Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The Great Slate podcast One Year tells stories of the people and struggles that changed America one year at a time. In each episode, host Josh Levin explores a story that you may have forgotten or have a skewed memory of because you never knew the full context or maybe something you never even heard of before. They cover everything from the Challenger explosion to that time someone discovered an image of Jesus in a tortilla. It’s really smart, well-made, and one of those shows that I’ll hear an episode of, and I’ll think, “Oh man, it would have been fun to report that story.” They’ve done four seasons, each covering a different year–1977, 1995, 1986, and 1942. The 1942 season is the most recent and had a lot of stories that resonated with what’s going on in the world today. It’s an episode from that set that I want to share. It’s called The Day the Music Stopped.
Josh Levin [00:01:03] Hey, this is Josh Levin, the host of One Year. This week, we have a story from senior producer Evan Chung.
Evan Chung [00:01:10] In the final days of July 1942, as American factories were ramping up production, one industry was busier than ever. Recording studios were booked solid for days–and nights, too. Producers and performers were working around the clock, churning out future hit after future hit, like this wartime classic, recorded on July 28 by Spike Jones and His City Slickers.
Spike Jones and His City Slickers [00:01:34] When Der Fuehrer says, “We ist der master race,” We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Fuehrer’s face.
Evan Chung [00:01:42] The next day, Connee Boswell was in the studio, tracking a romantic ode to rationing. Not every song made in this recording frenzy was propaganda. The week began with sessions by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. There were recordings by Cab Calloway and Count Basie. Benny Goodman was cutting records that week, too. So were Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. Ella Fitzgerald got in on the act on July 31st, along with Lester Young, Woody Herman, and Henry James. And then on August 1st… Nothing. Every recording studio in America went silent. They stayed silent the next day and the next. The music didn’t start up again the following week, the following month, or the following year. This wasn’t because of wartime austerity. It was because the musicians of America had collectively walked off the job. New technology was threatening their livelihoods, so they launched one of the most consequential union actions in the nation’s history–a total ban on recording that cut off the country’s supply of new songs. But underground, artists were developing something revolutionary. And when the band finally ended, American music would find itself transported into a whole new era. This is One Year: 1942–The Day the Music Stopped. As far as we found, this is the earliest recognizable recording of the human voice. It’s a man singing, captured on a device called a phonautogram in 1860.
Tim Anderson [00:04:09] This is a very, very, very auspicious moment because when we think about sound, it’s typically accorded with the powers of the gods in ancient societies.
Evan Chung [00:04:20] Tim Anderson is a media scholar at Old Dominion University.
Tim Anderson [00:04:24] So there’s something godlike about this.
Evan Chung [00:04:29] When humans harness the power to record sound, it upended our 40,000-year-old understanding of what music is. Music had always been a performance that dissipates the moment it hits the air. We don’t usually consider that history when we play a song.
Tim Anderson [00:04:47] We are not thinking about how tremendously odd this is and how tremendously powerful it is. You’re basically regenerating life.
Evan Chung [00:04:58] At the turn of the century, recorded music became an industry. That’s when songs began to be pressed onto shellac discs. Records allowed musical performances to be mass reproduced so that in 1904, more than a million people could bring the tenor Enrico Caruso into their homes. When listeners gained the magical ability to bottle up and uncork musicians on demand, what did it mean for the musicians themselves? As the recording industry continued to grow, some performers began to worry that power was being taken away from them.
Tim Anderson [00:05:43] If you are playing live, you’re playing for a specific audience, you have a connection with them, and you control the output. But the minute you put your voice or your song on record, you’ve already given that up.
Evan Chung [00:05:57] For some musicians, anxiety about recording technology would turn into outright hostility. And one person’s hatred for canned music topped them all.
Newscaster #1 [00:06:08] He is the boss of the nation’s musicians–Mr. James Caesar Petrillo, the president of the American Federation of Musicians.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:06:15] I am satisfied that if the public of America knew the plight of the musician–knew what he is up against–that the public sentiment would immediately change.
Tim Anderson [00:06:33] James Caesar Petrillo–there’s something very big and brassy. To me, he’s, like, so Chicago.
Evan Chung [00:06:43] James Caesar Petrillo was born in 1892 and grew up on Chicago’s West Side. His father was a sewer digger from Italy, and he had a hardscrabble childhood. According to legend, Jimmy once got into a fight with nine boys and defeated them all, one after the other, over the course of two hours. He quit school after the fourth grade. By then, he’d already found his calling.
Tim Anderson [00:07:09] Petrillo grew up as part of this musician’s union. He was a trumpeter.
