... and Los Angeles
Welcome to the fourth installment of Bangkok After Dark, the story of an intimate relationship between Thailand and the United States during the Cold War, told at the level of nightlife. If you’re enjoying this series, please share the link to sign up:
Last week’s post went on a brief tangent in discussing Maurice Rocco’s relationship to Duke Ellington — which was real, but also wrapped up in hyperbole. Whenever Rocco’s life was managed or narrated by other people, exaggeration was bound to occur. This is typical in show business, but it also had racial implications. And it becomes especially important a decade or two later, when Rocco’s career is in decline, and he is looking for a new direction. We’ll get to that later.
For now we return to Rocco’s chronological life story. In the early 1930s, Rocco’s reputation grew beyond the relatively confined spaces of the midwest, and soon he was a fixture on the New York scene.
Now regularly using his stage name, Rocco began playing in New York City in 1934, shuttling between Manhattan, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh for about two years. A fresh face in New York, he spent at least the first year of that stretch in relative obscurity. His name appears in few if any newspaper advertisements from 1934, although Rodabaugh’s memoirs suggest that he may have been part of Noble Sissle’s Cotton Club shows from the beginning. He made his debut at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in December 1935. An article from the Oxford Free Press in December 1935 suggests that Ellington was something like a sponsor of his early career. “Talented piano playing [Maurice Rockhold] is playing this week in New York City in the Harlem district with two girls who also are members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra,” reported the article. “Young Rockhold soon will go on the road on the RKO circuit. He also will make a number of shorts for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer moving picture producers.” It is unlikely that either of these opportunities -- work on the RKO circuit or in MGM films -- ever came to fruition. No evidence has emerged of either engagement; the author of the article was probably hyperbolizing. All that can be substantiated is that Rocco had indeed gone to make a career in music New York before his twentieth birthday. And within a year, by 1936, he had begun generating buzz. His name starts showing up, at first periodically and soon in a torrent, in newspaper stories and concert reviews.
In 1935 or 1936, Rocco began collaborating with a Philadelphia-born dancer and singer named Dorothy “Dotty” Saulters, who later partnered extensively with Cab Calloway. Saulters would die in 1962 at the age of 39, and she and Rocco seem to have teamed up only until the mid-1940s. Like many Black entertainers of the era, her career and life were regrettably short. She and Rocco first performed as a duet in 1936 at the Kit Kat Club, an upscale Black nightclub on 55th Street in midtown Manhattan, near the heart of the nightclub district. Rocco and Saulters’ debut engagement was a popular revue called “Harlem Goin’ Park Avenoo,”for which they performed with a group called the Three Roccos, an alter ego of the Rogers Sisters. The show garnered attention and positive reviews, and Rocco was quickly identified as an ecstatic performer. An August 1936 write-up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Kit Kat Club’s “new show is really something about which to drop a card to the folks back home. There’s a chap there--Rocco by name--who goes to town on a piano in a hammer and tongs manner. ([Manager Charles] Lucas says the piano repair bills are terrific.).” Rocco developed his reputation from commentary like this, which cast him as thrilling and uninhibited.
Once Rocco and Saulters began performing together on stage, they also cannily sought opportunities in film. For many artists in the mid-1930s, stage shows were most useful as a launching pad for movies, at that time entering their commercial heyday. Rocco and Saulters’ earliest break on screen came in 1935, when they were hired to perform as part of a fictional group called the Kit Kat Club Orchestra in the film Temptation, directed by the legendary Oscar Micheaux.
Micheaux was a Black South Dakota homesteader born to former slaves who became a pioneering movie director. He was remarkably prolific during the eras of both silent and sound film, an experimentalist and auteur who worked deftly with political topics, especially around race. Micheaux became the first African-American director to make a feature-length silent film in 1919, and then in 1931 the first to make a feature-length sound film as well. And he was not only early but trenchant. His Within the Gates (1920) was a pointed response to D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist Birth of a Nation. The segregated structure of the white-owned film industry meant that Micheaux’s work would not be marketed toward an audience beyond African-Americans, but his talent was significant, and multiple biographies now attest to his importance. Michaeux was especially interested in music, and often thematized jazz in his films, including Swing! (1938) and the short The Darktown Revue (1931). His process for casting musicians involved attending nightclub shows (such as Rocco and Saulters’ Kit Kat Club engagement), approaching the artists backstage after their sets, and then inviting them to perform their revue in its entirety in front of the camera at his studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Micheaux paid the artists what little he could afford, given that he was unable to access the investment sources utilized by mainstream white directors. Rocco and Saulters were up-and-coming performers, but not yet beyond Micheaux’s budget. In this way, they earned their first opportunity in film, working with one of the first great African-American directors. All existing copies of the film that resulted, called Temptation, are now lost, so the details of Rocco’s role are unknown.
But the very fact of his early association with Micheaux is significant. Within two years in New York, he was on the map, and already building a career in the twin worlds of stage and screen. Soon after his film debut, on March 12, 1937, Rocco and Saulters left New York together for Hollywood, this time under a two-year contract with an established white producer/director, Walter Wanger, to make two more movies.
These movies became Vogues of 1938 (released in 1937) and 52nd Street (released in 1938). 52nd Street, starring Ian Hunter and Zasu Pitts, tells the fictionalized story of the titular thoroughfare in New York City, nicknamed “Nightclub Row” in the 1930s for being one of the most active entertainment strips in the city. The Kit Kat Club on 55th Street, where Rocco and Saulters had broken out in the mid-1930s, was just around the corner. In the film, Rocco and Saulters act out a stylized version of their stage show. They play the role of nightclub entertainers who sing, tap dance, and play piano in front of an audience of well-to-do young white people. In the scene, a brief cameo that lasts about two minutes, Rocco and Saulters provide the hyperbolic physical expression that allows white audience members to witness but not sink too deeply into a racial bacchanal. This racialized trope of the nightclub scene, pro forma in that cinematic era, would eventually comprise most of Rocco’s film roles. Little changed through the 1930s and into the 1940s. Rocco was already typecast.
