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Anger and Intelligence: Jazz and Civil Rights

AQ special music culture report by Phil Brett

Selma to Montgomery March

Civil rights movement

The perception and appreciation of music, as with any artform, can change when the time and context it is experienced changes. Of course sometimes it’s purely personal taste – one person’s challenging and invigorating free jazz, is another person’s headache-inducing pips and squeaks. (For the record, I belong to the former category). What was once seen as challenging can become mainstream. As a fifteen year old, I revelled in the fact that the Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen” was widely banned. Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics, and it features early on in the opening ceremony – with said Queen present. One is not aware of whether or not she had an opinion on its inclusion, or indeed if she preferred the Clash.

Throughout its history, jazz has been viewed in a whole range of ways – speakeasy music, club sounds, dinner partybackground, high art, low art, somewhere in the middle art, the music of conservatism or of radical protest. Maybe it is that old punk in me, but I especially love it when great jazz comes with righteous anger. And there was justified angeragainst the daily racism experienced by the musicians and their black audience in America. 

Sometimes because of geography, race or time, music can lose its original meaning, but its beauty certainly doesn’t. Take Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I knew How it Would Feel to be Free”, which became a civil rights anthem (released on his superb Right Here, Right Now! Capitol, ST-2038). And yet, most people in Britain would know it as the theme tune to the BBC Film… review series with Barry Norman.  Not knowing the title, people might just see it as lovely piece of piano based jazz, and there’s no real harm in that, but the man who played alongside Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Stan Getz amongst others, has so much more to offer than merely cueing up a review of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. As is suggested by the long list of collaborators, Taylor could adapt his style as required. Interestingly, the tune was originally called “I wish I knew”, its title is far more ambiguous. But those in the know would have known. 

“Now’s the Time” was written in 1945, Parker’s audience would have understood. Equally, white racists probably wouldn’t have, and that would be no bad thing.

The same applies to Charlie Parker’s, “Now’s the Time”. The time was for freedom – now. But here lies an important point that if instrumentals want to convey a message, without lyrics and with an oblique title, then an essential ingredient has to bea shared language. Perhaps years later, the title might refer to all manner of things, but “Now’s the Time” was written in 1945, Parker’s audience would have understood. Equally, white racists probably wouldn’t have, and that would be no bad thing. Despite heroic attempts to defy the racism of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, black American jazz musicians risked more than their careers by being outspoken. One must consider that it was a full three years later that President Truman desegregated the U.S armed forces. And that only followed pressure from a civil rights movement galvanised by such barbaric acts as the beating by North Carolina cops of U.S Army Sergeant Isaac Woodward Jr, which left the decorated soldier permanently blind. This was on February 12th, 1946;just five months after the war against fascism had ended.

The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) was growing and influencing culture. Back then, even Ole Blue Eyes was a bit of red, with his rendition of  “The house I Live in” , with the lyrics “All races and religions/That’s America to me”, becoming an early CRM anthem. Being white, Sinatra had the space to make such statements. 

Black musicians lived with racism, suffering the consequences; being artists did not protect them. Art Blakey suffered a beating from the police; an experience which would prompt his 1962 album Freedom Rider (Blue Note, BST 84156)A truly brilliant hard bop record, which features in the title track a drum solo from Blakey that could take on any redneck.


Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights activists during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.

Celebrity status couldn’t be relied upon either. In 1954 whilst flying to Australia, Ella Fitzgerald and band were forced to give up their seats on their Pan Am plane as it refuelled in Honolulu. They were there for three days, thus missing their concert dates. Whilst one might not associate Ella with protest songs, she did take action against the racism she encountered. At one concert, she and her band turned their backs on a racist audience. Throughout her career, she would break the colour bar on radio and at concert halls. One can hear a rare moment where Ella Fitzgerald explicitly becomes political, with “He Had a Dream”. Recorded just a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it must have come as a shock to the audience for them to hear Ella sing such a song    (Live at Chautauqua Volume 2, Dot Time Records. DT8004).Usually, Ella’s defence was her dignity. The cover of Ella and Louis, males them look just like a lovable uncle and auntie, sitting and smiling at the camera; a camera held by Vogue photographer, Phil Stern. Their status demanded such a photographer, but the album cover didn’t require their names to be on the front – everyone knew who they were. And this was 1956, when black people were demanding the right to sit where they wished on buses.

