Reconsidering “Dixieland Jazz”, How The Name Has Harmed The Music

With reservations, I’ve chosen to weigh in on the debate started last month by the publisher’s monthly column asking: Is the term “Dixieland Jazz” racist? Almost everyone will disagree with something I say here. Keep in mind that my ideas represent the impressions someone has of a word. Impressions I share with many others. I’m writing with the underlying assumption that people who use the word are well intentioned and have never considered the racial implications.

It’s harder to see something when you are inside of it. If your public life is defined by volunteering in a Dixieland Jazz Society you will naturally consider someone who comes along and tells you the term’s no good an ignorant fool. The use of “Dixieland Jazz” to describe either a particular style of music or pre-swing jazz as a whole is common among our subscribers.

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At 40, I’m much younger than our average reader and because of that I try my hardest to catch up on the 60 years of revival history I wasn’t around for. I browse through 1970s Mississippi Rags as if they were my morning news. I’m also older than many of the musicians I cover in the latest resurgence of traditional jazz. Those musicians playing bars in St. Louis and Pensacola, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and their supporters, will be the core of our readership twenty years from now. I hope in this essay to reflect some of their reservations about the term “Dixieland.”

I also follow bands, young and old, playing our music in Europe and Australia, and that gives me additional insight. When it comes to words, especially this one, geography is important. Europe is seen as much more progressive than we are. Ideas about language use that would be vanguard positions in the US are public policy in the Nordic countries. But it is easy to have blind spots.

We have Civil War reenactment societies in America. There is a similar subculture in Europe romanticizing the Old American West. People camp out in red face dressed as Native Americans. They mean nothing by it. Some of them don’t even realize Native Americans are real, or that they are still around, least of all that they might be offended by this “tribute.”

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The term “Dixieland” represents another blindspot, in Europe and among some fans in America. Europeans of all ages use the term more than Americans do. It has a utility there that many older Americans think it still has here. To them, it describes “New Orleans Jazz” and that is the kind they are trying to play.

It also connotes trappings of boater hats and parasol parades. It does the same for the term’s detractors. Those detractors include the majority of musicians and fans my age and younger. Looking from Europe that kind of fantasizing about America is all part of the fun. For many Americans, it also has a darker connotation. There is a reason that African American musicians playing European jazz festivals take pains to say the music they are making is “New Orleans Jazz,” and definitely not “Dixieland.”

What is “Dixieland Jazz”?

THE CHEERLEADERS SING DIXIELAND JAZZDixieland Jazz as commonly understood, at least by people my age, was a mid-century commercial art movement that harnessed the imagery of old Dixie. The trappings of the “Old South”; the boaters, Confederate flags, the parasols, the mint juleps, the riverboats. The music itself was a part of a larger whole and inseparable from it. Without associating spirited music to a happy go lucky South you don’t have Dixieland. Dixieland Jazz, understood this way, was a commercial subset of a broader interest in the revival of pre-swing jazz. A revival that continues, and has increasingly avoided the term “Dixieland” since the 1970s.

The whole concept of “Dixieland” was rather silly. The advances in jazz from 1917 on developed outside of New Orleans and enrolled musicians who were not from that city. James Reese Europe in New York, Wilbur Sweatman in the midwest, and string ragtime ensembles everywhere were creating music that was “almost jazz” even before the diaspora of the New Orleanians. By 1923 even King Oliver was playing in a style that had evolved from what he would have played in New Orleans in 1916. The breakthroughs of Louis Armstong and others were made in New York, Chicago, and even in Europe, with help from sidemen originating in all those places. That makes calling the many styles of 20s jazz, and the revival of those styles, by a geographic moniker rather dubious.

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It was even dubious then. When King Oliver named one of his later bands the Dixie Syncopators, northern bands had already been claiming southern origins for decades. It was a marketing gimmick and a good one. The Dixie Syncopators was a name in the spirit of many groups that had come before like the “Real Alabama Minstrels.” No one in 1926 would have heard it otherwise. Many people twenty years later heard it the same way.