Evan Chung [00:07:14] Just not a very good one. Here he is later in life playing a questionable duet with former President Harry Truman on piano. Music may not have been his forte, but musicians were his people. In 1922, he became the president of the Chicago Local Ten of the American Federation of Musicians. He quickly imposed discipline, consolidated power, and ruthlessly grew membership. Although he drew the line at the city’s Black musicians; he refused to let their locale merge with his. Taking charge in the Capone era, Petrillo tussled with Chicago’s powerbrokers, theater owners, and other union leaders. His intimidation tactics made him plenty of enemies. In 1924, the windows of his house got blown out by a bomb. When Petrillo took over. It was an exciting time to be a musician. The record industry was growing in popularity, especially after the emergence of much higher quality electrical recording in 1925. But most musicians paid the bills by playing live. And in the 1920s, they had a brand-new venue.
Radio Announcer [00:08:39] WLS Chicago, the Sears Roebuck Station. Have a little song. Come on.
Evan Chung [00:08:48] In the early days of radio, the music on most stations came from live performers. But it was another medium that provided the best work–the movies.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:08:59] With the introduction of silent pictures, musicians became even more important because they provided the soundtrack. They provided a live soundtrack.
Evan Chung [00:09:09] Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of history at UCLA.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:09:13] And this is something that we often take for granted–what it meant to go to the theater.
Evan Chung [00:09:19] Going to the movies was going to a concert. A cinema might hire an organist, a four-piece combo, or a full orchestra. Quite a few of those jobs went to women. And if you were in a Black neighborhood, you’d likely see Black performers.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:09:34] Harlem was famous for going to hear someone like Fats Waller–great piano player–make up some music on the spot. His performances were sometimes more the spectacle than the film itself. At one point–across the country–something like 22,000 musicians worked in theaters.
Evan Chung [00:10:01] There were about 2,000 accompanists in James Petrillo’s Chicago alone. And these were coveted gigs.
Tim Anderson [00:10:08] They’re all tied to a location. They keep you off the road. And if you’re working in an orchestra pit, making live film scores, you have a job there potentially seven days a week.
Evan Chung [00:10:19] But then in 1927, Al Jolson appeared on movie screens. He was in blackface and in full sound. The Jazz Singer, with its tropes drawn from minstrelsy is an American cultural relic, but it ushered in a new cinematic era of recorded soundtracks. Theater owners rushed to embrace the so-called “talkies” and cleared out their orchestra pits.
Tim Anderson [00:10:57] And when we see the rise of early sound cinema, we start to see the decline of these orchestras. This is shocking for many musicians.
Evan Chung [00:11:06] New technology had given them their comfortable lives–and just as quickly, technology had put them on the unemployment line.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:11:15] That’s how technology works often. You know, technology is seen as providing more access, more opportunities. But then also you have that sort of hidden agenda; it’s a labor-saving device. But labor-saving device means people lose their jobs.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:11:35] And overnight, some 18,000 musicians were now.
Evan Chung [00:11:38] James Petrillo was incensed. Here he is in 1948, testifying to Congress about the plight of working performers.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:11:46] So with that kind of a sad experience, it was a natural thing for the musicians to try and protect themselves the best we know how.
Evan Chung [00:11:56] He fought back and tried to force every movie theater in Chicago to employ at least one union organist. When owners refused, some theaters mysteriously went up in flames. Petrillo denied having anything to do with those fires. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. By the mid-’30s, there were only 125 movie theater jobs left for musicians in Chicago.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:12:20] And so this was a huge loss. But it was a loss during the Great Depression, which made matters even worse.
Tim Anderson [00:12:28] Where are you going to go? You know, where are you going to work? “Well, okay, we’ll go to the bars.”
Evan Chung [00:12:33] But that only lasted so long.
Newscaster #2 [00:12:35] Once the restaurants and beer gardens of the nation all had their orchestras, but the mechanical jukeboxes drove them out of work.
Evan Chung [00:12:43] The jukebox was yet another disruption. During the Depression, cafe owners saw this new technology as a way to cut costs.
Tim Anderson [00:12:52] You can now stock a box of records and essentially say to the duo or trio there that played on a regular basis, “You’re not needed.”
Evan Chung [00:13:01] By 1938, the U.S. had at least 200,000 jukeboxes. If you figure a single machine could replace two or three musicians, that’s a lot of jobs lost. Things were changing on the radio, too. Stations realized that they could save money by playing records instead of hiring live bands. Musicians who’d made recordings were now essentially competing with themselves.
Tim Anderson [00:13:25] It’s being utilized against you. You no longer have that job because you made that record.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:13:30] One recording could be heard by millions, over and over again. It gives consumers and corporations more control over musicians’ labor. It cheapens musicians’ labor in many ways.
Tim Anderson [00:13:46] And it is traumatic to lose control over your production. And it’s a threat. It’s a disruptive.
