Jump for Joy: Duke Ellington in Wartime Los Angeles

Duke Ellington. Photograph, c. 1941. Associated Press.

Duke Ellington. Photograph, c. 1941. Associated Press.

In 1941, with the United States on the brink of war, the Duke Ellington Orchestra stayed put for once. Ellington’s never-ending tour took him to Los Angeles, where he collaborated with screenwriters, outside musicians, comics, singers, and dancers—with the orchestra as the pit band—in the original theatrical revue Jump for Joy. It was a landmark production for Los Angeles and the first major all-black revue to be staged since the 1920s. As always, the Duke sought to entertain over the course of 100 performances. And as always, he hoped for a popular success, in this case aiming at making a run on Broadway. And as always, he saw his work as an ongoing commentary on the history of black America as well as its current condition.

With Southern California’s booming defense economy coming to the rescue of the Joads and their fellow Okies, a new migration from the South transformed the region. What would the new Los Angeles look like as it participated in a war for democracy abroad? How fair would Los Angeles be to its own citizens on the home front? Jump for Joy was a test of the times, a high-stepping, syncopated answer to decades of what Ellington saw as shuffling Uncle Tomism in the theater. Ellington called the revue his most important statement on civil rights.

Over the past year I investigated Jump for Joy, the source of such great tunes as “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and a signature achievement of perhaps Ellington’s greatest band, enlivened as it was by the presence of tenor saxophone master Ben Webster, dynamo bassist Jimmy Blanton, and Ellington’s new musical partner, Billy Strayhorn. I had great help from the friendly folk at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers-Newark, and the Archives Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, home of the Duke Ellington archive, and of course my my academic home, California State University, Fullerton. The resulting article, “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy and the Fight for Equality in Wartime Los Angeles,” complete with 10 illustrations, may now be found in the Spring 2016 edition of Southern California Quarterly, the journal of the Historical Society of Southern California published by the University of California Press.

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