Institute for Studies In American Music
Inside This Issue:
Inside This Issue
“White Woman” as Jazz Collector in the Film New Orleans (1947)
by Sherrie Tucker
Dorothy Patrick, Arturo de Cordova, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and other musicians in New Orleans (1947)
“The music I’ve been singing, so traditional, it was new once. And I’ve been learning to make it mine. But this! This music is mine already!”1 So gushes Miralee Smith, the white, opera-singing, jazz-smitten ingénue played by Dorothy Patrick in the 1947 film New Orleans, set in 1917. Despite having spent a good deal of the scene talking over the collective improvisation of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Zutty Singleton and other musicians, Miralee finds her attraction to “authentic New Orleans jazz” rising to a crescendo. Especially moved by the film’s theme song, “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” as sung by Endie, her black maid (played with palpable unhappiness by Billie Holiday in her only role in a feature motion picture), Miralee rises, eyes glowing, cheeks flushed, and declares, “I’m going to sing that New Orleans song!”
For this act of white lady impropriety, Miralee is bounced from the Basin Street club. Such a rebuff would crush many a die-hard jazz fan, but not Miralee, whose desire now burns hotter than Buddy Bolden’s trumpet calling the children back home. This music is hers! She simply must feel the song of her black maid moving through her own white lady body, as indeed, she will, before this musical romance is over. The grand finale finds her singing the song from the concert hall stage, making a “lady out of jazz” like Paul Whiteman.
Until recently, the only parts of New Orleans I had seen were the musical clips containing Billie Holiday—how awful to see her in the maid’s uniform, but oh, how her singing transcended Hollywood’s limitations—and Louis Armstrong, leading a “Trad” revivalist’s dream team of New Orleans musicians. The consensus of jazz and film critics, historians, and aficionados is that with the exception of the musical sequences, the film is, as Donald Bogle puts it, “a dreary pedestrian mess.” Writes Bogle, “Although the story is supposedly about jazz’s rise to mainstream acceptance, the real jazz innovators—Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday—are neatly relegated to the sidelines while the plot follows the lives of the lead white characters, who are uniformly bland.”2
While I heartily agree with Bogle’s critical assessment, I would argue that the juxtaposition of bland white characters with brilliant black musicians is not at all at odds with the racial project of the film, of “Trad” fans of the 1940s, or of much jazz appreciation since then.3 White blandness and black affect, in fact, are not incidental to this film. The characters with which the white target audience is invited to identify are united by their weariness of European high culture and by their enthusiasm for jazz as played by black musicians. There is something, in other words, about the failure of the film that works in favor of its message: the redemptive promise of authentic black New Orleans jazz for the bodies and souls of white Americans.
It isn’t enough to critique this film as musically “bright” and “dramatically… a ‘dud’” (to cite the headline that didn’t do justice to Leonard Feather’s explicitly anti-racist review). These performances of bland white characters gaping at creative black musicking are enactments of power; acts facilitated in large part through a particular construction of white womanhood as unaware, or innocent, of her social power.4 To face the entire film, rather than just the musical sequences starring the black jazz musicians, compels us to consider the curious efficacy of the “white lady” in that very enactment of jazz appropriation analyzed in jazz studies as a white masculinist routine. We in jazz studies have gotten adept at wagging our fingers at the unconscious primitivism of figures such as Mezz Mezzrow, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac. And women-in-jazz historians like me have been far more interested in recovering women jazz musicians of any race as forgotten historical actors than in retrieving lost histories of white women as jazz appropriators, symbolic or otherwise. Yet acknowledging such appropriation is central to appreciating the cultural politics of a film like New Orleans.