Evan Chung [00:13:54] James C. Petrillo took that threat very seriously. To protect his union members, he pressured radio stations in Chicago to destroy records after playing them just one time. His militant tactics caught the attention of anxious musicians all over the country. And in 1940, he got elected the national leader of the American Federation of Musicians in a unanimous vote.
Tim Anderson [00:14:19] So he’s elected as president and slowly but surely assembles and moves forward with this idea that we’re going to try to counter the nuisance known as canned music.
Evan Chung [00:14:31] Coming out of the Depression, the recording industry was dominated by just three companies RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca. Those three labels controlled about 90% of the market. And that’s who Petrillo decided to target.
Tim Anderson [00:14:47] “We’ve got some power, we’re going to put some pressure on it, and we want some changes.”
Evan Chung [00:14:51] On June 8th, 1942, Petrillo spoke at the A.F.N.’s annual convention. By then, more than half of the union’s 138,000 members were unemployed. He told the delegates, “Now is the time that union musicians would never again play at their own funerals.”
Tim Anderson [00:15:12] Why should we record these things that are going to put us out of our jobs? We’re not doing this anymore.
Evan Chung [00:15:17] He declared that on August 1st, 1942, the musicians of America were going to stop recording permanently. The crowd of 700 delegates responded with rapturous applause. The fight was on, and Petrillo was confident the record industry would lose.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:15:37] While it’s going to take some time for the radio stations and the jukeboxes to feel the band on recordings of the American musician, the time is going to come that they’re not going to be able to get the records that they want and satisfy the American public. That’s the long chance we’re taking.
Evan Chung [00:15:57] In the summer of 1942, a letter arrived at every recording studio in America. It said, “Your license from the American Federation of Musicians for the Employment of its members in the making of musical recordings will expire on July 31st, 1942, and will not be renewed.” At the bottom was the rubber-stamped signature of James C. Petrillo. Some thought it was a bluff. It wasn’t.
Newscaster #3 [00:16:26] As first move in a campaign to share fully in the profits of every commercial use of recorded music, the American Federation of Musicians forbade its members to perform for any recording company.
Newscaster #4 [00:16:37] At Petrillo’s order, the record business ground to a stop.
Evan Chung [00:16:47] The ban was pretty near total–from Benny Goodman down to the tavern Fiddler. The record companies were left with nobody to record–and they were not happy about it, especially since Petrillo said that he wasn’t interested in negotiating. Refusing to set any terms was tactical because if he made demands, that would make it sound like the musicians were on strike. And after Pearl Harbor, labor leaders had pledged not to do that.
Marc Myers [00:17:16] You had to keep the engines running in this country for the war effort. And a strike would have been anti-patriotic, and you paid a price for doing so.
Evan Chung [00:17:24] Marc Myers is an author and music critic. He says Petrillo tried to wriggle out of that pledge by arguing a technicality.
Marc Myers [00:17:33] “Well, you know, it’s not really a strike. We’re just not going to work in recording studios. If you want to have us on the radio, that’s fine. We’re just not showing up at this other place.”
Evan Chung [00:17:42] The government didn’t think much of that line of reasoning.
Tim Anderson [00:17:45] The U.S. is pretty much looking at this and saying, “This is a real problem. The U.S. government really wants this to end.” You know, this shuts down economies.
Evan Chung [00:17:54] Media studies professor Tim Anderson again.
Tim Anderson [00:17:57] There’s a real reaction. It’s not pro-labor. I mean, it’s very much “We have to get this under control.”
Evan Chung [00:18:04] The director of the Office of War Information declared the ban “a threat to the war effort.” He warned that small radio stations that relied on recorded music might shut down and that those stations were essential for keeping the public up to date. Other government officials said the ban was unpatriotic–that it was wrong to deprive little children of music during wartime. In other words, while Americans had to ration rubber, gas, and coffee, music was a step too far. Washington’s hostility was surprising, considering how friendly the Roosevelt administration had been to the labor movement. It was FDR who had signed the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Wagner Act.
Newscaster #5 [00:18:49] By this act, employers are bound to bargain collectively with an organized majority of their workers.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:18:55] We take that for granted today, but it codified that workers have this right to organize.
Evan Chung [00:19:01] Historian Robin D. G. Kelley.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:19:03] Despite the Great Depression, unions became stronger than they had been–really–since the 1870s.
Tim Anderson [00:19:11] Many labor strikes, many fights for fair wages, the 40-hour workweek–and it’s being seen as a remedy to out of control capital.
Evan Chung [00:19:21] But during World War II, Washington saw unions as impediments to the war machine. And the public didn’t support the musicians either. A Gallup poll showed a 75% disapproval rate, even though many of the people listening to music were laborers themselves.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:19:38] You would think that workers would stand in solidarity with the musicians. But they wanted entertainment, and the struggles of musicians didn’t seem to carry the same kind of moral weight as, say, the struggles of steelworkers.
