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 we 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 on this topic. When it comes to words, especially this one, geography is important. Europe is seen as being much more progressive than America. Ideas about language use that would be vanguard positions in the United States are public policy in the Nordic countries. But it is easy to have blind spots.

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In the United States members of the Society for Creative Anachronism dress up in European middle ages attire and camp out together at elaborate gatherings.  There is a similar subculture in Europe romanticizing the Indians of the Old American West. They 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 there are any left, least of all that they might be offended by this “tribute.”

Use of the term “Dixieland” is another blindspot, both 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. Looking from Europe that kind of fantasizing about America is all part of the fun. But for many Americans, particularly people of color, 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 wholesome and happy go lucky Old 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.

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Why “Dixieland”?

The whole concept of “Dixieland” was rather silly. The advances in jazz after it became a craze in 1917 occured outside of New Orleans and enrolled musicians who were not from that city. What’s more, James Reese Europe in New York, Sid Le Protti in San Francisco, Wilbur Sweatman in the midwest, Gus Haenschen in St. Louis (who may have recorded the first jazz record), some of Duke Ellington‘s peers in Washington DC, and string ragtime ensembles everywhere were creating music that was “almost jazz” even before the diaspora of the New Orleanians.

Dixie Showboat
Dixie Showboat, from 1951, was filmed in progressive Hollywood and syndicated on TV nationwide. It featured an integrated cast and Nappy Lamare’s excellent Straw Hat Strutters Dixieland Band, but the show also hosted Peanuts and Popcorn, a blackface comedy duo.

By 1923 even King Oliver was playing in a style that had evolved greatly from what he would have played in New Orleans in 1916. The breakthroughs of Louis Armstrong 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 any geographic moniker rather dubious.

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 was used on some of the most iconic studio recordings of the late 20s but didn’t reflect the diversity you’d find on stage.

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A true pre-1920 New Orleans instrumentation would be more likely to have a violin than a piano, and a bass and guitar more often than a tuba and banjo. No one would confuse the most admired recordings of the 20s with a mid-century group and what you would have heard in venues, not limited by the three minutes of a recording , would have been different yet again.

Princeton University's Triangle Club
A minstrel show staged during the 1948-49 academic year at Princeton University’s Triangle Club. Within a few years most Ivy League schools would have a Dixieland band that in some cases sported similar outfits.

Revival Dixieland highlighted fast ensemble playing without much blues feel and focused on good times, it has been called “the happiest music on earth.” There were regional variations for sure; the music of St. Louis’ Gaslight Square was notably bluesier than what was heard on the West Coast and certain bands over time became so influential that they inspired distinct styles..

A few 20s bands greatly influenced the Dixieland sound. Most were 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 Wolverines, and the Austin High Gang were critical in contributing a standard repertoire.

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 that music in the Crescent City was as diverse then as it is now.

Recording companies didn’t reach New Orleans until jazz had been a national sensation for nearly a decade, and they didn’t record much. All the jazz records made in New Orleans during the 1920s could fit on a three CD set. People seeking the “true” sound were reliant on gentlemen like Jelly Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson, eager to please researchers and exaggerate their own importance to the prehistory of the music. While there are people who can recreate that proto jazz sound now with reasonable credibility you aren’t likely to hear it performed very often. It isn’t jazzy enough.

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Is Dixieland Jazz White Music?

Some people assert, usually as a disparagement, that modern Dixieland bands are inheritors of a  distinctly “white style” of New Orleans jazz with roots as far back as newsboy spasm bands of the 1890s. They have some good historic reasons for doing so but I would argue that music evolves and influences have never been that clean cut.

Exceedingly few bands have consciously pursued playing “white jazz”, and the records on the turntables of revivalists were from a variety of early recording artists from across the country. As the actual recordings from New Orleans were scarce, to the extent they were striving for a true New Orleans sound it was a sound they pursued with educated imagination rather than inherited horn to horn.

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.

Some of those old white guys have interesting stories to tell about jamming with the 20s era jazz musicians who were still active while they were young. They are usually a lot more serious about the music and its history than you would gather from the matching polo shirts. You can be sure they didn’t get into Dixieland for the money. Many have devoted a lifetime to making sure this music survived.

