept the ensembles loose-but-precise, and allowed a live performance to embody the jazz ideal of "relaxed intensity." At the end of Ellington's first theoretical discussion of music, he stated simply, "Remember that your most important asset is your rhythm."[97] For African-American bands, to have "good" rhythm suggested a stylization of the aesthetic element of repetition, but it had nothing to do with being "perfect" or "mechanically perfect."

            Scholars have reclaimed rhythm as an aesthetic force of cultural expertise and continuity within a long, venerable tradition of music and dance. Rhythm re-energizes the body and creates the conditions for participatory activity, kinesthetic lightness and grooving. "[T]he power of the rhythm [surges] through the body, energizing and vitalizing all its parts," musicologist Jon Michael Spencer explains. "All other aspects are anchored by its solidity, stability, and repetitiveness. It is not enough merely to hear the groove; you must be drawn inside it, and it must penetrate to your inner core."[98] Against machine aesthetics, Americans of all ethnicities appropriated a West African-derived cultural aesthetic. The elements of such a specifically African-American cultural aesthetic as articulated through music and dance practices have been analyzed by American Studies scholar Gena Caponi-Tabery: (1) rhythmic and metric complexity; (2) individual improvisation and stylization; (3) call and response; (4) active engagement of the whole person and the whole community; (5) social commentary or competition through indirection and satire; (6) development of a group consciousness or sensibility.[99] And of course, rhythm remains the sine qua non of American popular music, from ragtime to hip-hop.

            "I got rhythm/ I got music/ I got rhythm/ who could ask for anything more." Ethel Merman launched her career with this song, the show-stopper of the 1930 Gershwin musical, Girl Crazy. But it was only one of literally hundreds of songs between the wars that spoke of rhythm as a kind of snake oil or magic elixir—in this case, a vital form of nourishment—that would help Americans survive through participatory activity.[100] To repeat the chorus line of one of the great jazz standards of the twentieth century: "I got rhythm—who could ask for anything more?" Why was rhythm the élan vital itself? Because rhythmic activities presume whole-body participation, body-centered motion, hand-clapping, dancing, singing. One listens to symphonies; one dances to rhythmically-driven music.

Architecture critic Herbert Muschamp recently summed up the modernism of the "New York’s cityscape"as beholden to an ideal of "[e]scaping gravity and heaviness without losing touch with the ground"—as, for example, in the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, and the Seagram Building.[101] But what of the human structure? The regrounding of what Julia Foulkes calls "modern bodies"[102] came through the global impact of African-American jazz dance. Against the fantasies of aviation and Eurocentric verticality, African dance is earth-centered: one faces the ground, not the heavens as in ballet; a dancer uses all parts of the body, not just armsand legs; vigorous African shoulder and hip movements energize the body, and the angular bending of knees and elbows symbolize engagement with everyday life. What Barbara Glass calls the "Africanization of American movement"—the white embrace of rhythmic fluidity, hip-centered motion, individual creativity within a set pattern, the loose carriage of the body—peaked in these years.[103]

            How could people participate in technoscapes? By dancing the industrial changes generated by big band swing machines into their individual systems. The long arm of the harm done by the condescension implicit in the stereotype that "blacks have rhythm" has deprived cultural history of one of its fundamental truths: West-African-derived American popular music makes life in these machine ages swing. Since "rhythm" could not be copyrighted, white cross-over artists simply used what they loved. At the height of his fame, swing superstar Glenn Miller admitted that no white band could touch the rhythmic mastery of "Negro bands." "I don't see how any white leader can be satisfied with his rhythm after hearing so many wonderful colored rhythm sections," Miller told Downbeat in 1939. "Even the second rate Negro bands have good rhythm."[104] The masters of rhythmic flow—the most important element in machine-age art—were African-American swing-era musicians and dancers.

When architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier declared the need to humanize the functionalism of engineered forms through the "texture, tones ... light and shadow" of the architect's craft,[105] I find this analogous to swing-era musicians bringing texture and depth to 1920s jazz through a more powerful rhythm section, a richer variety of tone colors, and a more subtle use of dynamics. Certainly the heavily-arranged jazz of big band swing also reflects the mass production of music, and of reducing the jazz musician's individual freedom to specialized function. As for the stripping of ornament to create clean, flowing lines, big band arrangers eliminated the collective improvisation and raucousness of the New Orleans style in favor of smoothness, rhythmic flow, controlled masses (i.e., instrumental sections), and powerful motion. Music scholars often used the term "streamlining" to express the shift from 1920s jazz to big band swing.

