Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

How Jazz Musicians Spoke Out for Racial Equality

John Coltrane

 Adam Ritchie/Getty Images 

Starting with the age of bebop, jazz ceased to cater to popular audiences and instead became solely about the music and the musicians who played it. Since then, 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. It was a space where a person was judged by their 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 music itself an analogy to the ideals of the civil rights movement, but jazz musicians took up the cause themselves. Using their celebrity and their music, musicians promoted 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, during which 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 Black 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" include: 

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.

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 orchestras that marketed themselves as jazz bands consisted only of white musicians. Such orchestras also 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 jazz by 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 also composed “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943 to tell a history of American Blacks through music.

Max Roach

An innovator of bebop drumming, Max Roach was 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)

“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

While not an outspoken activist, John Coltrane 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, which was the year that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the August 28th March on Washington. 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. Just as King’s speech 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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