The practitioners and fans of the mid-century aesthetic movement known as Dixieland were almost entirely white. But they were white people with a respect for Black music who sought to preserve it. As a result there was also traditional jazz played during the revival that didn’t sound much like what we think of as Dixieland.

During the revival 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.

Because 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 New Orleans, which does count for something.

Singleton Palmer Dixie By GaslightI’ve been alerted to Singleton Palmer, a tubist in St. Louis who led an all-Black band under several names. All of them included the word Dixieland. He was a star of 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. What Louis Armstrong said about a word in the 1950s is completely irrelevant to a discussion about whether that word is appropriate today. The question should be, “If Louis were around now would he feel comfortable playing ‘Dixieland’?” Would a young Black horn player?

Many African Americans during the minstrel era appeared in blackface and were among the biggest stars and most prolific writers in the “coon song” 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. “Dixieland” simply didn’t signify as much as it does now, being at the time much closer to a neutral geographic term like “New England”.

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 maybe it never will. It still has a critical use in describing a particular moment 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 people during the swing era began using the term to describe trad gigs in honor of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The ODJB 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 did exist vocal members of the revival eager to embrace Papa Jack Laine as the white Buddy Bolden.

There have been recent, more balanced 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. Some of those people, using genetic terms to connect jazz to Africa, sound just as cringe worthy when you read them now as the people who claimed it was invented by whites.

These efforts to find a nuanced hostory can be taken the wrong way, especially when someone who thinks of early jazz as an exclusively Black art form is confronted by someone whose favorite musicians of the twenties are primarily white. White musicians were vitally important to the development of jazz, in part because they had an easier time recording and traveling. The privilege they had doesn’t subtract from the value of the music they made.

From the earliest days of jazz groups like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were honored to have men like Jelly Roll Morton record with them in the studio. The teenage white kids hanging outside the Black clubs in Chicago in the early 20s were there to learn, not to steal. Many of them continued to share what they learned into old age, working alongside Black musicians throughout their careers.

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 all pre-swing style playing 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 hurt clings to the word from an earlier age when it had legal implications. “Dixieland” carries a similar hurt for a significant portion of our population.

In discussions of the term in older traditional jazz periodicals racial implications are never included. It is an omission that frankly shocks me. As organizations fretted over the music dying and removed “Dixieland” from the names of festivals the reason given was that Dixieland had “corny” associations, not racist ones. It seems to be a cultural blind spot 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.

What’s in a Word?

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 the unique African American Gullah culture of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands .

The accusation that the film was racist because it left out any indication of racial animus 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 Dixie refers to an order of things wherein Black Americans were subjugated, and implies that they were 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.

Bing Crosby Holiday Inn Blackface
Bing Crosby wore blackface in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Note that the riverboat imagery and the band wearing stripes was well established a decade before the commercial Dixieland boom.

The happy go lucky Dixieland ideal of the 1950s was simply minstrel imagery stripped of blackface. People still “wore cork” in small town church bazaars, but as the LP era dawned you couldn’t have that sort of thing on album covers anymore.

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.

Blackface Minstrel John White Bedford of Haverstraw New York
Blackface Minstrel John White. (Source: Bedford of Haverstraw New York)

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 by bands and their fans. When people thought of how turn of the century entertainment should look and sound, that’s what they pictured, because that’s what they had been taught to picture.

Boaters were commonly worn nationwide, and a striped suit appeared in a variety of contexts. One of them though, was the backing musicians to a minstrel show. The full motif we associate with Dixieland album covers emerged in 1940s film portrayals of minstrel shows, as much as the historical minstrel shows themselves. Al Jolson appeared on the big screen in blackface as late as 1946.

Madmen
Scene from season 3 of the television show Madmen (2009) depicting a 1963 minstrel show. (Watch)

The boater and stripes outfit had become cultural shorthand for a form of entertainment; like polyester Disco clothes now evoke the 1970s. It rang true in cultural memory even though it wasn’t all that accurate to what performers actually wore. Blackface performers, at least on the front line, usually wore top hat and tails, suits, or whatever was appropriate at the time for 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 in 1950s Dixieland. The imagery was largely a commercial fictionalization.

That Dixieland garb, when instruments are in hand, also 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.

Interestingly, what the bands were allowed to play on the early riverboats for white folk was actually too flat and constrained to be called jazz. The real jazz was happening in town.