Evan Chung [00:19:53] Even today, people have a hard time thinking of music as labor. But Petrillo argued that musicians had to be seen as workers, just like pipefitters or miners.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:20:03] The only difference between the miners and the musicians is that the miners didn’t make the machine that might destroy them.
Evan Chung [00:20:12] That argument didn’t really catch on with the public. It didn’t help that recording companies, broadcasters, and editorial cartoonists were mounting a PR campaign against Petrillo.
Newscaster #6 [00:20:23] Who in a few short months found himself the target of an unprecedented barrage of public criticism and became, to many, the symbol of a labor czar–unbridled and irresponsible.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:20:35] No one was ever more vilified than I have in the press of this country. If they would spend half of the money that they spent on cartoons vilifying me, they would give it to the musicians, and we’d all be happy.
Evan Chung [00:20:52] One editorial called Petrillo “an inflated little nonentity, who strong-armed himself into dictatorial power.”
Tim Anderson [00:20:59] They quite simply tried to say to them, “You know, he’s a strongman leader like Mussolini and Hitler.”
Evan Chung [00:21:05] His critics claimed the ban wasn’t really collective action, but merely an autocrat’s personal vendetta imposed on reluctant musicians.
Tim Anderson [00:21:14] No, I mean, he clearly was the strong person that put it forward. But there was real fomenting pressure at many different levels. It wasn’t just his idea. You know, I think musicians in general were just really, really upset with what’s happening to their labor position. The fact is, though, that it was easy to lump him into, say, a category like a Mussolini or a Hitler because I think he’s a character. I think, you know, Petrillo really was a character.
Newscaster #7 [00:21:43] Now, Mr. Petrillo is a very entertaining gentleman. He’s a little man with short, stubby arms and pudgy fingers. Sometimes as he speaks and acts, he seems to be a little bit like Chico Marx or perhaps even Jimmy Durante.
Evan Chung [00:21:58] A writer for Life Magazine described Petrillo as resembling an “elderly frog that has just eaten a big and somewhat bitter dragonfly.” Petrillo was wisecracking and pugnacious. His personality drew a lot of attention, but it could also detract from his arguments. His critics caricatured him as a luddite, foolishly trying to stand in the way of innovation.
Tim Anderson [00:22:21] There’s a real famous cartoon with him riding a dinosaur–this idea that we’re going back to the past. And it paints him as somebody who’s trying to hold progress back.
Evan Chung [00:22:30] Petrillo really did seem to hate recording technology, but he wasn’t so naive to think he could just turn back the clock.
James Caesar Petrillo [00:22:38] I don’t think that anybody is big enough in this country to stop progress.
Tim Anderson [00:22:42] It’s not about harming progress. It’s about saying, “Hey, hold on. Hold on a minute. We’re progressing, but you’re leaving behind all these people–all these laborers–that put these records into play. Why aren’t they getting paid?”
Evan Chung [00:22:56] Because so few musicians earned a living from recording, they weren’t risking much by staying out of the studio. So, they were committed to holding their ground until they got a fair shake. And the recording industry realized it needed a plan. The record labels began mounting their counteroffensive even before the ban officially started.
Tim Anderson [00:23:17] Well, the first thing they do is they stockpile. They go, “Okay, well, we know that this is coming down the line. We are going to shove a lot of things into production and see if we can wait this out.”
Evan Chung [00:23:27] That’s where you see that flurry of round the clock recording in the final weeks of July 1942. That stockpile of songs left record companies with plenty of material to trickle out that summer and fall–and even into the holidays. Fortunately for Decca Records, Bing Crosby had recorded White Christmas shortly before the ban went into effect. It topped the charts for 11 weeks in 1942 and became the biggest selling single of all time. The stockpile was working. But it wasn’t unlimited. And Petrillo was not going to relent anytime soon. The public was going to demand new songs, so the labels began looking for loopholes–ways to evade the ban and make new recordings.
Marc Myers [00:24:22] One of the interesting things about the recording ban is it did not affect vocalists. Vocalists didn’t belong to the musician’s union–only instrumentalists did.
Evan Chung [00:24:30] Writer Marc Myers again.
Marc Myers [00:24:31] What did that mean? Well, it meant Frank Sinatra could sing, but there was nobody to play music behind them.
Evan Chung [00:24:44] Except the record labels realized there were some accompanists they could hire. It wasn’t only singers who were left out of the union. There were a handful of musicians that were excluded, too, presumably because their instruments were deemed too amateurish–things like Ike ocarinas, ukuleles, and jaw harps.
Tim Anderson [00:25:02] The classic example is that the harmonica players were not organized. So, one of the ways that people got around these bans was actually by recording harmonica acts.
Evan Chung [00:25:29] There was another more common way to circumvent the ban. Producers tried backing their singers with more singers.