            Swing music and dance have been omitted from modernist discussions of rhythmic flow in part because African-American musicians and dancers did not theorize about what was then simply called "the machine." Duke Ellington never mentioned the liberating or debilitating effects of the machine; he did, however, write often about music's role in social relations, and the necessity of reflecting social and cultural forces. When Ellington stylized train sounds and rhythms into musical compositions, his approach derived not from machine-driven modernism but from two functional imperatives of African-derived musical practice: that music is (functionally) for dance, and that it must aesthetically stylize the common environment in sound.


[1]With regard to visual media and art see, for example, Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), and Miles Orvell, After the Machine : Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (Jackson, Miss: University of Mississippi Press, 1995).

[2]Alan Burdick, "Now Hear This: Listening Back on a Century of Sound," Harper's, July 2001, 70.

[3]Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 1-2, 117-18, 149, 157-68; John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), 2-3.

[4]Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture Between the World Wars (forthcoming, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

[5]Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life:On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 

[6]Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 24. Hip-hop DJs, dancers and producers continue to soundtrack the pace of technological change through a rhythm-based set of African-derived aesthetic principles.

[7]Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis (New York: Viking, 1989), 314-46; David A. Hounshell, From The American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 216-20; Leo Marx, "The Idea of 'Technology' & Postmodern Pessimism" in Technology, Pessimism, and Postmodernism, eds. Yaron Ezrahi, Everett Mendelsohn & Howard Segal (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer, 1994 ), 20. A classic study of the American Precisionists can be found in Abraham A. Davidson, Early American Modernist Painting, 1910-1935 (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 188-228.

[8]See, for example, Pontus Hulten, ed., Futurism and Futurisms (New York: Abbeville, 1986), 552-3.

[9]Hughes, American Genesis, 309, 317-21, 324-27, 331. Picabia believed the soul of the United States was its machines, and he freely adapted machine drawings from industrial catalogues for whimsical portraits of American life, sometimes depicting human beings as pistons or cylinders. Picabia helped American painters Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler see that the natural subject for the American artist was machinery. See Susan Fillin Yeh, "Charles Sheeler and the Machine Age," Ph.D. diss., City College of New York, 1981, 48, 74.

[10]Hillel Schwartz, "Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century," in Incorporations, eds. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, (New York: Zone/MIT Press, 1992), 87-90; Terry Smith, "Making the Modern," Lecture/Discussion, January 31, 1995, Austin, Texas. 

[11]For the best historical account of the creation of the assembly line, see Hounshell, From the American System, 237-256; Smith, "Making the Modern," lecture.

[12]See, for example, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), 172-79.

[13]Smith, Making the Modern, 194. Cecelia Tichi coined the phrase "gear and girder era" to describe industrial aesthetics in Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), xi-xvi, 4-16.

[14]Hughes, American Genesis, 341.

[15]Linda Bank Downs, Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals (New York: Norton/Detroit Institute of Arts, 1999), 92-104, 140-4; Smith, Making the Modern, 199-240; Diego Rivera, My Art, My Life (New York: Dover, 1991 [1960]), 112.

[16]Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct in Workmanship (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1914), 299-354.

[17]Frank Norris, The Octopus, in Novels and Essays (New York: Library of America), 679. Mark Seltzer analyzes the manifestations of industrial discipline on bodies in turn-of-the-century naturalist literature, using Norris' Octopus as his primary American example; Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3-18 and 25-35.

[18]David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: MIT, 1994), 33-43.

[19]Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904), 3-15, 302-371, and The Instinct of Workmanship, 306-307. For a discussion of the relationship of the architect to machine aesthetics, see Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Art and Craft of the Machine" (1901), in Roots of Contemporary American Architecture, ed. Lewis Mumford (New York: Dover, 1952), 169-181.

[20]Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, 306-307.

[21]Elizabeth E. Turner, "Factory Girl's Reverie," in Cecelia Tichi, ed., Rebecca Harding Davis: Life in the Iron Mills (Boston: Bedford, 1998), 175; see also Thomas Dublin, "Women, Work, and Protest in the Early Lowell Mills: ''The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave us,' Labor History 16 (1975): 99-116.

