August 3, 2008

Commonwealth Bands: Bottom-up Socialism in Jazz

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I'm reading a book, One O'Clock Jump, on the legendary jazz band, the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, a "territory band" that played, in various incarnations, from about 1923 to 1933. Their fame resides not in their output--they only cut one lone 78 the whole time--but in the players who cut their teeth in Blue Devil ranks en route to bigger gigs and lasting fame. We're talking about the likes of Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Oran "Hot Lips" Page and Count Basie, to name a few. Hell, Ralph Ellison jammed with them as a high schooler.

What struck me, for purposes of this post, was the following sentence:
We do know that the Blue Devils were a democratic entity, a "commonwealth band" as they termed it, with no leader who received more money than the others.
The author, scholar Douglas Henry Daniels, goes on to flesh this out, explaining that at different times, different members took on the role of manager for a couple of years, adding that
these members did not make decisions for the band; in other words, they were not managers whose word was final. The Blue Devils' motto was "All for one and one for all"--like their heroes of the movie based on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. Members had some say in their choices and they all voted on major decisions.
According to Daniels, this was a common practice among the jazz bands of the Southwest until the Depression. How do ya like that! Cultural workers, famously individualist, spontaneously choosing an essentially socialist organizational model. And these outfits, evolving toward the swing bands of the thirties, could have a dozen members or more!

If, dear reader, you know anything else about this phenomenon, please drop a word in the comments. Come to think of it, surely there's a book in here someplace, on economic (and artistic) democracy in popular music, with more on the territory bands of the Southwest and later but smaller jazz combos and with plenty of experience from the rock and roll world to look at, both positive and negative.

I leave you with a taste of what the Blue Devils contributed to jazz, a Soundie from the thirties featuring at least two of the band's alumni, singer Jimmy Rushing and pianist/bandleader Count Basie.

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