Marc Myers [00:25:39] What they decided to do is create a vocal choir so that the vocal choir is creating what the instruments would have played.
Evan Chung [00:25:46] Like on this 1942 recording by Ethel Merman. The labels tried out the acapella tactic on a bunch of artists, like Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, and Perry Como.
Marc Myers [00:26:24] Not very successful. You know, the stuff sounds sort of maudlin–doesn’t sound as peppy and as punchy. But that’s how vocalists got around it.
Evan Chung [00:26:33] It proved to be a short-lived fad. But there is some speculation that this was the origin of the wordless vocals you’d hear all over lounge records in the ’50s and ’60s. During the ban, there were a handful of exceptions where James Petrillo would permit instrumentalists to record.
Glenn Miller [00:26:58] This is Captain Glenn Miller speaking for the Army Air Force’s Training Command Orchestra. And we hope that you soldiers of the Allied forces enjoy these V-Discs that we’re making just for you.
Evan Chung [00:27:12] V-Discs were records distributed exclusively to the troops. Petrillo allowed them on the condition that the soldiers destroy them before coming home. But still, at least temporarily, the military got to hear Frank Sinatra’s hit, Close to You, backed by a full orchestra. On the home front, all you got was the acapella version. Another exception to the recording ban was in Hollywood. The studio orchestras there continued to make movie soundtracks, but that led to some oddities. Take the 1942 film that would go on to win Best Picture. There’s a famous scene in Casablanca where Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, requests a song from Sam, the piano player, played by Dooley Wilson.
Ilsa Lund [00:28:21] Play it once, Sam. For old time’s sake.
Sam [00:28:24] I don’t know what you mean, Ms. Ilsa.
Ilsa Lund [00:28:25] Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.
Evan Chung [00:28:44] As Time Goes By became one of the most famous movie themes ever. And it seemed like Dooley Wilson had a guaranteed hit record on his hands if he could just head into a studio and play it again, Sam.
Rick Blaine [00:28:57] You played it for her, you can play it for me.
Evan Chung [00:28:59] Except Dooley Wilson couldn’t play it. Instead, the record companies dug deep into their vaults. They dusted off old recordings of As Time Goes By and re-released them. Frank Munn’s vocal style on this 1931 recording already sounded ancient a decade later. But listeners craved As Time Goes By so badly that this version hit number three in April 1943. Everyone knew that consumers wouldn’t be content with moldy oldies forever. Music can’t just stay frozen in time. It has to evolve. And the truth is, it was evolving very rapidly even though most Americans had no idea. That’s because it was all happening in the middle of the night, hidden away in smoky clubs. And when the new sound finally got out, American culture would never be the same. We’ll be right back.
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Evan Chung [00:31:15] After six months, James C. Petrillo finally offered a proposal for how to end the recording ban. In February 1943, he told the record labels that they would have to pay a royalty directly to the union for each record sold. That money would go into a trust fund for unemployed musicians. The union would hire them to play free public concerts.
Rick Blaine [00:31:38] This fund will not be used for any other purpose but for the advancement of musical culture.
Tim Anderson [00:31:46] You know, this was a modern solution.
Evan Chung [00:31:47] Tim Anderson, again.
Tim Anderson [00:31:49] It would turn a record into another light performance because you could actually take the residuals that went into the trust fund and then give them to somebody else to play.
Evan Chung [00:31:57] To the three major labels, it was an absurd idea. RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca rejected the proposal as socialistic. Why should they be contributing to a welfare fund for people who weren’t even their employees? So, the ban continued. In 1943, the pressure was mounting to record some new songs. But even as the band passed the one-year mark, the three major labels stood together. Or so they thought.
Rick Blaine [00:32:27] Their united front was finally broken as all but two of the biggest recording companies agreed to Petrillo’s term.
Evan Chung [00:32:35] Decca was the smallest of the three companies. It didn’t have the back catalog that RCA or Columbia did. And by September 1943, its stockpile of recordings was nearly depleted.
Marc Myers [00:32:47] Decca is running out of money. I mean, they’re on the verge of bankruptcy.
Evan Chung [00:32:51] Writer Marc Myers again.
Marc Myers [00:32:53] And Decca throws in the towel, and Decca signs with the union. They say, “Fine, we’ll pay you that royalty.”
Evan Chung [00:32:58] James Petrillo was ready to gloat.
Rick Blaine [00:33:00] The recent contracts, which we have negotiated, will bring into the Federation Treasury approximately $3 million per year.
Evan Chung [00:33:11] But the two biggest labels still refused to budge.
Marc Myers [00:33:15] Columbia and RCA–they say, “No, we’re not going to do that. We think eventually Congress is going to force you guys back to work.”
Evan Chung [00:33:23] Decca, though, was now free to record. And not only Decca.
