Visualizing the Economics of Music in Austin: 1930-1939
Many historians have argued that the image of African American jazz and dance musicians improved substantially during the Swing Era. In the broad realms of American culture, black bandleaders and instrumentalists achieved a level of respect and recognition during this decade (1935-1945) that had been previously all but unachievable. The elevated reputation of Duke Ellington, who began to be seen as a nationally important composer in the 1930s, is a clear example of this shift.
Despite these important cultural gains, black bands did not see equality in compensation during these years. This was abundantly evident in Texas. The economic disparity between white and African American bands in Austin was immense during the 1930s. Right before and during the Swing era, dances for UT students were the most lucrative and numerous in the city. In 1933, the All University Dances paid local orchestras $100 per dance, the equivalent of about $1900 in 2019 dollars. Touring and regional orchestras got between $125 and $300. Don Albert’s group, an African American band from San Antonio, got the bottom rung of this scale ($125), while Jimmy Joy’s Orchestra, a touring white band originally from Austin, got $240. That year, there were at least forty-seven All University Dances. From these musical wages, white orchestras captured the vast vast majority of money during this decade.
We’ve compiled the data for dances at four venues in Austin during the 1930s: Gregory Gym, the Texas Union, the Austin Country Club, and the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. These were some of the major places for orchestra gigs during this decade and its audiences were dominated by UT students. Although not all dances or bands were reported, these performances were generally well documented by the Daily Texan, the Austin Statesman, and the Austin American newspapers. Consequently, they give us an excellent indication of the contours of who played where and when.
Performances Grouped by Performers’ Race, 1930-1939
The data show that there was a considerable bias from UT students and institutions to hire white orchestras. Compensation from the rich live dance music environment in Austin went overwhelmingly to white musicians. From the documented performances at these venues during these select years, black orchestras received about 0.028% of these gigs and Latino bands about 0.005%. 84.6% of these gigs are confirmed to have been played by white orchestras while around 11.9% remained unknown (although they were most likely played by white orchestras as well).
You can view the differences in documented dances played by white, black, and Latino orchestras between 1930 and 1939. Two venues have information for 1930-1939: Gregory Gym and the Texas Union on UT campus, where the All University Dances happened. The two other venues show select years: the Austin Country displays dances for 1930, 1935, and 1939 while the gigs at Stephen F. Austin Hotel are recorded for 1933, 1935, and 1937. Although this data is limited, it demonstrates the overall trends of employment discrimination in the live music scene during these years.
- Lewis Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; David Stowe, Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). ⏎
- See the receipts for the All University Dances, Box 2.325/G113, Texas Union Records, Briscoe Center for American History; Inflation Calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl ⏎