[22]On the European development of the field of industrial research and the premise that a worker's body is a "motor … regulated by internal, dynamic principles," see Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 1-2, 51-52 and passim, and Bix, Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, 26-32. For the prevalence of the metaphor of human-body-as-machine in American medical practice, see the following: W.E, McVey, ed., The Human Machine, Its Care and Repair (Topeka, Kansas: Herbert S. Reed, 1901), an 848-page guide meant for home use; Frederic S. Lee, The Human Machine and Industrial Efficiency (New York: Longmans, Green, 1919), the 1918 Cutter Lectures at Harvard Medical School by a renowned industrial researcher; William H. Howell, The Human Machine: How Your Body Functions (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1924), a doctor's popular account underwritten by the National Health Council; George B. Bridgman, The Human Machine: The Anatomical Structure and Mechanism of the Human Body (New York: Bridgman/Pelham, 1939),a book of drawings rendering parts of the body as levers (jaw, skull) and rotary mechanisms (shoulder, knee). The first work to explicate the human body through mechanical analogy was Julian Offray de la Mettrie's Man, A Machine (Chicago: Open Court, 1912 [1747]); La Mettrie celebrated the human body as "a large watch, constructed with ... skill and ingenuity" and powered by "the heart as ... the mainspring of the machine" (141).

[23]James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York: Vintage, 1999), 52. Gleick mentions the experimentation with drugs like cocaine (for speed up) or opium (to slow things down), and suggests that the vogue for narratives of time travel derived from fantasies focused on unknown terrains of speed.

[24]Stuart Chase, Men and Machines (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 248-9.

[25]Damon Runyon, "The Brighter Side" (column), Feb. 19, 1938, n.p. Clipping file, Harvard Theater Collection.

[26]Benny Goodman, "Swing Back," Pic, Jan. 9, 1940, n.p. Harvard Theater Collection, The Nathan Marsh Pusey Library.

[27]In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader, eds. Dorothy Chamberlain and Richard Wilson (New York: Da Capo, 1997), 72-35; Gene Ramey quoted in Dance, World of Count Basie, 264.

[28]Quoted in Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing (New York: Norton, 1992), 241-2.

[29]"University of Michigan Prof Defines Swing Music,"New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 14, 1940: 17.

[30]Firestone, Swing, Swing Swing, 241-2.

[31]Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts (New York: Harper, 1924), 104. 

[32]Gama Gilbert, "Swing It! And Even in a Temple of Music," New York Times Magazine, January 16, 1938: 7, 21.  

[33]Bill Challis, interview by Ira Gitler, MS, under the auspices of the Jazz Oral History Project (JOHP), collection of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS); Joel Whitburn, Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 (Menomonee Falls, Wisc: Record ResearchInc, 1986), 447-54. Mezz Mezzrow took Gene Krupa around to the "black and tan" clubs on the South Side of Chicago, where he apprenticed with New Orleans drummers, Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton; see Mezzrow, Really the Blues, 143-64. For a discussion of white Chicago musicians' apprenticeship with African-American musicians, see Burton W. Peretti, The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race and Culture in Urban America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 76-99, and Ogren, The Jazz Revolution, 102-6, 151-3.

[34]Danny Barker, interview by Milt Hinton, April 1980, JOHP, IJS.

[35]Ibid. Barker recalled that big bands were known for their "very famous, very popular rhythm sections" of piano, bass, drum, and guitar. Musicians would ask of a given band, "Who is in the rhythm section?" or "Who was in McKinney's Cotton Pickers' rhythm section.... [or] in the rhythm section with Fletcher [Henderson]?"


[37]Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle (New York: Da Capo, 1975 [1960]), 211.

[38]Barker, interview, IJS.

[39]Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz (New York: Oxford, 1956), 140; James Lincoln Collier, Benny Goodman and the Swing Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 228.

[40]This phrase comes from anthropologist Steven M. Friedson, Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 196.

[41]A still-classic account is Hsio Wen Shih, "The Spread of Jazz and the Big Bands," in Albert McCarthy and Nat Hentoff, Jazz (New York: Da Capo, 1959), 171-187l; see also David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 11-13. Jazz historian Thomas Hennessey sees in this massing of instruments into sections a reflection of "interchangeable parts," of the American System of manufacturing. "[B]y combining ...the written harmonies of European classical music with the improvised African-American tradition, and harnessing the whole thing to a dance beat, Redman answered needs of musicians, dancers, [and] listeners." Thomas J. Hennessey, From Jazz to Swing: African-American Jazz Musicians and Their Music (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 88-9.