The nightclub scene in Vogues of 1938 has a slightly more complex staging than the one in 52nd Street. Here Rocco again accompanies Saulters, as she joins a trio called the Cotton Club Singers, an unnamed group of female dancers, and a quarter of male performers called the Four Hot Shots. The women dance together in costumes of fur and pearls. With Rocco on piano, the band plays an arrangement of Bunny Berigan’s 1937 hit “Turn On That Red Hot Heat (Burn Your Blues Away).” The six-minute number dramatizes the distinction between elegant music of the intellect, coded as European, and instinctual music of the body, coded as Black. The polarity of these opposites is shown by switching from an opening medley that includes snippets of Russian ballet, opera, and Chopin and Liszt to an interloping jazz arrangement that introduces syncopation and blue notes. When the jazz edges in, Saulters and the other dancers respond with faux shock, singing demurely, “What’s that music they’re playing so hot?” Soon the band’s soulful sound draws them in, and the dancers all remove their furs to reveal skimpy cabaret outfits, as the tune transitions to an up-to-the-minute jazz hit. Rocco can be seen throughout the initial part of the scene in the background, pantomiming at playing the piano with exaggerated intensity. But no actual piano can be heard in the arrangement until more than halfway into the musical number, when Rocco appears in close-up. As in 52nd Street, he pounds the keys far harder than he ever would on a real stage.
The scene is highly choreographed, from the performances to the audience, and would not be readily mistaken for the goings-on at a real nightclub. Moreover, the action of the musicians only thinly corresponds to the music on the soundtrack. Among other things, instruments that do not appear onstage are heard as part of the diegetic arrangement, while some of the visible instruments go unheard. Meanwhile, most of the audible notes are wildly out of sync with the gestures of the performers. But verisimilitude was not the point. Rocco’s principal role in the film was to perform a fantasmagoric, anything-goes nightlife culture more than the brilliant stagecraft that had made him a budding star in New York during the previous few years. His role in the film was not to reveal his artistry, but rather to convey his own social position, expressed through a trope. At the end of the scene, the camera cuts away to reveal the implicit audience -- once more, following the trope, a heterosexual young white couple out on a date. The couple is at the nightclub to venture outside the constraints of their upper middle-class life, with Rocco, Saulters, and the other dancers and musicians as set pieces who lend literal and figurative color to their adventures.
Racist as this depiction was, jazz culture’s reputation as a carnivalesque excursion for middle- and upper-class white audiences in 1930s New York was not altogether imaginary. Jazz clubs were indeed a common site of “slumming” for white professionals in the early twentieth century. Such professionals, especially but not exclusively men, could tour the working-class worlds of Black, Irish, or Italian fairy life in order to see or experience deviant sexuality without being stigmatized by it in the morning, as historian George Chauncey among others has described. In this way, slumming granted middle-class white people (especially men) access to prohibited sexual experiences without subjecting them to the violent medicalization and policing that was otherwise common to those identities. Slumming also helped to inscribe class difference. Jazz and its spaces offered temporary excursions for middle-class nightclub patrons, but the same spaces were home for certain working-class people. The touristic character of middle- and upper-class visits to these clubs thus reaffirmed who belonged where.
The venues where slumming took place were not restricted to New York. Clubs such as the Cabin Inn in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood were famous for queer performance, and some venues even alluded to this in their advertising materials. Amber Clifford-Napoleone writes of clubs in Kansas City’s queer-of-color jazz scenes during the same period, which overlapped significantly with similar scenes in New York. Clifford-Napoleone argues for an understanding of jazz’s musical development as part of a social assemblage that included non-normative and often illegal sexual practices, gender expressivity, and sexual experimentation, ranging from slumming to gender impersonation, from buffet flats to sex work. Indeed, the very word “jazz,” according to Clifford-Napoleone, described sex in queer Black communities well before it referred to a musical genre at all. Throughout the United States, spaces of jazz performance doubled as spaces of sexual alterity in the 1930s.
And it was in these spaces that Rocco got his start as a live performer. In New York, he played most often in Times Square and Harlem, two of the most active neighborhoods in the city for both jazz and queer life generally in the 1930s. Harlem was home to a variety of non-normative sexual and gender expressions. Noted drag artists like Gloria Swanson and Gladys Bentley performed most nights, and “Black lesbians and fairies [were] so common in Harlem and Bronzeville that slummers began to encounter them even in the districts’ more high-toned cabarets.” Chauncey characterizes the late 1920s and early 1930s, the very time of Rocco’s arrival in New York, as “the heyday of lesbian and gay clubs and performers in Harlem.” White audiences certainly ventured to these clubs in the mid-1930s. But their reasons for being there were often quite different from what the films in which Rocco was featured could portray in such a homophobic era. Mainstream Hollywood movies could not, either normatively or legally, come anywhere close to representing jazz within the scenes of queerness and slumming that actually fostered the music. The version of jazz nightlife depicted by these films thus minimized the degree to which jazz and queer culture were linked and even co-constitutive. Rocco was a very different kind of performer, musically and symbolically, on the live stage than he was in film. For all that Rocco’s turn to Hollywood did to boost his career, it also radically altered the indices and contexts of his music. Vogues of 1938 and 52nd Street tell radically stylized and heteronormative versions of his story as a live performer.
Next week’s post will describe Rocco’s continued rise to fame in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he returned to New York, started playing in Chicago, and first went into the recording studio. Thanks for reading!