We’re pleased that the folks at Full Stop Magazine are letting us re-blog this great interview with Sherrie Tucker.
For Sherrie Tucker, research is dancing. A leading academic in the Jazz Studies world, she is part of a cohort of scholars working on gender, embodiment, memory, social improvisation, and dis/ability in jazz. Rather than creating a new subfield of inquiry though, these priorities demand new ways of talking about older themes in jazz scholarship such as race, democracy, war, nationalism, and, in Tucker’s recent work, stem from thinking critically with dance. Her first book, Swing Shift (2000), lays out the forgotten history of the “all-girl” swing bands of the World War II era. She also co-edited, with Nichole T. Rustin, the Big Ears collection on gender and jazz with Duke University Press (2008).
We caught up with Tucker (via Skype) one afternoon to ask her about her new book Dance Floor Democracy. This book is a study of the Hollywood Canteen, a club where female movie starsdanced with rank-and-file military men (not officers) during the World War II era. The official narrative from Hollywood films and press releases tells us that white and African American service men, military women, and Hollywood “starlets” danced side by side here, creating a uniquely American “democratic” space. Tucker got interested in this nostalgic re-telling of the Hollywood Canteen, and spent 14 years in and out of conventional archives, as well as in private living spaces and nursing homes conducting oral history interviews with those who had volunteered at or visited the Canteen 60 years previously. What she found was a decidedly diffuse set of narratives that often broke with typical World War II nostalgia.
The book is hot off the press, and Tucker was eager to talk about it, especially in light of a recent and somewhat dismissive Wall St. Journal review that lamented the displacement of “long-lost corny patriotism.” This gave us a good starting point. As in any improvisational encounter though, our conversation took productive digressions.
Jay Hammond: World War II nostalgia has a way of smoothing out political and social conflict in the U.S. during that period. What were some of your strategies for broaching questions of gender and racial integration on the dance floor at the Hollywood Canteen in the interviews?
Sherrie Tucker: I thought about that a lot because it’s true that with some of the interviews people identified very closely with the nostalgic version of the history. But, in other interviews, people really wanted to explain to me how the nostalgic version got it wrong. And so my analysis really does come from the interviews, it’s not something that I had already and then approached people hoping to prove my point. I felt a kind of urgency to talk to people who had been to the Hollywood Canteen. It could have been another site; I wanted to take a nostalgic site from WWII, a swing site, and talk to people who were there. I didn’t think that everybody was going to tell exactly the same story, but I also don’t think I expected the range of political viewpoints and analyses that people had. That seemed really important because the World War II generation has been so infantilized in the way that it’s been talked about: the “Greatest Generation,” you know, the greatest moment in American history where everyone agreed on everything. I think sometimes the reviewers think that I’m imposing a viewpoint on the people I talked to, but I talked to people who were people in the present, not people in the past; people who had diverse experiences at the Canteen and in life, and who were very interesting and had a lot of opinions about war, democracy, and swing. That was really interesting to me, that swing dancing was connected to their ideas about World War II, and war in general, and America. I didn’t have to ask people to be dissonant — oral history is always surprising. I just tried to listen very carefully, and I tried to pay attention to my own responses and include that. I tried to figure out a way to write — this is probably the hardest part — in a way that gets at all these differences, without finally coming up with the “correct” story, but something that could attend to all of the different positions that people spoke from.
To tell you a little about my methodology, I did make it clear that I was interested in the integration of the dance floor. So I didn’t surprise people with that question, also I didn’t walk in “hunting for racism” (as the fellow at the Wall St. Journal implied), but I did let people know ahead of time that this is something I heard about the Hollywood Canteen and I was interested in learning more about it, so they knew that this was a topic that was going to come up. I did have certain questions I made sure I asked every person. And one of the questions was “was the dance floor integrated?” “I understand it was racially integrated, what did you know about that?” I also always asked if they saw military women there, where they lived, and how they got to the Canteen, because that was an important part of the story.
But otherwise, in the open-ended parts of the interviews, I asked them about their Canteen memories in ways that tried to get at embodied perspectives. I asked questions that were designed to get beyond the proscenium viewpoint. Rather than the textbook questions, “what was it and what can you tell me about it?” I asked, “What streets did you go down in order to get there? How did you travel? What do you remember about walking in the door? Who do you remember seeing? Who do you remember dancing with?” Many of these are impossible questions, but when people talk from their bodies they get into a different kind of perspective, one that I wanted to get at. And then when people were there, in their bodies, thinking about the dance floor, they’d start telling me about other parts of their life. I wanted to know how they connected their memories of their bodies on that dance floor with other things.