Marc Myers [00:33:27] All of a sudden, these little companies sweep in and take full advantage of the fact that Columbia and RCA are off the market.
Evan Chung [00:33:36] More than a hundred small companies also signed royalty agreements with the union. Many of them were entirely new labels. Entrepreneurs sniffed an opportunity. Perhaps there was now room to muscle in on RCA and Columbia’s turf. The question was: Who were they going to record? The guaranteed money makers were big bands. Swing had been developed by Black big bands in Kansas City more than a decade earlier. By the mid 1930s, white bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw had picked it up and turned it into a crossover phenomenon. For a country anxious over the Depression and a world war, it was the perfect soundtrack.
Marc Myers [00:34:20] Swing was basically an elixir for society at large. Swing music is designed to cheer people up, to keep people in a good mood, to give people hope.
Evan Chung [00:34:30] Big bands held the number one position on the Billboard charts virtually every week since the charts began in 1940. So, it would make sense for these start up labels to record them. Except they couldn’t.
Marc Myers [00:34:42] They can’t record Artie Shaw. They can’t record Benny Goodman. All these major bandleaders are signed to the two labels that are sitting there, whittling away, waiting for the union to cave. So, they can’t get the big talent.
Evan Chung [00:34:55] Instead, the new companies recorded niche genres–polka, gospel, and what was then called “hillbilly music.” But some label owners knew of another option. As the recording ban trudged on, a group of jazz musicians have been developing something different–a mind blowing style of music that no one had put on record. This new music had been born out of artistic necessity because as great as swing was, it could be a little stifling for individual musicians. They weren’t hired to express themselves. They were there to serve their audience.
Marc Myers [00:35:41] The dance band was for background. If you were dancing, your primary focus was the guy or the gal you were dancing with.
Evan Chung [00:35:49] So while the music could be wonderful, lush, and vibrant, it could also feel a little formulaic. Each dance band might have its own style, but that was entirely determined by the bandleader.
Marc Myers [00:36:02] That bandleader’s sound took precedence over anybody’s individual ego or playing ability. So, individuals had to suppress the individualism. You had to be part of the larger sound of that band. You had to be an ingredient in the sauce.
Evan Chung [00:36:18] As an instrumentalist, you may not even get a chance to solo. And if you did land a solo, you played it how the bandleader wanted it, or you’d be in trouble.
Marc Myers [00:36:28] They ran the bands like little companies–like corporations–where things had to be done a certain way. And if you didn’t like it, you got fired. And if you didn’t play right, you got fired. So, there were rigid rules to those big bands.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:36:42] So precarity for musicians was part and parcel of the job.
Evan Chung [00:36:48] Historian Robin D. G. Kelley.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:36:50] And so the glamor of waking up, being creative, coming up with something new, and expanding the horizons of art–that’s something that most musicians don’t even have the luxury to do, even if that’s what inspired them in the first place.
Evan Chung [00:37:06] But not every jazz musician in the early ’40s could settle for a life of big band conformity. The trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was one artist who yearned for something more.
Marc Myers [00:37:18] His way of thinking wasn’t as rigid. I mean, he was thinking more of himself as an individual. “How can I create a new language? How can I create a new sound?”
Evan Chung [00:37:28] And he wasn’t the only musician brimming with ideas. There was an idiosyncratic piano player named Thelonious Monk, an inventive percussionist named Kenny Clarke, and a bluesy saxophonist from Kansas City–Charlie Parker. But these musicians needed a space to try out their new ideas. That wasn’t going to happen in their day job in the big band. So, they had to do it off the clock.
Marc Myers [00:37:57] You know, when they’re not playing in the bands or they have off nights, they’re going to after-hours clubs. You know, you had Minton’s in Harlem, and you had Monroe’s Uptown.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:38:07] These are the clubs where a revolution–a slow revolution–in music was taking place, where musicians would come and jam.
Evan Chung [00:38:15] The jam sessions might not start until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:38:19] And when you walk in, you see a room full of both musicians, sitting ready to play, and some hangers-on, who just loved the music.
Marc Myers [00:38:30] People are talking. People are laughing.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:38:32] And on the bandstand, you’d see Thelonious Monk, you’d see Kenny Clarke. And they’d be up there, calling tunes. They could play All the Things You Are, Nice Work If You Can Get It, all these different songs people think they know–and then they would take them on a journey.
Marc Myers [00:38:47] And the music is raising the hairs on the backs of your arms.
Evan Chung [00:38:54] Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker might be up there, experimenting with strange harmonies and dissonant sounds.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:39:00] Musicians would be either thrilled by it, excited, or confused. And those who are confused sometimes would have to sit down. They couldn’t handle it.
Evan Chung [00:39:10] Those left standing might go on for hours, daring each other to take the music farther and farther out there.