Krin Gabbard has identified the recurring figure of the “Jazz Nerd” as a white man who can’t bear any gaps in his collection, and who develops an outside-the-mainstream masculine identity through amassing, organizing, and memorizing jazz records, especially those of black men whom the “Jazz Nerd” admires as “hip.”5 Ingrid Monson cautions that the historical problem with “white hipness” is its tendency to project white desires for affect, authenticity, and sexuality onto black bodies and black music—so that even when the “hipster” is sincere in loving jazz, he or she may be reproducing elements of the very aspects of dominant constructions of race that buoy white supremacist ideology. Monson draws from Eric Lott’s analysis of the continuation of minstrelsy through bohemianism in white men’s hipness, but she also notes that “[m]any white women have enjoyed the reputation of black men and women for hypersexuality,” adding, that, “[a]ttention to the particular pathways of identification would no doubt illuminate the cultural issue further.”6
To critically unpack the “pathways of identification” available to jazz-loving white women historically, we need much more information about white women as minstrel performers and audience members, as bohemians, and as fans of black music.7 Jayna Brown writes that what white women stood to gain from minstrel performance was “conditional access to realms of expressive freedoms they were otherwise forbidden.”8 Many white women jazz fans would reject any analyses of their devotion to jazz as appropriation, and understandably so. Yet white womanhood has certainly shaped my own pathway of identification as a jazz fan, and jazz seemed to offer what felt like an “escape” from the social position I continue to inhabit, which, of course, has its privileges in a racist culture. Part of my responsibility, then, as a white woman jazz fan is to lose my innocence about the pathways of identification I inherit. I may not identify with Miralee’s jazz desire, but I need to know its history.
Miralee knows nothing about jazz, except that it is hers. If “hip” means “in the know,” then “hip” she is not. How does her desire drive this narrative about white jazz love? I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that Miralee Smith reveals what white upper-class northern U.S. women jazz fans were really like in 1947 or at any other time. But this representation is relevant towards an understanding about white womanhood and jazz desire. What I want to argue is that this performance tells us something about cultural legibility of one of kind white woman figure, who, in this case, obscures a black woman’s performance, and that the cultural ubiquity of the trope of white woman that she performs makes it difficult to know about, imagine, and perhaps even to become another kind of white woman jazz fan.
I’m anchoring my reading in Ruth Frankenberg’s analysis of the recurring, co-constructed and powerful “family of tropes” in which White Woman is characterized as vulnerable, innocent, sexually pure, enabling White Man’s cultural value as protector of white womanhood. The trope of Man of Color shores up these roles by standing in as white woman’s sexual predator—what Angela Davis has called the Myth of the Black Rapist. (Alternately, he is rendered sexless and powerless, as in Uncle Tom’s benign friendship with Little Eva.) The trope of Woman of Color has the thankless job of enhancing White Woman’s purity by representing everything she is not supposed to be: “seductress, fertile, unhygienic” who is “always on a slippery slope from exotic beauty to unfemininity and ugliness.”9 Throughout it all, White Woman must remain unsullied by the knowledge that her social position is powerful.
The power of these tropes is not in their accurate reflection of who we are, but in their efficacy in justifying hierarchical social relations, and, as Frankenberg puts it, in the fact that they “continue to enlist” actual people into their service with “varying degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness….”10 The family of tropes, for example, makes it very easy for actual white women to become unknowing agents of racism while identifying as innocent and respectable.11 Hilary Harris posits that “the imagining and performing” of a genuinely “antiracist white womanhood” could only be achieved through tactics by which white women “fail” at the trope of White Woman.12
The white singer in New Orleans animates a jazz-liking white woman who succeeds at the trope of White Woman, and therefore supports the racial hierarchy while thinking she is championing black culture. I call this figure the “Jazz Virgin,” a white woman character who is stirred by what she hears in black music—which in this film is construed as sexuality, authenticity, emotion, newness, modernity—while other characters serve as her anxious protectors. 13 In this film, it is not only white men who protect white womanhood, but all characters: a black male jazz musician played by Louis Armstrong; a Creole gambling hall owner and Miralee’s love interest, Nick Duquesnes, played by Mexican actor Arturo de Cordova; and the singing black maid played by Billie Holiday. Repeatedly, other characters try to prevent jazz from entering Miralee’s body, or from entering the wrong parts of her body, or to prevent the wrong parts of the music from entering her body. Her protectors know that “too much jazz” signals danger—criminality, sexuality, impurity—and with them, the threat to topple the white woman from her pedestal.14 The character who is most ambivalent about the pedestal is another white woman who represents an alternative to the “Jazz Virgin”—predictably, it is the “Jazz Whore,” a fallen white woman aptly named Grace, who as a result of too much jazz, drink, and sex, loses her social position and is cinematically punished by getting hit by a car. The fallen Grace is dark-haired and has a French surname, and so like Duquesnes, she is Creole, not quite American, not quite white. What will happen to innocent white Anglo-America if jazz enters Miralee’s body?