“Dixieland Jazz,” that mid-century subset of revival jazz, took on a standard seven-man instrumentation and a distinct sound. Neither had been common in the pre-swing era. That instrumentation solidified in the studio towards the late 20s but didn’t reflect the diversity you’d find on stage. There were also a few bands playing a distinctly Dixieland style in the ’20s, but no one will confuse the most admired recordings of the era with a mid-century group.

Revival Dixieland highlighted fast ensemble playing without much blues and focused on good times. A few 20s bands were inspirations, typically those of white jazzmen like the Halfway House Orchestra in New Orleans or Red Nichols’ groups. Chicago style bands, their forebears being The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Bix Beiderbecke’s bands, and the Austin High Gang were critical in contributing a standard repertoire.

Recording companies didn’t reach New Orleans until jazz had been a national sensation for half a decade, and they didn’t record much. All the jazz records made in New Orleans during the 20s could fit on a several CD set. Beginning in the 40s attempts were made to reproduce the true New Orleans jazz sound of the 1910s and even trace it back to roots in the 1890s. These produced mixed results indicating the sounds of the city were diverse then as now.

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When someone asserts in a New Orleans Jazz seminar that the West Coast bands are inheritors of a  distinct “white style” of New Orleans jazz going back at least to the 1910s they have some good historic reasons for doing so. But it’s in the nature of jazz to go where it wishes and influences have really never been that clean cut. Exceedingly few bands have consciously pursued any such thing and the vintage records on the turntables of revivalists were from a variety of major artists and composers from across the country. As the actual recordings from New Orleans were scarce, to the extent they were striving for a New Orleans sound it was a sound they pursued with educated imagination.

There was a lot of very good stuff made in the Dixieland style, and there is still good Dixieland made. That sound is so synonymous with the West Coast that if you say West Coast Style rather than Dixieland people will know what you mean.

A Dixieland band at this point is trying to be a Dixieland Band, not a 20s style jazz band. When they book themselves as such the venue knows what they are getting. It will likely be five or seven older white men playing as hot as they can muster. That can be great music. If a band is booked to play Dixieland near you, go listen. When you see those records in the bin, check them out.

Race and Dixieland

The practitioners and fans of the mid-century aesthetic movement known as Dixieland were almost entirely white. There was also traditional jazz played during the revival that didn’t sound much like what we think of as Dixieland.

Many African American musicians, especially those from New Orleans, rejuvenated careers and kept them going as long as health would allow. Their gutbucket style, which didn’t sound much like the recordings of the ’20s either, had a strong influence on certain revivalists, particularly those from Europe. It became the foundation of Preservation Hall and is still part of the stew today.

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Singleton Palmer Dixie By GaslightBecause I can already hear the typewriters purring I will say that many black musicians also appeared with Dixieland bands, or bands using that term to describe revival jazz. Most notably the biggest band of all, the Dukes of Dixieland. The Dukes also had the benefit of being from the region, which does count for something. I’ve been alerted to Singleton Palmer, a tubist in St. Louis who led an all-black band with Dixieland in the name in St. Louis’ famous Gaslight Square during the 50s and 60s.

No example you could give of a black musician using the term, or playing with a band that did, or otherwise seeming to accept it counters what I will argue. Many blacks in the minstrel era appeared in Blackface and were among the biggest stars and most prolific writers in the genre. In a society that was so structurally against them, few would have felt the common use of a word worth more than a grumble. For many, the chance to be appreciated for playing the music they enjoyed was worth any reservations they might have about what people called it. Racially based objections to the term “Dixieland” in the ’40s and ’50s are easy to find, even among black musicians taking those gigs. Many things worth accepting at the time, aren’t worth accepting now.

The Dixielanders Weren’t Racist

Listen to that Dixie BandI believe the term is racially charged, but I don’t believe the fans who embraced it were more racist than the general population, and many of them were notably less so. They were, after all, enjoying music with strong associations with African Americans.

