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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
Max Roach

Max Roach was not only one of the great innovators of bebop drumming, but also an outspoken activist. In the 1960s he recorded We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960), featuring his wife at the time, and fellow activist Abbey Lincoln. The title of the work represents the heightened fervor that the 60s brought to the civil rights movement, as protests, counter-protests, and violence mounted.

Roach recorded two other albums drawing focus to civil rights: Speak Brother Speak (1962), and Lift Every Voice and Sing (1971). Continuing to record and perform in later decades, Roach also devoted his time to lecturing on social justice.

Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus was known for being angry and outspoken on the bandstand. One expression of his anger was certainly justified, and it came in response to the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident in Arkansas, when Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to prevent black students from entering a newly desegregated public high school.

Mingus displayed his outrage at the event by composing a piece entitled “Fables of Faubus.” The lyrics, which he penned as well, offer some of the most blatant and harshest critiques of Jim Crow attitudes in all of jazz activism.

  • Lyrics to “Fables of Faubus:”

Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who's ridiculous, Danny.
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won't permit integrated schools.

Then he's a fool! Oh Boo!
Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Name me a handful that's ridiculous, Danny.
Faubus, Nelson Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-O, Hello

“Fables of Faubus” originally appeared on Mingus Ah Um (1959), although Columbia Records found the lyrics so incendiary that they refused to allow them to be recorded. In 1960, however, Mingus recorded the song for Candid Records, lyrics and all, on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane, while not an outspoken activist, was a deeply spiritual man who believed his music was a vehicle for the message of a higher power. Coltrane was drawn to the civil rights movement after 1963. That was the year that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the August 28th March on Washington, raising public awareness of the movement for racial equality. It was also the year that white racists placed a bomb in a Birmingham, Alabama church, and killed four young girls during a Sunday service.

The following year, Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. He wrote a number of songs dedicated to the cause, but his song “Alabama,” which was released on Coltrane Live at Birdland (Impulse!,1964), was especially gripping, both musically and politically. The notes and phrasing of Coltrane’s lines are based on the words Martin Luther King spoke at the memorial service for the girls who died in the Birmingham bombing. Mirroring King’s speech, which escalates in intensity as he shifts his focus from the killing to the broader civil rights movement, Coltrane’s “Alabama” sheds its plaintive and subdued mood for a crackling surge of energy, reflecting the strengthened determination for justice.

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