Fascists, feminists, fashion, and religion: all that jazz

I WENT to my first Swansea U3A Social History Group meeting today. There was an entertaining – and surprising – talk by a female jazz musician about Swansea’s extraordinary jazz cafe culture in the 1920s.

There were a large number of these establishments, putting on two floor shows daily for up to 1,000 customers a time. The shows featured local and visiting jazz bands, as well as “nigger minstrel” groups – which actually consisted of white musicians ‘blacked up’ with burnt cork.

The words and phrases used in the advertisements and reviews for these groups are uncomfortable to read today, but in the ’20s were regarded as unremarkable.

Her talk looked also at how jazz became a target for both local fascists and ministers of religion in the inter-war years. Both showed equal levels of bigotry about jazz supposedly perverting the morals of the young, and corrupting society generally.

The fascists, of course, added their anti-semitism to the mix; with shocking success. Jewish musicians were banned from performing at some local dance halls.

After world war two, all-female jazz bands temporarily gave women improved status in contemporary music, despite the strenuous efforts of some prominent male musicians and critics to keep women off the bandstands and BBC airwaves.

Meanwhile, the local newspaper assigned two (female) reporters to write about the fashions being displayed in the city’s dance halls.

The woman giving the talk is writing a book on the whole subject. It should be complete by next summer. I look forward to reading it.

PS: Swansea U3A celebrates its 30th anniversary in June. Before the meeting began, I was asked by the local U3A press officer to interview some of its members on what the U3A means to them. I said I would – provided at least some of the interviewees were men, so I can feature them on this blog too. Watch this space.

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