Nor is anyone today racist for using what has been the common term for something their entire lives. A term that you’ll still spot in your local newspaper. “Dixieland Jazz” doesn’t sound to the ear the same way an older person saying “Colored” does, and it never will. It still has a critical use in describing a particular movement so it won’t disappear completely.

I’m excluding from this essay the few actually racist voices in the early revival. They were not indicative of the whole and perhaps were reactionary to it. Racist intent is not what is wrong with the word “Dixieland.” But there is one bit of history that must be included.

The primary reason that a segment of the jazz revival came to be called “Dixieland” is that some revivalists began using the term in honor of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They were the first jazz band to record and become stars. But they were also an all-white band whose founder was at the time of the revival claiming a white origin for jazz. Racist statements are magnified by historians, and the average fan at the time was unaware of them, but there were vocal strains of the revival eager to embrace Papa Jack Laine as the white Buddy Bolden.

Why The Term “Dixieland Jazz” is Racially Charged

There are many who have read this far and are honestly thinking, “How is Dixieland racist?” They’ve never considered the concept before. “Dixieland Jazz” was still in my school textbooks in the 80s. It is still listed on Wikipedia as referring to early New Orleans jazz rather than to the revival style. If those are to be held as the ultimate authorities than people who insist it means pre-swing jazz as a whole are technically correct.

I would counter that “Colored” also has its archaic connotation in the dictionary, as it should for anyone needing to look it up. The problem with “Colored,” for anyone wondering, is the association with the Jim Crow era color line. We might even use it now, rather than “people of color,” but a darkness clings to it from an earlier age when it had legal implications. “Dixieland” carries a similar darkness for a significant portion of our population.

In discussions of the term in older traditional jazz periodicals, racial implications aren’t included. It’s an omission that frankly shocks me. As organizations fretted over the music dying and removed “Dixieland” from the names of festivals the most common reasoning was that it had “corny” associations, not racist ones. It seems to be a cultural blindspot among the devotees of that generation — like the Europeans dressing up as Indians and doing war dances. It also indicates just how overwhelmingly white the scene had become.

Song-of-the-South
Disney’s Song of the South premiered the hit “Zippedy Doo Dah” but you won’t find it on their new streaming service.

Disney’s intent with Song of the South, released in 1946, was a benign, even a progressive wish to tell the Uncle Remus stories of a unique African American culture. The accusation that the film was racist because of everything it left out was made almost immediately but most Americans could live without the scars of slavery in a children’s movie. By the 1980s, that once rare reaction to the film had become so widespread that it has never been released for home video. Dixieland Jazz used some of the same iconography and the public’s instinctive reaction to the term “Dixieland” has evolved along the same lines.

“Dixie” refers to the geographic and cultural area that was the slave-owning Antebellum South, and to the unreconstructed Jim Crow South that sought to preserve that culture. Saying “the South” refers to the same geographic area but any historic or racial context would require a modifier. Compare, “I’m going down south”, to “I’m going to Dixieland.” The word carries its own luggage. The term refers to an order of things wherein black Americans are subjugated and it carries notes of the idea that the are happier that way.

Massa's in the Col, Cold Ground
Stephen Foster‘s 1852 “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold, Ground” is about slaves mourning the death of their kind master. It became a standard and was frequently recorded even 80 years later.

The most common trope of minstrelsy was of a black man longing for his master and his Dixie home. These songs, almost all written in the North, tugged on the heartstrings in a country full of recent immigrants and children leaving the farm for the big city. Many showed great empathy for the displaced. “Dixie” is an idea. Dreams of fun-loving lassitude in a pastoral South hit the spot for a newly industrialized North, but they also painted a picture of a southern idyll that never was.

It’s the same picture those European fairy tale images of Dixieland paint today. The Dixie ideal of the 1950s was simply minstrel imagery stripped of Blackface. People still wore cork in smalltown church bazaars, but as the LP era dawned you couldn’t have that on album covers anymore.

