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Dizzy Gillespie on 52nd St sign post, NYC
Jazz in TimeWorld War II
World War II, History in the key of jazz Artie Shaw and his orchestra performing on US aircraft carrier during WWII in South Pacific
Other Jazz in Time Sections
World War II

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio sample Drum Boogie by Gene Krupa
Recorded January 17, 1941
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


Black troops in the Navy band Black troops in the Navy band
Image courtesy of Kansas City

On December 7, 1941, America found itself at war. Jazz went 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, "they are soldiers of music."

On the home front, the music industry found itself struggling 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, which was used in the manufacture of records, 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 draft stole away good musicians — Jack Teagarden lost 17 men to the army in just four months. He and other bandleaders were forced to pay their replacements more for less talent. "I'm paying some kid trumpet player $500 a week," Tommy Dorsey complained, "and he can't even blow his nose." With so many male musicians in uniform, more than a hundred "all girl" bands were on the move across the country, playing for dances, helping to sell war bonds.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Morning Edition: Review of Swing Shift
Lynn Neary speaks with Swing Shift author Sherrie Tucker and Clora Bryant of the legendary Prairie View Co-Eds about all-girl bands that arose during the war.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


By October 1942, Down Beat was running a regular column headed Killed in Action. At one point during the fighting, there were 39 bandleaders enlisted in the Army, 17 in the Navy, three in the Merchant Marine, and two more in the Coast Guard. Glenn Miller, whose infectious swing hits like In the Mood epitomized the war years, disbanded his own hugely successful orchestra to form an all-star Air Force unit — and perished when his airplane disappeared over the English Channel. Benny Goodman, still the "King of Swing," was deferred because of a back injury, but he and many other musicians volunteered for the USO, and made special "V Discs" for the men and women stationed overseas.

Audio Feature Artie Shaw, musician and bandleader
Hear the quote below:
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


Artie Shaw led a Navy band that toured the South Pacific — playing in jungles so hot and humid that the pads on the saxophones rotted and horns had to be held together with rubber bands. Seventeen times they were bombed or strafed by Japanese planes. "I remember an engagement on the USS Saratoga, this huge carrier," said Shaw. "And we were put on the flight deck and we came down into this cavernous place where they, three thousand men in dress uniforms ... and a roar went up. I tell ya you know it really threw me. I couldn't believe what I was seeing or hearing, I felt something extraordinary. I was by that time inured to success and applause and all that you'd take that for granted after a while. You could put your finger out and say, 'Now they're gonna clap.' But this was a whole different thing. These men were starved for something to remind them of home and whatever is mom and apple pie. And the music had that effect I suppose."

African-Americans Join the War Effort

Fort Bragg, NC, 1942
Fort Bragg, NC, 1942
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

African-Americans rallied to the flag just as they had 24 years earlier. A million black Americans served in the armed forces before the fighting ended — nearly half a million of them overseas. But there was a new and growing impatience in black America, a determination that its sacrifices not be repaid with renewed mistreatment as they had been after World War I. "Though I have found no Negroes who want to see the United Nations lose this war," said the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, "I have found many who want to see the stuffing knocked out of white supremacy ... American Negroes ... are confronted not only with a choice but with the challenge both to win democracy for ourselves at home and to help win the war for democracy the world over." Even before the fighting began, Randolph had forced Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order opening up jobs in defense factories by threatening a 100,000-man march on Washington if he failed to act.

No one willing to look could miss the hypocrisy of being asked to fight bigotry abroad while experiencing it at home. "The nation cannot expect colored people to feel that the United States is worth defending," Eleanor Roosevelt wrote early in the war, "if the Negro continues to be treated as he is now." But even A. Philip Randolph was unable to persuade President Roosevelt to integrate the armed forces. Black Americans served throughout the war on a strictly segregated basis. Blood supplies for saving the lives of the wounded were carefully separated by race. On one base, a schedule listed separate services for "Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Negroes." Some commanders forbade black troops to read black newspapers. There were violent confrontations between black and white troops at military installations. Off base, black soldiers were harassed, beaten, even refused service at restaurants where German prisoners of war were allowed to eat. The Pittsburgh Courier mounted a "Double-V" campaign, calling for simultaneous victories over the nation's enemies abroad and discrimination at home. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis got in trouble with his black fans when, after defeating Buddy Baer, he donated his purse to the navy, when that branch of the armed forces still restricted most African-American sailors to menial tasks.