It’s a tricky methodology. It’s not historically disinterested but it’s also very specifically a history of the present and an interaction with the present. So to get back to the question of nostalgia, one of the things I saw a lot was that most people would identify with the nostalgic, familiar version, but they would also dis-identify with it. And that’s where I saw that interesting tension that I talk about with the “torque.” People could tell the story in a certain way and use the power of the nostalgic version to push off from, sometimes using that power to turn it a different way.
Karim Wissa: How did you think about structuring the narrative?
I struggled with the writing a lot. This book took me 14 years. I interviewed roughly 60 people, but it wasn’t just the logistics of tracking people down — that was the easy part in some ways — it was really figuring out how to write. I really wanted to do something in writing that was doing some of the analytical work. So the writing itself is part of the methodology and I tried a lot of things before I got where I wanted. The dance scholars really gave me new ways of writing, which I found very exciting. I initially went to the dance scholars for a different reason. Because here I was, somebody who was writing about swing, but I had never written about dance, or never read dance scholarship — how is that possible?! I guess that’s because I’m a product of jazz studies. So I turned to the dance scholars thinking I would learn terminology and content, like what people did while the music was playing, but instead I get this whole different way of approaching sound and embodiment, and writing and improvisation. Susan Leigh Foster for example says we need different ways of writing and understanding history by acknowledging the fact of improvisation. That’s one of the charges I tried to give to my writing — to really get improvisation in there. Because it wasn’t just about what happened and didn’t happen — what’s been concealed and revealed — it was about different things happening on the ground on different nights in different parts of the room that unfolded differently for different bodies and different encounters. How can history account for that?
Karim: What are the things you noticed in that shift in perspective from talking about musicians to dancers, from the stage to the floor?
First of all, I want to step back a minute and clarify that there have been dance scholars who have been trying to be heard by jazz studies scholars for a long time. But most of us failed to listen carefully enough. And it isn’t even that dance scholars are never also jazz scholars.Jacqui Malone was a member of the Columbia University Jazz Studies Group for a long time. Other important scholars include Brenda Dixon Gottschild, and the late Terry Monaghan. One emerging scholar I’m very excited about is Chris Wells. His dissertation at UNC was on band-leader Chick Webb, and it is very much focused on dance. Chris is doing really exciting work; looking at dance throughout jazz history, and he helped me a lot.
I think that one of the things that happened in that moment of institutionalization of jazz, that Scott Deveaux talks about in his article “Constructing the Jazz Tradition,” is that in order for jazz to be taken seriously in universities and concert halls, the body had to be removed. It had to become as abstract and dance-free and body-free as classical music — and I’m being ironic here, right? Because classical music is full of bodies, but they get hidden behind these transcendent genius stories — it’s a discursive cover-up, right? Dance scholarship shows us all kinds of ways that we can return to places that we think have been really covered in all kinds of places, including jazz studies. The relationship between instrumentalist and instrument is highly embodied, and when you interview musicians or you go through oral histories, there is a lot of talk about body, and a lot of anxiety about injury until people are retired and can speak more freely about things that happened to their teeth on the road and stuff. There’s so much protection around the cohesive body that it’s hard to talk about. But it’s huge, embodiment is absolutely huge, traveling and producing sound with an instrument. This element is often left out of jazz scholarship.
Ok, I’m starting to ramble, and I really need to focus myself, because I don’t want to give the impression that the only place to look at embodiment and jazz is in what happens with the institutionalization of jazz. I haven’t even touched on affect, and practices of fans and communities. But right now I’m talking specifically about the uplift that happens when jazz is brought into institutions — there is a certain kind of very managed cordoning off of affect and embodiment that one sees in the construction of the jazz canon, and it is raced and gendered in particular ways. What gets sanctioned is a certain kind of representation of black masculinity, where the black man can sweat while blowing his instrument, while still being seeing as making art. But this is highly managed, and makes invisible other kinds of embodiment, including other expressions of black masculinity. So what dance studies can do, and could have been doing for a much longer time if jazz scholars such as myself had clued in earlier, is to get jazz studies scholars to think more deeply and critically about embodiment. Sound production, injury, etc. — there are all kinds of things that we can think about.