Marc Myers [00:39:17] People would be cheering and rooting on their favorite saxophonist to go after the other one. “Whoa! Yeah! Yeah!” It’s an environment not unlike a boxing arena–an illegal boxing arena–where two people are battling it out. The solo might go on for 10 minutes. I mean, the longer somebody could play, the more wild the audience would get.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:39:42] Virtuosity was a virtue. They wanted to play faster.
Marc Myers [00:39:48] Very, very fast. Too fast to dance to. And they are, you know, shooting out ideas that are like lightning bolts. Max Roach and Kenny Clarke might drop in a couple of bombs on the snare, then hit the cymbal once, and then come back and hit the cymbal twice. And, you know, there’s a rhythm there, but it’s fractured. It’s almost like looking at a cubist painting.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:40:12] All this created a certain kind of sense of freedom during these moments of joy. You know, they’re not necessarily conscious attempts to make new music. They’re just conscious attempts to be free.
Evan Chung [00:40:28] Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and the other innovators–they didn’t have a special name for this radical new sound they developed. But years later it would come to be called “bebop.”
Marc Myers [00:40:40] This music’s being played, audience is going nuts, but as soon as they go home, they need to come back to the club to hear it again.
Evan Chung [00:40:47] That’s because there were no records made of all that wild experimentation in 1942 or 1943. For many jazz fans, Petrillo’s recording ban represents a dark age, where the evolution of our greatest artists is erased from history.
Marc Myers [00:41:05] That is a lost period of time when it comes to bebop.
Evan Chung [00:41:09] But to view the recording ban purely as a tragedy for jazz is way too simplistic. The truth is bebop probably wouldn’t have been recorded even without the ban. The big three record companies weren’t in the business of recording unproven talents like Charlie Parker, who played at 5:00 in the morning at Harlem clubs. But thanks to the recording ban, the big three labels now had a whole lot of competition.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:41:36] Once Decca agreed to the union’s terms, all these independent companies just came out of the woodwork.
Marc Myers [00:41:43] Labels like Apollo, Guild, Musicraft.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:41:46] Commodore label, Dial, Signature, Blue Note, Savoy, Deluxe.
Evan Chung [00:41:52] Many were brand new. Others were reinvigorated.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:41:55] That was a real new development that shaped the future of jazz. Those small labels became the jazz labels.
Evan Chung [00:42:04] These labels couldn’t record the established bandleaders, like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. So, they took a chance on the guys playing a wild, sophisticated new music in after-hours clubs.
Marc Myers [00:42:15] And that’s when the revolution kicks into high gear.
Evan Chung [00:42:21] On February 16th, 1944, Apollo Records held its very first recording session in New York City. In the studio that day were Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and others. And what they came up with would be the first commercial recording of bebop.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:42:39] They’re basically turning the jam session and all the experimental music into these records and selling them.
Evan Chung [00:42:45] But that was only the beginning.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:42:47] One very famous recording is Koko, which is Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It is kind of a clinic in bebop music in terms of virtuosity in harmonies.
Evan Chung [00:43:00] In Koko, Charlie Parker takes the chord changes to another song–a standard called Cherokee–and he invents a completely new melody on top of it.
Marc Myers [00:43:08] That’s a revolutionary thing. It’s like taking the same house but changing all the furniture. You hear the drums completely changed–Max Roach. He’s playing it three times as fast as it should be played. Wow.
Evan Chung [00:43:34] Koko is so fast and so complex that it even stymied Miles Davis. He was supposed to play on the session, but he just couldn’t keep up.
Marc Myers [00:43:43] The intricacy and the density–I mean, keep in mind, other than that melodic line that sets up the song, all the rest of it’s made up on the spot, right there. I mean, it’s inconceivable. So many years later, that’s still fresh, it’s still exciting, it’s still dynamic, and it’s still a wonderment.
Evan Chung [00:44:13] Until this point, bebop had felt like a secret language that only a handful of artists knew. Even other jazz musicians who had seen Parker and Gillespie play hadn’t been able to figure out what they were actually doing. But now they could take a record like Koko home with them, put it on their phonographs, and slow it down.
Marc Myers [00:44:32] And start to write down what they were hearing. “Ah. That’s what Dizzy Gillespie is doing there. Ah, I see. That’s what Charlie Parker’s doing with that chord.” So, they could sort of unravel the recipe to bebop once these records were made.
Evan Chung [00:44:46] And with that, this new sound became emulated all over. And the trajectory of jazz was transformed.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:44:53] Bebop opened up space for new harmonization. You get more dissonance and more abstraction. The rhythm changed dramatically pretty much forever. That becomes the standard. It doesn’t go back to the old way.
Evan Chung [00:45:11] The old style of a rigid big band under the control of a single leader was giving way to a new era.
