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Jazz, Race, and the WPA project in Tampa

By: Michael McDowell

            The WPA archives provide a crucial insight into the experiences of Tampa residents in the 1930s and 40s. The documents in the archive contain ethnographic accounts and government documents that detail not only the types of music that residents of Tampa encountered, but the documents describe local churches and shops as well as the racial and ethnic make up of these communities and neighborhoods in the greater Tampa region. While the documents attempt to analyze the community with an objective voice, the implications of mid- and early-twentieth century racial understandings are evident throughout. These racial understandings provide an account of how 1930s and 40s America prioritized race, not only at a local level but at a federal level, and, more importantly for this project, how these legal and societal outlooks on race impact the music-making and dance in Tampa during the era.

            In an ethnography by Paul Diggs from September 2nd, 1938, the writer visits an African-American church located on the corner of 4th Street and Florence Avenue in Lakeland. Almost immediately in his writing, Diggs suggests an “African” influence on the church’s service:

            “Their methods of worship are far different from the modern methods of worship held in most Negro Churches. If you have ever read of, or visited the jungles in Africa, or the deep rural sections of the West Indies Islands, you may see in their services the  interpreting of tribal dances done by the natives.” [1]

Diggs’ automatic association with Africa and the West Indies makes primitive what is not his own, and further in his writing he describes various dances (some resembling the Charleston to him) that occur in the church service. This writing is important for two reasons: it shows that the attempt at an objective voice with the WPA falls short (and is evident in the racial descriptions of the service), and the mention of dances shows a clear Tin Pan Alley and Jazz influence on the church service in an African American church in Lakeland.

            While Diggs’ writing gives a bit of insight into the type of music played in African American churches in the 1930s, an essay by Viola B. Muse describes a vibrant, cosmopolitan mix of racial and ethnic groups in Tampa’s various neighborhoods (Muse notes that Tampa is more cosmopolitan than Jacksonville or Miami, but less so than Pensacola). [2] Muse’s paper describes 20,000 African Americans in the city (out of 101,000 total residents), between 20,000-25,000 Cubans, and “about 2,000 Italians and Spaniards.” Muse’s essay describes the various neighborhoods in Tampa such as Ybor and West Tampa. Tampa’s multicultural background, fueled by the work provided in the cigar industry, allowed for cultural sharing, so much so that many African Americans spoke in Spanish with their Cuban and Spanish neighbors. This look into the cosmopolitan nature of the city adds nuance to Tampa’s history; while many cities in the South were segregated, leading to very different experiences for African Americans and white Americans, what is unique to Tampa is the integration of Cuban, Italian, and Spanish cultures into the region.

            A recital put on by the WPA Music Academy on April 16th, 1942 at the Italian Club in Ybor City shows the WPA’s attempt to incorporate the performers’ various ethnic backgrounds into a more hegemonic American identity. The program features many patriotic songs, as well as “Spanish songs” performed on piano and sung by choruses. This multi-faceted performance seems to be an attempt to rectify Tampa’s multi-ethnic background with a newfound need for patriotism after America’s entry into the Second World War.

            During the war, the WPA’s mission shifts from collecting of data to providing services to the community and, most importantly, to providing entertainment for soldiers and officers at MacDill Field (later to be named MacDill Air Force Base). “Music is in the air at MacDill Field,” reads one report, “[t]he defense program feels that the enlisted men are entitled to recreation and entertainment, and the WPA Music Project is doing its part to provide a suitable program of music[3].”

            The WPA’s primary focus, in the spirit of a post-New Deal sense of social responsibility, was to bring music education to those who may not be able to afford it, and to bring jobs to musicians who found themselves out of work with the advent of canned music in newly-created sound movies. The project concerned itself with civic and classical music training, but the shift to “sweet’ jazz in the war period shows a concern for keeping the moral of the troops high. One essay by writer James B. Riley laments the fact that jazz and more popular contemporary forms cannot replace the music of the 1890s that many Tampa residents hold dear, however, the writer reconciles the adaptation of jazz by asserting the duty of education of residents and the entertainment of troops as viable artistic outputs for the WPA.

            Unfortunately, the ideals of patriotism in wartime America could not unite a segregated nation, even with the influence of federally-backed projects like the WPA and the Air Field. An author-less, handwritten note describes a considerable difference in the music provided for and by whites, and the music provided for and by “negroes.” The ensembles are described as orchestras, but the instrumentation suggests that these “orchestras” are jazz bands. The “White Orchestra” used the instrumentation of three violins, three trumpets, three saxophones, one piano, one guitar, one “baseviol [sic],” and one drum kit. The inclusion of violins suggests a “sweet” group, most likely playing jazz ballads, Tin Pan Alley tunes, or patriotic music. The “Negro Orchestra” appears to have been a jazz combo, consisting of five musicians: a bassist, a pianist, a saxophonist, a trumpeter, and a drummer.

            The notable difference in instrumentation suggests many things. The “Negro Orchestra” requires considerably fewer musicians, this could suggest a lack of availability of African American musicians, or it could suggest a lack of funding to provide for a larger group of African American musicians. Given the considerable difference in instrumentation, the genre of music and types of songs that are able to be played vary considerably, demonstrating that the segregated nature of the music encompassed even musical genre. While this understanding of a segregated south and of the segregation of popular music is not a new one, it is surprising to see this type of segregation being practiced at a federal level, by federal employees, especially given the effort during the wartime to unite Americans.

            The nuance of Tampa’s role in this becomes evident when examining the venues provided in the handwritten note. The Enlisted Men’s Club is a venue available to both groups, but that is where the overlap ends. The White Orchestra could play at MacDill, but the Negro Orchestra is relegated to the mess halls. What is most interesting, however, is the inclusion of other ethnicities’ venues in the list of available places for the Negro Orchestra. In addition to the mess halls, the orchestra could play at the Cuban Center and the Catholic Center, revealing a level of nuance in the racial and ethnic dynamics is one that seems to be unique to Tampa’s history.


[1] Diggs, Paul, “Sanctified Church,” (WPA Archives, University of South Florida, 1938), 1-4.

[2] Muse, Viola B. “Negro Ethnography” (WPA Archives, University of South Florida, 1936). 1-9.

[3] (WPA Archives, University of South Florida).