Michael j Frog - Reconsidering"Dixieland Jazz", How The Name Has Harmed The Music
Michael J. Frog premiered for Warner Brothers in 1955. His character plays heavily on the style of Blackface performers. That he is a frog may be a reference to a early coalition of African American entertainers known as the Frogs Club.

It is hard to fathom now just how central Blackface culture was to American identity at the time. During the early civil rights era it became unacceptable in public performance, but having been what entertainment was for over 100 years it couldn’t just disappear. Minstrel routines continued in comedy minus the racial elements. Hee Haw consisted primarily of recycled material from the vaudeville stage and you’ll still hear jokes on the Late Show that debuted in the banter of “Darky Records”.

Some visual cues of minstrelsy, sadly, became associated with Dixieland Jazz. Promoted by record companies, but adopted, innocently, by bands and their fans.

When people thought of how 1910s entertainment should look, that’s what they remembered because that’s what public entertainment was. Boaters were commonly worn, nationwide, but the particular motif we associate with those album covers was borrowed directly from Al Jolson, who appeared on the big screen in blackface as late as 1946. The outfit had become cultural shorthand for a form of entertainment, like polyester Disco clothes would evoke the ’70s. It rang true in cultural memory even though it wasn’t all that accurate to what performers actually wore. Blackface performers usually wore top hat and tails or whatever was appropriate at the time for high culture stage performance.

riverboat - Reconsidering"Dixieland Jazz", How The Name Has Harmed The Music
The real riverboat bands didn’t dress in the style we associate with them or 50s Dixieland. The imagery was largely a commercial fictionalization of a generation before.

The Dixieland garb, when instruments are in hand, directly evokes an image of a black band playing for white folks on a river excursion boat. A subservient relationship. Riverboat iconography was strong in the commercial portrayal of “Dixieland,” white guys dressed as a black band, without the Blackface. What the bands were allowed to play on the riverboats for white folk was actually too flat and constrained to be called jazz. The real jazz was happening in town.

Similar things happened with barbershop and barrelhouse piano. The 50s piano album covers went for an ahistorical old west look while preserving brothel imagery that was historically accurate. It was okay to show scantily clad women as long as they were white. Our idea of a barbershop quartet is now of four white guys. The African American origins of the style have been entirely erased. In the post blackface era, the easiest thing to do was to whitewash. Because white performers could no longer parade as blacks they created new aesthetics.

Why It Hurts The Music

Jazz itself broke out later than the true heyday of racial minstrelsy. Professional blackface was already in terminal decline. The music played by both black and white bands in the late teens and twenties has nothing to do with minstrelsy despite historic examples of bands accompanying these routines in traveling shows. Jazz musicians in the twenties wore the latest suits. In fact, if you read their memoirs, they obsessed over them. Black bands played for white audiences but primarily performed for the black audiences equally enraptured by the new sound. Traditional jazz need not have ahistorical associations with minstrel culture but because of the 1950s Dixieland boom, it has acquired them.

And as I said, most of the white fans didn’t notice. The local church still had fundraisers where people appeared in blackface. They’d even swear to you they didn’t mean anything by it. By comparison, white guys in boaters and stripes lined up in a vaudeville semi-circle was pretty soft.

The potential fans of traditional jazz among the black population did take notice. When you and your family have immediate memories of watermelon humor on the cartoon reel you aren’t going to join something called a “Dixieland Band.”

That is the saddest thing about the adoption of the word “Dixieland.” It’s the single most important reason there aren’t more African Americans enjoying early jazz today. Jazz wasn’t associated in its time with minstrelsy, it was part of the renaissance that moved black performers beyond those tropes. Black jazz musicians were among the first African Americans to build careers in entertainment that didn’t rely on self-deprecating stereotypes. They should be a source of pride.

You sometimes hear that black musicians feel that jazz before bop is “Uncle Tom music,” played to entertain white folks. But early jazz, in New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem, was music played by Black people in their own segregated communities with only breakout performers playing the big white clubs where the money was better.