We are first introduced to Miralee when her boat from Baltimore pulls into the port of New Orleans as Louis Armstrong plays in a band on the pier. Her entrée to jazz appreciation is her training as a singer of European art songs. From the moment we meet her, she is drawn to jazz without knowing what it is. As a “Jazz Virgin,” her wide-open ears are a tabula rasa. We recognize Armstrong. The chaperon hears danger, crime, and poor taste. Miralee hears Armstrong’s sound, even identifies his instrument, but affirms her defining innocence when she exclaims: “That cornet in that wagon, did you ever hear anything like it?” She is resolutely a different kind of a jazz listener than the Nerd, who has heard something like it, knows that it’s Armstrong, and can name all the sidemen.
This image of Miralee continues when she sets foot in her new home in New Orleans. Again, she leads with her fine-tuned yet jazz-innocent ears, drawn this time to the sound of Endie’s/Billie Holiday’s voice. Again, she is protected—this time by two older white women, her chaperon and mother—who act as culture police, and do their best to enforce racial hierarchy. Nonetheless, when the protectors of white womanhood leave the room, the budding sexuality of the “Jazz Virgin” is once again apparent as she begs for more song. At the sound of Endie’s voice, Miralee seems physically stimulated. She disobeys her mother, yet upholds and modernizes conventions of white power when she overrules Endie’s own attempts to protect white womanhood. She has commanded her to sing. Now she playfully orders her to take her “slumming.”
Miralee’s pathway to jazz, then, trades on a race- and class-naturalized mistress-maid relationship, via “slumming,” a mode of white privilege that, like other forms of tourism, affirms hierarchy through exoticizing difference. Krin Gabbard has written about the erotic charge between Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the musical scenes in New Orleans, but in my reading, the charge belongs solely to Miralee, whose female gaze we watch and adopt by the end of the scene. As she descends into the depths of the “Orpheum Cabaret,” she can barely contain her physical excitement. She gingerly steps into the club, eyes, and lips moist, face aglow. The scene is remarkable for its situating of female pleasure in a jazz scene, but complicated in the sense that what enables white female pleasure is the fetishizing of black men and a black woman. When Endie finishes her song, Miralee plies Nick with breathless questions that suggest her impending loss of innocence, such as, “Where does such music come from?” Nick begins to narrate the miracle of jazz until the once innocent and now fallen Grace appears in the doorway. The climax of the scene comes when Miralee, now consumed with her desire to feel Endie’s song emanating from her own body, rushes for the stage. She is “rescued” by Nick, who expels her from the club. The rest of the film is spent reconciling Miralee’s epiphany that jazz belongs to her, with concerns that her love of jazz may lead to the loss of other entitlements for her and other white characters.
Like the “Jazz Nerd,” the “Jazz Virgin” collects, and in the final scene, Miralee triumphs at New York’s Symphony Hall, delivering Endie’s song in her best bel canto belt (dubbed by white lyric soprano Theodora Lynch). Not an old stock aristocrat like her mother, indebted to European notions of high culture, Miralee proves herself as a modern national subject, for whom shedding Italian art songs and claiming jazz as her own enacts a gendered story of innocent imperialism. We hear a little more chest resonance in the finale than in Miralee’s European art song renditions and English instead of Italian, but we do not hear signs of blackness such as blue notes, speech effects, syncopation, or improvised turns of phrasing and melody that would popularize other white women singers such as the Boswell Sisters from New Orleans, who also learned about black music from their maids.
Though referred to throughout the film as a blues, “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” is a popular song written especially for this film, and is full of southern pastoral nostalgia scathingly critiqued in Abel Meeropol’s lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” Backed by an all-white symphony orchestra and an all-white jazz orchestra (Woody Herman’s first Herd), Miralee woos an all-white concert-going audience to share her epiphany that this music belongs to them, too. In the final scenes of New Orleans, neither Billie Holiday nor the black jazz instrumentalists who so inspired Miralee throughout the first half of the film are seen or heard. As film scholars have documented, while the black musicians were supposed to appear in an integrated finale, McCarthy-era Hollywood would not allow it.15 And so, a white woman presents a nostalgic song about a happy South stolen from her black maid, thus transforming jazz into respectable American culture, and the film swells to its musical big finish without apology or even apparent awareness that one might be called for. It is typical white-boy-meets-black-music cinematic jazz fare, as analyzed by Gabbard, in which sincere white devotees rescue jazz from black obscurity by trumpeting it from white concert hall stages.16 Only this time, the colonizing white boy with a (dubbed) horn is a colonizing white girl with a (dubbed) voice.
