Sultans of Swing, baby

Baseball, jazz, and short fiction flush the floor at Wright State’s Flapper Ball

By Joey Ferber

Photo: Director of Wright State’s CELIA Hank Dahlman (left) and Dr. Sharon Lynette Jones at one of the Sultans of Swing games

Wright State University is hosting a unique triangulation of American history. Its Spring Sultans of Swing Spring conference and upcoming Flapper Ball has brought together experts of jazz, literature, and baseball to investigate dynamics of race and class in the 1920s. The conference hosts academic presentations, and the ball celebrates music of the time with Dayton’s Classic Jazz Stompers and dancers Saturday, Oct. 29. The ball features period literary readings, a speakeasy with bathtub gin, buffet, and dance lessons—with a dance competition each hour: the one-step, Charleston, and East-Cost Lindy Swing.

For a musical perspective on the era, Dave Greer, bandleader of the Jazz Stompers, responds to a question about the sociological relationship between jazz, baseball, and short fiction, retorting, “Well, that depends whether you have 15 minutes or 15 months.”

He then expounds on how jazz influenced 1920s American culture: “It’s a fascinating story because unlike professional baseball, there was a fair amount of integration going on, like in baseball on lower levels. There was an awful lot of back and forth between the black and white sides of the music world in the ’20s. A lot of after-hours stuff. And, the audiences are fascinating because most of the dance halls had great congregations, either all white or all black. And, you’d have the odd things like Harlem, when it became the place to go in the late ’20s, around ’27. The Cotton Club where the Ellington band was playing didn’t permit too many black people in the audience in the early days. So, it’s a tangled story.”

Greer finds value in studying culture from his side of the bandstand: “It’s a wonderful way to study American history—kind of from a worm’s eye view, perhaps. Music is a great way of bringing people together. It’s kind of like all history. You can go to school and get it from the top town, but if you dig a little deeper, you find that from the bottom up, it looks a little different.”

The development of both jazz and baseball created interesting relationships between popular and sub- cultures.

Scott Peterson, Wright State professor of communication, provides a tandem perspective to Greer, with insight into baseball’s role in the dynamics of race and class: “Baseball was still socially suspect into the 1920s.”

Peterson cites gambling and corruption as a reason “middle class and upper class fans kept their interest quiet among friends. Baseball was not integrated until 1947, but there were instances of black teams and white teams barnstorming, or scrimmaging each other, in the teens and ’20s. And, the players themselves had respect for each other. They wanted to play against each other on a competitive level to see how good the other group was. So, baseball was a unifier in that sense. Joe DiMaggio is quoted as saying that Satchel Paige is the best player he ever played against. So, it’s a unifier in that sense.”

The third angle to WSU’s historical triangulation is the role of print as a developer of consumer culture. These 2016 WSU events intentionally coincide with the 100-year anniversary of Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me Al,” a story about a baseball player originally published in the Saturday Evening Post as six chapters of short fiction.

“The job of the story was to get the readers to the back of the issue where the ads appeared,” Peterson describes. “It’s built around letters to a friend back home—that’s the Al. Jack Keats, the baseball player, mirrors all the young men who left rural small towns to go to the big cities where the teams played. So, you have this migration of young rural men and women going to the city to find factory jobs. In this case, the factory job is a baseball team. So, he gets signed then he gets cut and goes to the minor leagues and gets called back up. The whole time, he’s writing home about how well he’s making in the big city as a baseball player. So, the first literary baseball novel starts as part of the development of consumer culture. It was aimed at a largely male audience. The Saturday Evening Post was aimed at the professional middle class. So, they were trying to make baseball acceptable to this largely white, professional middle class.”

However, like baseball and jazz, short fiction permeated many social spheres. Sharon Lynette Jones, Ph.D., professor of English at Wright State, speaks on how other publications directed toward black readership reflect broader awareness of social barricades. She references “Hope Deferred,” a short story published by Alice Dunbar Nelson, writer and wife of Dayton’s legendary poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Jones describes Dunbar Nelson as “using baseball and jazz symbolically to address social issues.”

“In ‘Hope Deferred,’ there is a character in tough economic times due to employment discrimination against African-Americans,” she continues. “There is a scene in the story where a main character is in a situation where people are looking at bulletins that would, presumably, be screens for a baseball game, but we don’t get information about which teams are playing. Even though he doesn’t have funds to go, he is still aware of what’s going on. Maybe we’re supposed to pay attention to the character’s economic predicament that prevents him from going to the game rather than the details of the baseball game itself.”

Sultans of Swing Flapper Ball takes place Saturday, Oct. 29, 6–10 p.m. at Memorial Hall, 125 E. First St. in downtown Dayton. 1920s and ’30s attire is optional, but highly encouraged. Wright State affiliates are $25, WSU students $20. Parking is free. Tickets are $30 individually, $50 for a couple. To register or for more information, please visit Wright.edu/Baseball.

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Joey Ferber
Joey Ferber works out of St. Louis and Dayton as a musician and writer. You can hear him on electric guitar with St. Louis jazz-rap collective LOOPRAT at Looprat.Bandcamp.com and on his original theme song for the Dayton-based podcast series Unwritten at UnwrittenPodcast.com, for which he also contributed to as a scriptwriter. Reach him at JoeyFerber@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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