Mixed race groups and friendships between black and white players helped dismantle the de facto (and sometimes legal) segregation in the North. The celebrity of black jazz and swing musicians, for the first time based on their talent rather than their blackness, opened minds and hearts for the civil rights era to follow.

To the extent this inaccurate attitude about traditional jazz is real it was generated by the commercial trappings of Dixieland, the look and performance feeling of a Disneyfied minstrelsy. And, very simply, by the word itself. “Dixie” after all was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the Confederate president, and was the tune traveling black musicians are said to have performed on their entrance into southern towns to announce that they were “good negroes.”

There are people who claim black musicians have consistently wanted to be at the cutting edge of jazz. If true that would be unusual. The vast majority of musicians are craftsmen playing either what they enjoy already or what pays the bills. Very few make any effort to push the envelope and even fewer do it successfully enough to be noticed. There are many black jazz musicians playing in styles not much advanced from the earliest Bop even 80 years later.

University jazz programs teach that jazz is best as a personal, noncommercial expression of the artist — played for oneself rather than an audience. The proposition that the black community buys into this exalted ideal and therefore dislikes early jazz seems rather weak. With each musical trend since Rock ‘n’ Roll Black musicians have been at the fore, developing musical and fashion styles focused on entertaining a crowd. The black community has always celebrated entertainers for being commercially successful in a way that is rarely true of white performers.

No one within the black community would look down on someone forming a Doo Wop band in 2019, or an old school R & B band, or a James Brown-style Soul Band, or a ’70s style Funk band, or perfecting a throwback 1980s rap technique. These would all be honoring heritage, and many such groups exist.

It is an anomaly that you won’t find an all-Black band playing in the style of King Oliver, or specializing in the compositions of Clarence Williams. So the question becomes, why?

dukes - Reconsidering"Dixieland Jazz", How The Name Has Harmed The Music
The Dukes were the most well known Dixieland band. They appeared with many black musicians, including Louis Armstrong, but album covers like this one from 1957 left a public perception that lingers.

People gravitate to music styles that carry a sense of identity, be that a Neo-Hippie Jam Band, or Punk, Hip Hop, Modern Jazz, or Folk. The adoption of the term “Dixieland Jazz,” and the social baggage that went with it, created an identity for pre-swing jazz that raised a no trespassing sign for black musicians. That stigma also caused an untold number of white musicians to pursue other, more welcoming, more authentic feeling styles.

The question “why don’t more blacks play Our Kind Of Music,” also contains its answer in the word “Our.” There have been efforts to restore the place of important white contributors to early jazz. They are a necessary correction to earlier historians who applied racial inherency to music birthed from a melting pot. These efforts can be taken the wrong way, but that isn’t what I mean by “Our.” Dixielanders don’t think of it as white music. The less historically minded of them even think of jazz as black music. But…

I’ve read accounts of Black traditional jazz musicians turned down by festivals because they don’t know how to play “Our” music. I don’t mean the Soul Rebels Brass Band or other modern New Orleans acts. These are musicians who in Europe play for the most discerning traditional jazz aficionados. So while fans might not think of traditional jazz “played right” as white music, they sometimes assume it is.

And, I’m certain that no one calling the music Dixieland today has any intention of offending. But a few seem insistent on applying “Dixieland” to musicians who say they don’t want it applied to them. If nothing else changes because of this essay, this should stop.

The Future

The slow disappearance of the term “Dixieland” from the public square may be why I often find racially diverse acts among the youngest trad bands. The swing community is interested in the black stars of the early days and is doing a great job of welcoming black dancers. Black musicians playing swing are as unconcerned with how they will be perceived as they would playing any other historically black music. Sure, swing never had the same stigma, but it was never thought of as progressive.

With the continuing Renaissance of swing dancing, many musicians have gravitated to pre-swing jazz. As more trad bands pop up, they create new opportunities to play. I spot Black sidemen in their 20s all over the country. Their number isn’t large, and these are bands playing local bar scenes not hitting the festival circuit… yet. But it is certainly a good sign for the future. Fewer young musicians seem to worry about a stigma accompanying traditional jazz.

