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Recording Ban

Excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Rationing Lines
Rationing Board Line, New Orleans, 1943
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

On December 7, 1941, America found itself at war. Jazz would go to war, too, and overseas, swing — still America's most popular music — would serve to remind the men and women of the armed forces of home. "Bandsmen today are not just jazz musicians," said Down Beat magazine, "they are soldiers of music."

On the home front, the music industry found itself struggling once again. Blackouts and late-night curfews darkened some nightclubs and dance halls. A 20 percent entertainment tax closed ballrooms all across the country. The rationing of rubber and gasoline eventually drove most band buses off the roads, and servicemen now filled the Pullman trains, making it difficult for musicians to get around by rail. A shortage of shellac curtailed the recording of music, and companies stopped making jukeboxes and musical instruments altogether for a time because they were deemed unnecessary to the war effort. The country needed weapons more than music.

On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians ordered its members to stop making records — other than the "V discs" intended only for servicemen — until the record companies agreed to pay them each time their music was played in jukeboxes or on the radio. The Capitol and Decca record companies settled within a year, but heavyweights Victor and Columbia held out. It would be more than two years before the issue was fully settled and musicians could return to the studios.

Interior of Commodore Records
Interior of Commodore Records
Image courtesy of Charles Peterson

Ironically, just as the record ban began, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had just found their way into uncharted jazz territory. They were wowing small groups of listeners with their innovative new sound, but because of the record ban, only their collaborators and a few dedicated fans would hear the music they had created, which came to be known as bebop.

The recording ban had another indirect impact on American popular music, perhaps still more important to the history of jazz. Singers were not members of the musician's union and were therefore exempt from the recording ban. To stay in business, record companies produced a steady flow of a cappella records — vocal quartets or solo singers backed by choruses. The tunes were most often peppy novelties meant to boost the anxious country's spirits, or sentimental songs ideally suited to men and women kept apart by war. Young people loved them — and loved the singers who sang them.