Armed Forces
Armed Forces Band, World War II
Image courtesy of The National Archives
No one felt more alienated from the war effort than young black musicians. They knew that once drafted, they were likely to be sent to the Jim Crow South for basic training, where the relative freedom they had experienced in the North would vanish, and when that ordeal was over, they were less likely than their white counterparts to be offered jobs in military bands.

Many musicians served, anyway. But some simply kept moving, hoping their draft notices would never catch up with them, and a few feigned homosexuality or pretended to be psychotic or addicted to drugs to avoid conscription. The trumpet player Howard McGhee said he won an exemption by assuring an army psychiatrist that if inducted he would ask to be sent South so that he could organize black soldiers to shoot whites: "Whether he's a Frenchman, a German or whatever ... how would I know the difference?" Those attitudes only hardened as musicians became special targets of white policemen and white servicemen who objected to their good clothes, their hipster language, their new assertiveness. "The enemy, by that period, was not the Germans," Dizzy Gillespie said, "it was above all white Americans who kicked us in the butt every day, physically and morally ... If America wouldn't honor its Constitution and respect us as men we couldn't give a [damn] about the American way. And they made it damn near un-American to appreciate our music."

Jazz in Occupied Europe

Through World War II, jazz — the music that German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called "the art of the subhuman" — stayed stubbornly alive in Nazi-occupied Europe, a bright symbol of resistance. When the Germans barred even the use of the word "jazz," the Hot Jazz Club of Belgium renamed itself the Rhythmic Club and kept on swinging. And when the Germans banned the performance of all American music in Paris, local musicians simply changed the titles of the tunes they loved: In the Mood became Ambiance; Holy Smoke became Joyeuse fumee; and Count Basie's Jumpin' at the Woodside turned into Dansant dans la Clairiere. Swing was the "magic word" for "young people everywhere," the French jazz enthusiast Charles Delaunay recalled. "Swing was on everyone's lips, you swore by it. Everything that was at all original or redolent of American life was baptized 'swing.'"

Audio Feature Bertrand Tavernier, director, Round Midnight
On the perception of jazz in occupied Europe
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


In 1942, Goebbels changed tactics. Realizing that he could not do away with jazz, he resolved to turn it to the advantage of the Reich, and ordered his ministry to organize its own radio swing band, then aim its broadcasts of familiar American tunes like Makin' Whoopee at the Allies with new and poisonous anti-Semitic lyrics added:

Another war, another profit, another Jewish business trick,
Another season, another reason for makin' whoopee!
We throw our German names away,
We are the kikes of USA.
You are the goys, folks,
We are the boys, folks —
We're makin' whoopee!
In Germany itself, young fans called "swing kids" continued to defy the Gestapo all through the war, meeting in secret, playing records, tuning in to Allied radio, and dancing. The German-born jazz pianist Jutta Hipp later struggled to explain to an American interviewer how important the music had been to her and to her friends during the massive Allied bombing of Germany. "You won't be able to understand this because you were born [in America], but to us, jazz is some kind of religion. We really had to fight for it, and I remember nights when we didn't go down to the bomb shelter because we listened to [jazz] records. We just had the feeling that you were not our enemies, and even though the bombs crashed around us ... we felt safe."

To divert attention from their hideous crimes, the Nazis eventually made a propaganda film intended to demonstrate to the world their supposed "kindness" to the Jews. The infamous Terezin concentration camp outside Prague was dressed up as a model "village," and its occupants given new clothes. They were then filmed being "entertained" by inmate musicians, including a jazz band called the Ghetto Swingers. Once the filming was over, the musicians' reward was to be sent to the death camp at Auschwitz, along with hundreds of thousands of other innocent people.

Long after the war, an interviewer asked Dizzy Gillespie if jazz should be considered "serious" music. "Men had died for this music," he said. "You can't get more serious than that.