[42]Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 222-30; James Lincoln Collier, The Making of Jazz (New York: Dell, 1979), 188-92; Benny Goodman and Irving Kolodin, The Kingdom of Swing (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole & Sons, 1939), 138.

[43]Mark C. Gridley, Jazz Styles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 129.

[44]Wingy Mannone quoted in Stowe, Swing Changes, 4; Stanley Dance, The World of Swing (New York: Scribners, 1974), 1.

[45]Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), 149-78.For a discussion of the elusive idea of playing behind or ahead of the beat, see Collier, Benny Goodman, 153-6. 

[46]Stowe, Swing Changes, 10.

[47]Schuller, The Swing Era, 248, 297-298.

[48]Budd Johnson defines a "flag-waver" as "one of those long, hot tunes, and we just build and build and build and take it out." Interview with Milt Hinton, JOHP, IJS.

[49]Orrin Keepnews, liner notes, An Anthology of Big Band Swing, 1930-1955 (Decca Jazz CD GRD 2-629, 1993).

[50]Collier, Benny Goodman, 225-228.

[51]Eddie Durham discusses Lunceford's showmanship in Stanley Dance, The World of Count Basie (New York: Scribner's, 1980), 64-6.

[52]Shih, "The Spread of Jazz and the Big Bands," 183-4.

[53]Collier, Benny Goodman, 141.

[54]Lans Lamont quoted in Burt Korall, Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz (New York: Schirmer, 1990), 4-5. Benny Goodman's classically-trained young pianist, Mel Powell, gave a very similar description of his first experience of seeing a big band (Goodman's orchestra at the Paramount Theater in New York City) in Tom Scanlan, The Joy of Jazz: Swing Era 1935-1947 (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1996), 23-4.

[55]Wilfrid Mellers, Music in a New Found Land (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 [1964]), 314.

[56]Count Basie quoted in Dance, World of Count Basie, xvii-xviii.

[57]Charles Keil quotes this anecdote from an interview with Red Mitchell in Music Grooves, 192-3.

[58]Tricia Rose, Black Noise (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 62-70; Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 2, 11.

[59]Edward Gorer, Africa Dances (New York: Norton, 1962 [1935]), 119, 213.  

[60]Charles Keil, Tiv Song (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 7-8, 183, 247-8. When children were asked to name their favorite composer in 1969, 122 high school students named 97 different composers.  

[61]Ibid, 172, 211. Keil observes that "[a]t the core of the Tiv belief system lies the notion of life as energy exchange."

[62]Drewal, Yoruba Ritual, 5, 8, 12, 15, 17, 20. 

[63]Ibid, 17-20.

[64]Christopher Waterman, Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 2, 15.

[65]Felix O. Begho, "Black Dance Continuum: Reflections on the Heritage Connection Between African Dance and Afro-American Jazz Dance," Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1984, 292, 307.

[66]Sule Greg Wilson, The Drummer's Path (Rochester, VT: Destiny, 1994), 24.

[67]Quoted in Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens, Drumming at the Edge of Magic (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 214-5.

[68]Ibid, 185.

[69]Jelly Roll Morton, "A Discourse on Jazz," in Ralph J. Gleason, Jam Session: An Anthology of Jazz (New York: Putnam, 1958), 30-3; W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 252.

[70]Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress (New York: Da Capo, 1973), 413-5; see also Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 351.

[71]Challis, interview, IJS.

[72]Cliff Leeman, interview by Milt Hinton, n.d., IJS, II:5.

[73]David Albert "Panama" Francis, interview by Milt Hinton, 1977, JOHP, IJS.

[74]John Simmons, interview by Patricia Willard, January 1977, Washington D.C., JOHP, IJS; Milt Hinton, interview by author, Jamaica, New York, Aug. 22, 1996. Bassists John Simmons and Milt Hinton agreed on a total of four bassists that could be considered role models before 1930: Wellman Braud (with Duke Ellington), Pops Foster (with Louis Armstrong), Walter Page (with Count Basie), and Steve Brown (with Jean Goldkette).

[75]Eddie Durham quoted in Dance, World of Count Basie, 63.

[76]Baby Dodds with Larry Gara, The Baby Dodds Story (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992 [1959]), 1.

[77]Jimmy Crawford, interview by Stanley Crouch, n.d., JOHP, IJS. 