So what do I think about using the term, in this paper, or in public? I would never ban it. If a band uses the term to describe themselves, I will use it as a descriptor. And I have done so in my reviews. It appears hundreds of times on our website. Likewise, if I need to refer to a mid-century group of that particular style, I may use it. I’m not going to edit it out of historical band names — King Oliver’s D**** Syncopators just doesn’t look right.

I would encourage bands, clubs, and event holders who don’t want to offend to stop using it. My understanding of American history, vaudeville, minstrelsy, and the Blackface era informs my current views. Had you asked me as a teenager in the ’90s, before I knew any of that, I would have told you the term sounded racially charged. A typical person under 50, having never considered the issue at all, may feel the same even if they can’t articulate why.

If Not “Dixie” Then What?

When you say “Dixieland” no one can be sure what you are referring to. There are people who use it for all early jazz, others who apply it to a particular revival style, and many who reject it outright. That has been true since Turk Murphy voiced his dislike for the word in the ’40s, and Roy Eldridge and Eddie Condon nodded in agreement. The confusion about naming our music owes itself to a word that should have never been a contender.

I prefer the term “traditional jazz.” It is a broad term that covers all styles of pre-swing jazz including the various revival styles. It’s understood by everyone from the fan to the general public.

The term “Hot Jazz” is used as a substitute by people who don’t want to say “Dixie,” but usually refers to the same style on broader terms. Most casual fans don’t understand the concept of playing “hot” and will assume everything is fast, fast, fast. Traditional Jazz is much more than good time music, it’s a living art. But “Hot Jazz” has its uses, particularly in advertising. “Early Jazz” also works in most contexts.

“Traditional” implies the respect that musicians bring to the music and indicates that they don’t intend to stray beyond certain musical boundaries. It is also broad enough to apply to anyone playing within those boundaries. It seems to be understood by everyone as not indicating swing or later. The dance community uses this terminology to describe bands. It’s an easy and useful point of reference for dancers who may prefer one style over another. As more traditional jazz festivals partner with swing dance events, a lingua franca is useful.

Someone may tell you that Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, or Nina Simone sang traditional jazz. That person probably doesn’t listen to those fine ladies as much as they’d like to think they do. They could just as easily say they like Dixieland and name Dizzy Gillespie, who they also don’t listen to.

For non-modern jazz of the post swing era, “Classic” works and has some salience. “Classic” is big. Big enough to include everything from cabaret singing to light experimentation. It has boundaries inclusive of bop and stopping where things get too much for the average listener.

In Summary

I won’t hold it against anyone for using the term “Dixieland.” I encourage anyone else who, like me, finds it troubling to give anyone using it the benefit of the doubt. As with an older person who innocently says “Colored” because it was a neutral enough term in their time it is vitally important that we not disrespect people who have given us so much. Jazz is passed on hand to hand, and every young trad band today has members who learned directly by playing with people who called it “Dixie.” Very often their bands owe much more to that style of play than they care to realize.

Go ahead and use the term if you must, and don’t feel embarrassed as you do so. But understand that fewer and fewer people are going to know what you mean, and some may feel instinctively offended, even if they can’t explain why. Please don’t apply it to anyone who doesn’t want it applied to them.

I’ll still be using “Dixieland” where a band identifies by the term either historically or in the present. The reality of its use over 75 years is not going to go away. “Dixieland” is a helpful descriptive shorthand. Using it in context is preferable to pretending it never happened.

Stripping away ahistorical associations with the minstrel era and the “music for white guys” image that traditional jazz picked up during the revival is vital for its continued growth and preservation. Retiring the inaccurate, and racially charged D-word will only be a start.

We need to encourage our young people, particularly African American children, to embrace the early jazz musicians as the source of pride they are. Musicians who despite adversity created joyful music that continues to inspire. Enough time has passed since those mid-century missteps that we may start having success doing so.


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