Austinites are used to the University of Texas being associated with pop music. There’s the enormous “superdrum,” the Erwin Center, which hosts huge acts like George Strait and Mannheim Steamroller. Then there’s Bass Concert Hall, built a few years after the Erwin, which promotes jazz ensembles, Broadway shows, and folk artists. And, finally, there is the much beloved, six shooter and cow skull ornamented Cactus Cafe in the Texas Union, one of the best small listening rooms in the city.
Most don’t know that UT’s sponsorship of non-classical music goes all the way back to the 1920s. What may be even more surprising is that, during the Depression, the university exerted an enormous draw on the biggest names in Swing and big band dance music. During the 1930s and 1940s, most of the big star bandleaders played here. Ads from the Daily Texan, UT’s newspaper, show that there was a steady stream of major performers traveling to Austin to play in Gregory Gym or the Texas Union.
Recently, I discovered a pair of Billboard polls from the early 1940s that both confirm this and add some new information to the story. The first, from 1942, shows that UT did indeed have an extraordinary number of big band dances. More interestingly, it shows that Texas was not alone and gives us some data for comparison. Taken together, universities were major venues for Swing and Sweet orchestras during the Depression. Not all academies were equally enthusiastic about promoting pop music on campus or had the money to invest in student entertainment. From the survey we can see that UT outpaced all the others. Texas’s flagship university had by far the richest dance life in the country during the final years of the Swing era.
In April 1942, Billboard published the results of its fifth annual College Music Poll. The poll’s results, gathered from questionnaires to college newspapers, ranked the most popular American bands.3 College audiences’s taste heavily favored white bands that year: Glenn Miller won first place for the third time; every bandleader in the top ten was white; and there were only two black artists on the list at all. The highest ranking black performer in the poll, Jimmie Lunceford, came in fifteenth place and received only 7 votes.
Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra played Gregory Gym on March 13, 1942. *Daily Texan* (March 13, 1942), 1.
The clear bias of the 1942 poll supports historian Lewis Erenberg’s claim that American audiences abandoned their fragile support for black musicians after the start of World War II as they increasingly idealized the home front as white.1 Interestingly, a few colleges voted for a white bandleader who was typically excluded from discussions of Swing or Sweet, Bob Wills. Wills’s Western Swing was often seen as too unsophisticated for jazz audiences and considered closer to “Hillbilly” musicians like Jimmie Rogers or Fiddlin’ Joe Carson than Count Basie or Guy Lombardo.
For the history of music in Austin, it is the numbers from the questionnaires that are most fascinating, however. The accompanying chart gives the names of participating colleges, the size of the student body, the “number of big dances during the school year” (excluding fraternity and sorority dances and house parties), and the school budget for bands. Yale, for example, had 5,358 students, 5 dances, and paid out $2500. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had fewer students, 3,692, but the same number of dances (5). Their rate was a little less, at $400 per band.
Bigger universities didn’t mean more sponsored dances. The University of Pennsylvania, about twice as large as Yale and a little less than three times the size of UNC, had just a few more concerts. It registered 10,288 students but just 7-8 dances that year. They did pay better, though, shelling out $1200-$1700 for big orchestras. Reed College, on the other hand, had way fewer students--just 567--but 18 dances. The University of Mississippi, with a population of 1,382, had 25. Although steady employers, these last two were fairly cheap. Reed’s expenditures on bands totaled only $3000 while U Mississippi disbursed $800 each.
These four colleges were typical of the overall field: the vast majority of schools had between 1 and 5 dances, with a small number of outliers that held between 10 and 25.
The University of Texas, on the other hand, had approximately 100 dances and paid groups between $300 and $2000 each. UT was one of the larger schools, but by no means the largest. It had 10,896 students. The University of Wisconsin, on the other hand, had 12,395. Others had even more students: the University of Michigan had 12,448; the University of Illinois 13,380; the University of Minnesota 15,914; and the University of California 16,621. These five unis collectively had 48 dances, just about half of UT.
All in all, the 1942 survey shows that colleges across North America were a significant part of the Swing band circuit in the early 1940s.2 We’ve long known that Big Band created one of the first youth cultures and that college students were a crucial part of Swing audiences. It was not clear, however, that universities themselves often played a major role in facilitating that scene in small and large cities across the continent.
Although the list is clearly not complete, it still reports 158 colleges with dances. The most active collegiate dance zone was in the Northeast: New York showed 21 colleges and Pennsylvania 14. This is not particularly surprising since most of the music recording and radio industry called Manhattan home.
It is all the more remarkable that Texas, far far away from the national pop music metropolises, stood in a class of its own. UT had about 20% more dances than all the colleges in Pennsylvania and California put together. These educational peers were in states close to or a major part of the music industry and had easy access to the nation’s star orchestras. To play Austin, prominent bands had to travel a great distance and, for black bands, face violence and harassment. In this respect, UT’s dance draw and expenditures were remarkable.
This may give us some clue as to what made Austin’s music scene unique in the 1930s and early 1940s. During the Depression and early war years, UT had the right mixture to act as a crucible for a Swing and Sweet hub: a sizable student population, a tradition of collegiate dances, and increasing resources from the oil revenues in the Permanent University fund. Austin, however, was still a small city and had fewer dance halls and ballrooms than major urban areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, or New York. Consequently, UT students turned the university itself into a nationally-important venue. Using student organizations and the spaces of the newly built Texas Union and Gregory Gym, they attracted music icons from the two coasts and regional acts from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
This peak crashed quickly, however. With the start of World War Two and the extensive rationing that followed, orchestra touring practically ceased. By the beginning of 1943, non-essential gasoline use was highly restricted and only a handful of tour buses were made available for major big bands (in exchange for performing to the troops). This provoked a drought of national bands appearances across the US.4 Consequently, UT’s survey numbers fell from around 100 performances in 1942 to just 7 in 1943. In this second survey, the place that had the most dances (18), Memphis State College, only employed local bands.5
Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 181-210.↩
The vast majority of participating schools were from the U.S., but the poll did include two Canadian colleges.↩
Billboard (April 25, 1942), 3, 19-20.↩
Deveaux, The Birth of Bebop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 240-244.↩
Billboard (May 29, 1943), 24.↩