[78]Quoted in Dance, The World of Swing, 124.

[79]Cozy Cole, interview by William Kirchner, 1980, JOHP, IJS.

[80]John Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997), 228-30.

[81]Cozy Cole, interview with Bill Kirchner, 1977, JOHP, IJS. Bassist Milt Hinton claims Cab Calloway replaced drummer Leroy Maxey with Cole after hearing Gene Krupa, who made the bandleader realize he needed a "drum soloist." Panama Francis, interview with Milt Hinton, 1980, JOHP, IJS. 

[82]Theodore Dennis Brown, "A History and Analysis of Jazz Drumming to 1942," Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1976, 1-78; Korall, Drummin' Men, passim. 

[83]See, for example, Mike Hennessey, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke (London: Quartet, 1990), 15-6; Sonny Greer, interview by Stanley Crouch, n.d., JOHP, IJS; Zutty Singleton, interview by Stanley Dance, JOHP, IJS.

[84]Brown, "Jazz Drumming," 201-203.

[85]Ayo Bankole, Judith Bush, and Sadek H. Samaan, "The Yoruba Master Drummer," African Arts 8 (Winter 1975): 51-53, 77; John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility (University of Chicago Press, 1979) , 91-113.

[86]Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 6.

[87]Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), 96-7; Marshall Berman, "The Experience of Modernity," in Design After Modernism, ed. John Thackara (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988), 35-6.

[88]Ellington quoted in Mark Tucker, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 49, and in Esquire's World of Jazz (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1962), 200;

[89]Louis Armstrong, “Greetings to Britain!," in Joshua Berrett, ed., The Louis Armstrong Companion (New York: Macmillan, 1999), 47-8.

[90]Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), 189-90.

[91]The modernist ideal of art-for-art’s sake never arose for musicians with such limited economic opportunity in other fields, and "[t]hey all made their peace with compromise of one kind or another." Schuller, The Swing Era, 213.

[92]See Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz (New York: Da Capo, 1934), 189-93; Schuller, The Swing Era, 632-45. 

[93]George T. Simon, The Big Bands (New York: Schirmer, 1981), 118-9. Popular singers Connee Boswell, Lee Wiley, and Mildred Bailey recorded with the Casa Loma Orchestra in the early 1930s. 

[94]Quoted in Dance, The World of Swing, 71, 87.

[95]Schuller, The Swing Era, 637.

[96]Carl Cons, "Who Said Casa Loma Can't Swing? Their 'Machine Jazz' in Fine Groove," Downbeat Nov. 1936: 1, 5, 9. The Downbeat editor made a plea for the place of machine jazz: "But in a machine age... may the idea be dared that a faultlessly coordinated organization working smoothly as one unit, both rhythmically and harmonically, can play an inspired and admired brand of swing?" 

[97]Ellington, "The Duke Steps Out" (1931), repr. in The Duke Ellington Reader, 46-50.

[98]Jon Michael Spencer, Re-Searching Black Music (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996), 69-70.

[99]Gena Dagel Caponi, Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin' and Slam Dunking (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 9-13.

[100]Richard Crawford, The American Musical Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 220-2.

[101]Herbert Muschamp, "A Rare Opportunity for Real Architecture Where It’s Needed,” New York Times, October 22, 2000, Section 2, 38.

[102]Julia Foulkes, Modern Bodies (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[103]Barbara Glass, "The Africanization of American Movement," in When the Spirit Moves (Wilberforce, Ohio: National Afro-American Museum and Culture Center, 1999), 6-45; "What is Black Dance?" in One Hundred Years of Black Music and Dance, Brooklyn Academy of Music program, 1990; Jacqui Malone, Steppin' On The Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 1-9; Robert Farris Thompson, "Aesthetic of the Cool: West African Dance," in Caponi, Signifyin(g), 72-86.

[104]"'Rhythm Section is My Only Worry' - Miller," Downbeat, Jan. 1, 1940: 2, 19; see also Paul Eduard Miller, "Are White Bands Stealing Ideas From the Negro?" Downbeat, Dec. 15, 1940: 5. In 1936, Miller believed African-American bands were the leaders in "innovation and creativity"; by late 1940, "America's big-name colored bands [were] no longer the box-office attractions they were a few years back." White bands were playing "Negroid music" and using "Negroid arrangers," so black bands were "no longer distinctive.... [t]he whites were successfully stealing their stuff."

[105]Hughes, American Genesis, 313.