While painful to watch, the film New Orleans encourages us to think critically about jazz desire among those who wish to oppose legacies of cultural imperialism, racial injustice, sexism, and poverty. For me, this involves interrogating the spheres of jazz scholarship, including women-in-jazz scholarship, and jazz fandom that I myself inhabit. The tendency of jazz discourse to occlude ongoing histories of injustice and inequality is a pernicious one. A century of national love for New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, for instance, did little to rectify a century of cohabitation of jazz tourism and institutional neglect of poor and black lives in the most flood-vulnerable areas of the city and the wider Gulf region.17 The lyric “Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” will never mean quite the same after Hurricane Katrina, but the root of its tragic irony—the idealization of moss-draped, gumbo-rich, all-male, color-blind egalitarian jam sessions—and concurrent neglect of ongoing structures of race- and class-based inequities—troubles a century of jazz desire.
—University of Kansas
1 New Orleans (1947), dir Arthur Lubin. All quotes are taken from the Kino DVD release (2000).
2 Donald Bogle, “Louis Armstrong: The Films,” in Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, ed. Marc H. Miller (Queens Museum of Art/University of Washington Press, 1994), 147.
3 Made in the 1940s, this film takes a clear side in the “Jazz Wars” raging at the time. “Trad” fans, also called “Mouldy Figs,” invested in early New Orleans jazz as a traditional folk music. See Bernard Gendron’s “Mouldy Figs and Jazz at War (1942-1946),” Jazz Among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard (Duke University Press, 1995), 31-56.
4 Leonard Feather, “The Reel Armstrong: Musically, New Orleans is a Bright Film; Dramatically, It’s a Dud,” Metronome (April 1947), 43.
5 Krin Gabbard, Black Magic, White Hollywood, and African American Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2004).
6 Ingrid Monson, “The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse,” Journal of the American Musicological Society XLVIII/3 (Fall 1995), 405.
7 The emerging scholarship on women and minstrelsy includes Jayna Jennifer Brown, Babylon Girls: African American Women Performers and the Making of the Modern, Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2001; Michele Wallace, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Before and After the Jim Crow Era,” The Drama Review 44/1 (Spring 2000), 137-156; M. Alison Kiebler, Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (University of North Carolina Press, 1999), and Pamela Brown Lavitt, “‘First of the Red Hot Mamas:’ Coon Shouting and the Jewish Ziegfeld Girl,” American Jewish History 87/4 (1999), 253-290.
8 Brown, Babylon Girls, 53.
9 Ruth Frankenberg, “Local Whitenesses, Localizing Whiteness,” in Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Duke University Press, 1997), 11-12.
10 Ibid., 11-12.
11 Ibid., 15.
12 Hilary Harris, “Failing ‘White Woman’: Interrogating the Performance of Respectability,” Theatre Journal 52/2 (2000), 183-209.
13 The jury is still out regarding the frequency of this formula, though if we include jazz soundtracks in films that aren’t literally “about” jazz, this plot is more common than it might seem at first glance. See Peter Stanfeld, “An Excursion into the Lower Depths: Hollywood, Urban Primitivism, and St. Louis Blues, 1929-1937,” Cinema Journal 41/2 (Winter 2002), 84-108.
14 Another fascinating representation of a white woman’s love of jazz occurs in Syncopation (1942), dir. William Dieterle. Kit’s father objects to her jazz piano aspirations, so she transfers her love to a white male swing musician, who suffers a moment of doubt when he worries that a more talented black musician is being left in the dust of his own success. Kit assures her boyfriend that he is modern, unlike their black friend, who is “New Orleans.” Thanks to Krin Gabbard for introducing me to this film.
15 Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: An Extravangant Life (Broadway Books, 1997), 427-49.
16 In Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1996), Krin Gabbard points out that New Orleans is one of many Hollywood films that “wait until the end to elevate white music over black music” (79). Other films with this plot include The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), and The Benny Goodman Story (1955) (80).
17 See Salim Washington’s article in this issue of the Newsletter.
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