Aired: May 15, 2010

Jazz and Civil Rights

Antonio Garcia (Virginia Commonwealth University) says that the personal and professional lives of musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane cannot be divorced from the struggle for racial equality—they contributed in significant ways to interracial understanding and social progress.  Also featured: The composers of the Civil Rights anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” also created musical theater at the turn of the century, transforming the image of African American characters and performers. Paula Marie Seniors (Virginia Tech) looks at the lives of the composers Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, whose work helped break down stereotypical portrayals of black Americans.


4 Comments on “Jazz and Civil Rights”

  1. mike barker

    Nice interview with good example music clips.

    As instrumental music is, at a basic level, merely the sympathetic vibration of air molecules, it takes a bit of explaining to tie jazz tunes to socio-political happenings. The jazz composers and musicians living and working through the civil rights era certainly experienced the events of that era, and responded personally in interesting ways to those events, but it does not necessarily follow that jazz music influenced this era any more than, say, black factory worker activities or black school teacher activities or black & white city bus drivers. Those of us who enjoy jazz can, with our sympathetic view, overestimate jazz’s influence on non-jazz happenings.

    Jazz history is often written with a view towards the civil rights movement, with a sympathetic view of jazz’s contributions to this volatile era.

    Fair enough. But consider this:

    Jazz has also been criticized, with good reason (I believe), for its celebration of immoral sexual behavior, and its association with sexual behavior outside the marriage bond, the whore house, and drug abuse. There is more than a kernel of truth to the claim that jazz is the devil’s music. Those of us who are fond of jazz should not overplay jazz’s positive contributions toward unhealthy race relations, or underplay jazz’s negative connections with unhealthy life choices.

    (By the way, both rock & roll and country & western music, as do other forms of popular & “folk” music, share with jazz associations with the earthier aspects of human behavior.)

    In any event, I appreciate Antonio Garcia’s excellent short review of jazz and civil rights, and particularly like the fact that he illustrated his points with clips from classic jazz tunes. The geniuses of the jazz art form Garcia introduced are fascinating personal characters. He altered my view of Louis Armstrong, and reminded me of why I don’t particularly like Abby Lincoln. 🙂

    By the way, Professor Garcia is a tireless promoter of professional jazz in and around Richmond, and scholastic jazz in the university and in Virginia’s secondary school band programs. Hooray for him!

    mike b.

  2. Antonio Garcia

    My thanks to Mike for his articulate note. A few thoughts….

    All humans have flaws. Folks often disagree as to which traits are flaws or positive features, of course; so I won’t go into that rather volatile issue here. But as I stated at the opening of the broadcast, you can’t separate music from the people who created it. With their art, artists typically depict humanity–warts and all.

    As to personal drug use, artists who have used and even died from drugs make better press than those who do not. The fuller perspective adds up to a non-story: “A landmark new study of jazz musicians dating from 1910 to 2010 found that thousands did _not_ use or die from drugs. The full story on the eleven o’clock news…” And even those who chose drugs and then turned away from it to lead a long, happy, and yes, artistic life–your Dizzy Gillespies, your Jimmy Heaths–make more headlines with their art than with their non-drug use. As it should be.

    According to a 2008 Harvard Review of Psychiatry, prescription-drug misuse is five times higher among physicians than in the general public. I believe that we should acknowledge that individual people make their own choices, good and bad: the profession is not poised to pull them down into poor decisions.

    Regarding the impact of jazz on the civil rights movement, my intent was certainly not to show jazz as the torch that ignited the movement. Nonetheless, in the brief time that With Good Reason so generously shared with me, we were able to illustrate how well-known jazz musicians brought civil-rights issues to not only the media’s attention but to mainstream America’s.

    As to the added message of lyrics over instrumental, there are many more examples that did not make the cut within our limited airtime today. The “Fables of Faubus” by Charles Mingus aired, for example, was the instrumental version. But there is an alternate recorded version ripe with lyrics voiced by Mingus towards the Governor as well as President Eisenhower. (The lyrics are G-rated, though the tone is clearly not.) Columbia Records, the label Mingus was on, wouldn’t release it with the lyrics; so he had to re-record it as an instrumental for that label. But as is often the case, banning something only calls attention to it; and Mingus was able to release the version with lyrics on a smaller label that nonetheless got the attention of the media. (You can hear that version easily on the web: go to YouTube and do a search for “Charles Mingus Original Faubus Fables.” There you can choose from an audio-only version or from several videos onto which disturbing images from the 1960s have been superimposed.)

    Titles themselves reach far. Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” got a lot of attention via its title alone. Once people heard Abbey Lincoln’s extended screaming with and over his drums in the “Protest” excerpt played today, he got enough attention that he was in many ways blacklisted. No additional lyrics were needed. But his collaborator, Oscar Brown, Jr., provided many lyrics within the same Suite.

    Or we could look at songs too numerous to include within this broadcast, perhaps most notably Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which definitely brought attention to the civil rights movement–and which gave a lot of people pause to consider (or reconsider) their stance regarding race relations.

    Bandleaders didn’t need lyrics to send their message. Louis Armstrong hired the white trombonist Jack Teagarden. Benny Goodman hired the black pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Others followed. Jazz stages became integrated long before their audiences did.

    And to that end, the people who did perhaps the most to completely effect the integration of those audiences were the concert promoters. Promoters such as Norman Granz (Jazz at the Philharmonic) and George Wein (Newport Jazz Festival) refused to present concerts unless their audiences were integrated. Money talked; local segregationists gave in; and jazz audiences were integrated long before the audiences for many other art forms and non-arts events were. In the exact same way that President Lyndon Johnson accelerated the integration of hospitals by requiring that any federally-aided hospital integrate, in the same way that President Obama recently required that all federally-aided hospitals allow same-sex partners visitation rights, so was it the way that jazz promoters effected a huge wave of change in segregated society, particularly in the South: money talked.

    And you didn’t have to be a jazz artist or promoter to make integration happen in the jazz market. For example, when Ella Fitzgerald was finding it impossible to get booked into mainstream white nightclubs despite her artistic abilities, it was Marilyn Monroe who made change happen. Monroe contacted a prominent club-owner and told him that she, Marilyn Monroe, would sit at the front table of his club every night for a week, guaranteeing him a full house of celebrity-happy fans, if he would book Ella into his club. He did; he made lots of money; Ella got to perform in a new market; and her career took off even further.

    Jazz and Civil Rights, in the person of that well-known jazz-integration advocate, Marilyn Monroe!

    So no, I don’t view jazz as the torch that ignited the civil rights movement. But I do view it as the accelerant that when added to that torch made it burn brighter and further than it ever had before.

    My best to all,

    Antonio Garcia

  3. Antonio Garcia

    A follow-up notation….

    The January 2011 Down Beat highlights related remarks from Dr. Martin Luther King regarding jazz, his comments delivered within the printed program for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. An excerpt includes:

    “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its powerful rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits began to flag. This has been true from the early days of the simple Negro Spiritual. And now, Jazz is exported to the world.”

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