A Lack of Imagination
What is it that we want from the past? This is a question historians are forced to ask themselves on a nearly daily basis. Every time an historian begins a project she must ask herself what it is that she wants from the past she investigates. The answer will not only inform the project, it will also give rise to the history the writer presents. History is not simply out there awaiting someone to come along and narrate it. It is a product of the historical imagination.
The notion of a historical imagination is key here. If we lack imagination, then history is simply that thing that led up to our present moment. Therefore, history becomes either a success story (if we happen to approve of the present moment) or a story of decline (if we happen to disapprove of the present). For historians lacking a proper historical imagination, the people of the past were pretty much the way they are today, except they lived in slightly (or greatly) differing social circumstances. If those circumstances fall below the writer’s ethical threshold, then the people of the past either suffered or preyed upon the suffering.
The lack of historical imagination all-too-often rears its head in writings concerning the plights of non-hegemonic groups (in the history of the US, this means those who were not white males). Perhaps this is understandable. Americans lament their racist, sexist past.
But that last sentence embodies the very problem. The past is not ours. It doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to the people that lived it. People that did not think as we do, that did not see the world in the way we see it. What we need to do is lament our racist, sexist present and evaluate the racist, sexist past with some awareness of our present biases. This is where imagination is essential.
Kristin A. McGee’s new monograph Some Liked It Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928-1959 is an intriguing case in point. First, I should applaud the book’s many successes. It diligently pursues the filmed and televised performances of several female jazz performers and ensembles over a roughly three-decade span.
McGee makes some intriguing connections between these performances and the pin-up glamour photos of female stars during the ‘40s (particularly in connection with the war effort). She examines various reviews of the artists under consideration and attempts to demonstrate why female performers found more success in visual media rather than on aural recordings (although, admittedly, her narrative doesn’t go nearly far enough in explicating the reasons for this behind the obvious sex appeal of the performers). As an introduction to such key figures and ensembles as Hazel Scott, Dave Schooler and His 21 Swinghearts, Ada Leonard and Her All-Girl Orchestra, and Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, this book will prove a much-needed resource.
What McGee does not manage to do, however, is to move very far beyond her exhaustive descriptions of several performances (a waste of space when most of them are available even on YouTube) in order to engage in more deeply interpretive work. Her descriptions of these performances are basically blow-by-blow and really there is nothing more dull than hearing someone else simply describe a musical performance. There are no musical examples, no attempt at deeper analysis of style, and McGee’s writing lacks the verve to bring these experiences alive for the reader.
One is forced to register a similar complaint with respect to her use of secondary sources. She diligently charts the work of other scholars but does little more than rehash their assertions without offering any real interpretation. This kind of writing amounts to a useful compilation of data but it can hardly be considered original research.
Ultimately, the weakness of this book may amount to a lack of historical imagination. Every primary source McGee encounters simply has to be racist and sexist. Why? Because, McGee “knows” that the period she is studying was sexist and racist. Therefore, if a reviewer of the time wrote that the female performers were beautiful and musically talented, that reviewer was emphasizing their bodies. If a reviewer emphasized the talent to the exclusion of the looks of the performers, then that reviewer was “registering” the racist agenda of the times. When one reviewer proclaimed the value of boogie-woogie, the review, according to McGee, “belies the powerful specter of race”.
Thus, the people of the time cannot possibly be anything other than racist and sexist. There is no nuance here, no attempt to come to grips with their understanding of race and gender. We lose a valuable opportunity to understand women’s role in jazz by failing to register the ways in which they fulfilled roles unavailable to men. Hence, McGee’s monograph will more likely be consulted than read.