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In the year 1938, students in Westhampton College were not allowed to play jazz music on the drawing room piano, as mandated by school policy. Though there are not many documents that explain this policy or help to shed light on the reason for why this was the case, different pieces from The Collegian and The Messenger, as well as outside sources, come together to suggest that the policy could have been driven by attitudes towards race at the time.
Jazz music originated amongst African Americans in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Jazz music developed from the blues genre. This musical form recognized the pain of lost love and injustice and gave expression to those facing adversity (PBS.org).
In the beginnings of jazz music, there were no music sheets, instructions or arrangements, unlike in traditional music dissemination (The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017). Jazz music was primarily self-taught, and drew upon the African tradition of passing on culture – such as music, dance, and stories – through listening, watching, and recreating (The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017). Due to this, the role models for future jazz musicians were generally of African-American descent. Jazz music became a way of expression for the African American artists who cultivated and helped to spread it. It was a music that honored the African cultural traditions of transmission, and yet provided the present day African Americans with a sense of energy and escape from the white man.
Given the background of jazz and the culture from which it emerged, the fact that there was a policy in place on campus restricting students from playing jazz music on the drawing room piano is an interesting discovery. From a 1993 Collegian article, we know that the policy was written in the Westhampton Colege handbook in the section titled, "Regulations of the Trustees and Faculty Concerning Social Conduct" (Item #521). Though there are not many documents that explain this policy or help to shed light on the reason why this was the case, different pieces from The Collegian and The Messenger, as well as outside sources, come together to suggest that the policy could have been driven by attitudes towards race at the time.
In the University of Richmond’s literary magazine, The Messenger, there is a piece from 1938 that discusses strange rules at southern college campuses (Item #507). One of these strange rules mentioned in The Collegian aricle disucessed above, is that at the University of Richmond, jazz music was banned from being played on the Grand Piano in the Westhampton Drawing Room. Although the piece does not delve deeper into why jazz music was banned from the piano, the inclusion of this piece of University of Richmond policy is intriguing, as it calls for many questions to be answered. Why was jazz not allowed on the Drawing Room piano? Was it allowed in other places on campus? As jazz music has its roots in African American culture, and many of its prominent figures of the time were of African American descent, this policy also raises the question of whether the ban was at all driven by race.
Although mention of the ban on jazz music in The Messenger raises many questions that are difficult to answer, it is possible to try and answer at least some. Another article in The Collegian, written at the same time that the policy was effective, describes the dedication of the Margaret E. James Memorial Music Room (Item #522). Margaret’s father, Dr. James, donated a fully furnished music room to Westhampton College in 1933. Dr. James donated the room on one condition – that only classical music be allowed on there. However, the Grand Piano was not yet moved into the new room, and was still being kept in the Drawing Room. Although there were many pianos on the University campus, the restriction on the type of music allowed to be played on this specific piano causes us to wonder if this was the same piano as the one that The Messenger referred to. If so, how did only classical music transform into no jazz music, leaving room for other genres?
Another interesting answer to consider is the possibility of the regulation as a means of the university’s efforts to control the students’ options of what African American music they could perform (Glee Clubs at the University of Richmond were still performing negro spirituals at this time). By only allowing students to engage with the sadder negro spirituals that emerged from a place of oppression, and banning students from playing jazz, a genre that emerged from resistance, the university could have been working to perpetuate white dominance through the policy and restrictions surrounding music.
Although there is not enough evidence to directly link the policy surrounding jazz music to sentiments of race at the time, the fact that jazz music is so heavily rooted within African American culture definitely elicits certain questions about whether or not this policy was related to the university attempting to regulate its students’ interactions with African American music culture.
DeVeaux, Scott. "Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography." JSTOR, 1991. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. "Jazz Education." JazzinAmerica. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 2017. Web. 12 Apr. 2017
"Roots of Jazz." PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.