Marc Myers [00:45:18] All of a sudden, it’s not about one person. It’s about everybody, and it’s about what they’re bringing to it. Everybody gets a turn. Everybody gets to solo. The whole game was to sound as individual as possible and to create your own musical identity.
Evan Chung [00:45:33] But even as bebop started to spread, the recording band was still going against the two biggest companies. In October 1944, President Roosevelt personally asked James C. Petrillo to end it. Petrillo rebuffed even him. With Decca and the new, small labels gaining ground, RCA and Columbia realized they could no longer wait it out. So, on November 11th, 1944, they surrendered. The label signed an agreement accepting the union’s terms for three years. After more than 27 months, the recording ban was finally over. James Caesar Petrillo had won.
Tim Anderson [00:46:17] Temporarily. I think he temporarily wins, but they eventually lose the war over records.
Evan Chung [00:46:23] In 1946, Congress passed a bill called the Lea Act. It was designed explicitly to weaken the American Federation of Musicians and was more commonly known as the Anti-Petrillo Act.
Tim Anderson [00:46:36] “Hey, look, we don’t want this to ever happen again, and we’re going to defang the A.F.M.” And they effectively defang them.
Evan Chung [00:46:42] The next year came the Taft-Hartley Act, which diminished the power of all unions. Washington was in the midst of a full anti-labor backlash. Meanwhile, new technological advances were coming that filled the union with anxiety. What would television and FM radio mean for musicians? Would they lead to more opportunities or more displacement? These questions were still unanswered when the union’s agreement with the record labels expired at the end of 1947. That’s when Petrillo called for another ban.
Dinah Washington [00:47:17] He asked when I’d record again. I said Petrillo’s the boss. I’ve got the record band blues.
Evan Chung [00:47:26] This is Dinah Washington’s song, Record Band Blues.
Dinah Washington [00:47:29] Yes, I’ve got those record band blues.
Evan Chung [00:47:34] The record companies were better prepared in 1948. The ban didn’t last nearly as long this time. The A.F.M. won some of its demands, but even Petrillo could see where things were headed.
Tim Anderson [00:47:47] He basically says in ’48, “Industry has taken over. They’ve taken the reins. I’m not going to lie to you guys, we’re no longer in the leading position.”
Evan Chung [00:47:56] The solutions that James C. Petrillo fought for were innovative but ultimately inadequate. Using royalties to pay for some free concerts wouldn’t save musicians’ jobs. The issues that he raised in 1942 never really got settled. Decades later, they popped up again with the rise of Napster and streaming services like Spotify.
Tim Anderson [00:48:19] And the same questions are asked. How are you going to compensate the content providers? We still have a long ways to go to talk about fair and just compensation. We need to think about what the norms of progress are. Any time that we disrupt a so-called industry through tech and displace a bunch of people and a bunch of workers, we’re not thinking about the issues of ethics. We’re thinking about how can we do this more efficiently and at less cost? You know, then we’ll grow our profit margins.
Evan Chung [00:48:49] The victories of the recording ban may have been temporary and insufficient, but the impact of bebop was permanent and profound–and not only within the world of jazz. As the recordings spread after the war, bebop began what Ralph Ellison called “a revolution in culture.” It spilled into art and literature, it altered how people spoke and dressed, and it became a soundtrack to the struggle for civil rights.
Robin D. G. Kelley [00:49:18] Duke Ellington called this music “the Marcus Garvey extension.” This is a music with politics–a music that calls for freedom for all Black people that celebrates Blackness.
Evan Chung [00:49:30] This wasn’t at all what James C. Petrillo had in mind; he’d fought to keep Black musicians out of his locale in Chicago. But it may be his recording ban’s greatest legacy.
Marc Myers [00:49:41] If it wasn’t for the ban and these small record labels, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk might never have been known because if there was no ban, RCA, Columbia, and Decca would have continued to control the market. They wouldn’t have allowed this music to surface. It never would have become a thing. And modern jazz might not have existed at all.
Josh Levin [00:50:21] Evan Chung is One Year’s senior producer. This episode of One Year was written and produced by Evan Chung. It was edited by me, Josh Levin, and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcasts. Additional production came from Sophie Summergrad and Sam Kim. Our senior technical director is Merritt Jacob. Holly Allan created the artwork for the season. The audio of the phonautogram came from First Sounds. Tim Anderson’s book is called Making Easy Listening. Marc Myers is the author of Why Jazz Happened. And Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk is called Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1942 at [email protected] And you can call us on the One Year hotline at 203-343-0777. We’d love to hear from you. Special thanks to Christina Cauterucci, Madeline Ducharme, Susan Matthews, Sol Werthan, Bill Carey, Katie Rayford, Ben Richmond, Caitlin Schneider, Cleo Levin, Seth Brown, Rachel Strom, and Alicia Montgomery, Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with more from 1942.
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