Michael J. Frog
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 an early coalition of African American entertainers known as the Frogs Club.

Similar things happened with barbershop singing and barrel house 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 blackface minstrelsy despite numerous 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.

A late 1950s Community Minstrel Show in a Catholic School Auditorium
A Community Minstrel Show in a Catholic School Auditorium. The development of the Kodochrome slide dates it to between 1956 and 1959.  Note the riverboat on the wall.

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 it was good old fashioned fun and they didn’t mean anything by it. By comparison a group of white guys in boaters and stripes 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. It’s a signifier of unwelcome. I believe it to be the single most important reason there aren’t more African Americans enjoying early jazz today.  “Dixie”, after all, was the tune traveling Black musicians are said to have performed on their entrance into southern towns to announce that they were “good negroes.”

20s jazz wasn’t associated in its time with minstrelsy, it was innovative, part of the Renaissance that moved Black performers beyond those tropes. Black jazz musicians like King Oliver 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.

King Oliver Creole Jazz Band Chicago
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band

You sometimes hear that Black musicians perceive of jazz before bop as “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 a few 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.

1962 Community Minstrel Show Flyer
1962 Community Minstrel Show Flyer from Alaska. The Cold War was a theme for comedy six months ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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 that gained popularity during the same era as Bop.

(Disney, to its credit, removed the word Dixie from the southern themed sections of their parks around the year 2000. They are now in the process of re-imagining Splash Mountain with a Princess and the Frog theme, rather than the original Song of the South theme.)

The press was eager to cast the playing of traditional jazz as reactionary and portray the fans and musicians of each genre in oppositional terms. Among most of the musicians themselves the war between the Moldy Figs and the Boppers was nothing but a myth. Musicians in the first two generations of modern jazz studied and loved the music of the twenties. Those graduating  jazz programs today may never have heard it, in part because of the Dixieland associations pre-swing jazz has since acquired.

Why Don’t More Black People Play Traditional Jazz?

There are people who claim Black musicians have consistently wanted to be at the cutting edge of jazz. If true, that would be strange. The vast majority of musicians of any color are craftsmen playing either what they enjoy 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 of 80 years ago. People coming out of graduate programs routinely chose to focus on hard bop, or other specific styles that were fresh when their grandparents were young.

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 African American community as a whole buys into this exalted ideal, and therefore dislikes the entertainment value of 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 African American 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 group, or an old school r & b band, or a James Brown tribute band, or a ’70s style funk band, or perfecting a throwback 1980s rap technique. These would all be seen as 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 musical styles that carry a sense of identity, be that hippie jam band music, punk rock, hip hop, modern jazz, bluegrass, 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.”

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 that wouldn’t fit. These are committed historical purists, musicians who in Europe play for the most discerning traditional jazz aficionados. So while they might not think of traditional jazz “played right” as white music, people in the Dixieland community sometimes make the assumption that only white people know how to play it.

I’m also certain that no one calling the music Dixieland today has any intention of offending. Feeling that a call for a language change is ridiculous, especially when it is a word important to your own identity is not inherently racist. 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 be playing any other historically Black music. Sure, swing never had the same stigma as Dixieland, but it was hardly 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. If it were given its due in music school programs I am sure we’d have a flood of talented musicians eager to devote at least some of their time to it.

If Not “Dixie” Then What?

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 hosts 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 already have told you the term sounded racially charged. That means a typical person under 50, having never considered the issue at all, may feel the same even if they can’t articulate why.

When you say “Dixieland” no one can be sure what you are referring to. There are people who use it for all pre-swing 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.

Like Turk, 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.

“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 to not indicate Swing or any later forms. 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.

The term “hot jazz” is used as another 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 the term “hot jazz” has its uses, particularly in advertising. “Early jazz” also works in most contexts.

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 John Coltrane. 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 at some point 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 insist, 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 proper context is preferable to trying to talk around the word.

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 should be. They were people 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.


Reader Responses to: Reconsidering “Dixieland Jazz” How the Name has Harmed the Music’


While I argue above for the discontinuation of using the word Dixieland in a jazz context. I have more nuanced feelings about removing standards in the repertoire because they once had minstrel associations. Please see: Dinah, Keep Blowing Your Horn 


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