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Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

How Jazz Musicians Spoke Out for Racial Equality

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Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement
Courtesy of Candid Records
From the days of bebop, when jazz ceased to cater to popular audiences, and instead became solely about the music and the musicians who played it, jazz has been symbolically linked to the civil rights movement. The music, which appealed to whites and blacks alike, provided a culture in which the collective and the individual were inextricable, and in which one was judged by his ability alone, and not by race or any other irrelevant factors. “Jazz,” Stanley Crouch writes, “predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”

Not only was jazz structured similarly to ideals of the civil rights movement. Jazz musicians took up the cause, using their celebrity and their music to promote racial equality and social justice. Below are just a few cases in which jazz musicians spoke out for civil rights.

Louis Armstrong

Although sometimes criticized by activists and black musicians for playing into an “Uncle Tom” stereotype by performing for mainly white audiences, Louis Armstrong often had a subtle way of dealing with racial issues. In 1929 he recorded “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” a song from a popular musical. The lyrics include the phrase:

My only sin
Is in my skin
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

The lyrics, out of the context of the show, and sung by a black performer in that period, were a risky and weighty commentary.

Armstrong became a cultural ambassador for the U.S. during the cold war, performing jazz all over the world. In response to increasing turmoil swirling around the desegregation of public schools, Armstrong was outspokenly critical of his country. After the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, when the National Guard prevented nine black students from entering a high school, Armstrong canceled a tour to the Soviet Union, and said publicly, “the way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday incorporated the song “Strange Fruit” into her set list in 1939. Adapted from a poem by a New York high school teacher, “Strange Fruit” was inspired by the 1930 lynching of two blacks, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. It juxtaposes the horrid image of bodies hanging from trees with a description of the idyllic South. Holiday delivered the song night after night, often overwhelmed by emotion, causing it to become an anthem of early civil rights movements.

  • Lyrics to “Strange Fruit:”

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman, a preeminent white bandleader and clarinetist, was the first to hire a black musician to be part of his ensemble. In 1935 he made pianist Teddy Wilson a member of his trio. A year later, he added vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to the lineup, which also included drummer Gene Krupa. These steps helped push for racial integration in jazz, which was previously not only taboo, but even illegal in some states.

Goodman used his fame to spread appreciation for black music. In the 1920s and 30s, many of the orchestras that marketed themselves as jazz bands consisted only of white musicians, and played a mawkish style of music that only drew sparingly from the music that black jazz bands were playing. In 1934, when Goodman began a weekly show on NBC radio called “Let’s Dance,” he bought arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, a prominent black bandleader. His thrilling radio performances of Henderson’s music brought awareness of the jazz of black musicians to a broad and mainly white audience.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s commitment to the civil rights movement was complicated. Many felt that a black man of such esteem should be more outspoken, but Ellington often chose to remain quiet on the issue. He even refused to join Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington, D.C.

However, Ellington dealt with prejudice in subtle ways. His contracts always stipulated that he would not play before segregated audiences. When he was touring the South in the mid 1930s with his orchestra, he rented three train cars in which the entire band traveled, ate, and slept. This way, he avoided the grasp of Jim Crow laws, and commanded respect for his band and music.

Ellington’s music itself fueled black pride. He referred to jazz as “African-American classical music,” and strove to convey the black experience in America. He was a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and intellectual movement celebrating black identity. In 1941 he composed the score to the musical “Jump for Joy,” which challenged traditional representation of blacks in the entertainment industry. He composed “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943 to tell a history of American blacks through music.

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  • Max Roach
  • Charles Mingus
  • John Coltrane
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