The risks involved of being outspoken were great. That is one reason why Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, first recorded by her in 1939, is such a powerful song and has become such a classic. Its chilling metaphor of a tree’s fruit to the lynching of black Americans is direct and powerful. Others have recorded it, but Holiday’s is the one. Based on a poem by a Jewish-American teacher Abel Meeropol, it remains one of the most disturbing songs of any generation.

One of the problems one can face when discussing the context of jazz within the civil rights movement, is that it can be rather one dimensional: mentioning just a few personal favourites, whilst missing out many others. It can also be rather crude and reductive by purely focussing on songs which directly address the issue. But in that case, what about albums such as My Funny Valentine (Columbia CL2306) by Miles Davis? It is a great record but it hasn’t got a consciously political song on it. Yet it in another sense, it is a very political piece of music, being recorded at a 1964 benefit for a number of CRM organisations, including the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Miles in his autobiography (an essential read, by the way), recounts that the band weren’t happy that he had – without consultation – donated all the band’s fees. They were supportive of the cause but they disliked Mile’s heavy handed attitude. As a result, they all went on stage, feeling antagonistic towards each other. Perhaps, that is why this is one of the finest live jazz albums you can hear. 

Indeed, these were the years when jazz and civil rights were interlinked. Seeing the list of benefits for the period, it would be quicker to list the jazz musicians who did not do one. One of the first to do so was Cannonball Adderley (His Best of, The Capital Years, Capitol, BG-J-0062, is great fun, including “Work Song”, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Why am I treated so Bad?”). Most did whole series of them.  The issue wasn’t peripheral to jazz – how could it be?

Dizzy Gillespie, the magnificent trumpeter, stood for president in 1964. It had started as a joke but soon became a vehicle to raise funds for the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose first president was Martin Luther King Jr). If elected, the White House would have been renamed the Blues House. His administration would have included Duke Ellington as Secretary of State, Malcolm X as Attorney General and Miles Davis as head of the CIA! Now doesn’t that make for a great what ifs in history!

There was an intense debate within the jazz world, just as there was in the wider world, on what should be done. It is too simplistic to see the ‘jazz community’ as being a musical or cultural monolith.  This was a time when the “separation between art and politics was placed under siege by the dramatic force and moral power of the civil rights movement”. (I would also recommend the book Freedom Sounds by Ingrid Monson (OUP) from which that quote is taken).  Sometimes this included,  the very nature of the musicitself (indeed, singers such as Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone disliked the very term, jazz). Free Jazz caused more than a few ripples: was it a revolutionary departure away from the white power structures or was it a retreat from black jazz audiences? The sublime 1961This is Our Music (Atlantic, SD 1353) by the Ornette Coleman Quartet was a response to this: the title, and the photograph of the band staring directly at you, emanates pride, defiance and ownership. 

John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is one such response. In particular to a Klu Klux Klan firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

Of course, we could conclude that all jazz – by its nature, its history – can be nothing but a statement of civil rights. But as the campaigns grew, and the violence against them intensified, many felt that what was required was something more than support by implication. John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is one such response. In particular to a Klu Klux Klan firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on 15th September 1963. Four African-American girls were murdered. Heard on Live in Birdland (Impulse, A-50) Elvin Jone’s militant drumming allows Coltrane’s playing to somehow be simultaneously angry, reflective, spiritual, vulnerable and strong. Words cannot fully do it justice; surely the purpose of instrumental music.  

Nina Simone

The outrage also prompted Nina Simone to write “Mississippi Goddam”. Her long-time guitarist Al Schackman put it like this: “as the civil rights swung into high gear, she swung into high gear”. Simone was always keen to say that anger might be there, but so was intelligence; the lyrics brilliantly show both: “Picket lines/School boycotts/They try to say it’s a communist plot/ All I want is equality/ for my sister my brother and me”. It is heard best on her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert (Philips, 600-135); a live album cut from three performances at Carnegie Hall (she was the first black woman to play there). The song closes the set, with a performance, which is almost tactile in its brilliance. An essential album for any record collection, it also includes “Old Jim Crow”, “Go Limp” and “Pirate Jenny”, producing a piece of art intended to – in her words – “shake up the people” – so they might leave her concerts “decent people”. “I could sing for my people” and “expose the sickness” of racism within the USA, she said. Critic, Stanley Crouch, called her the “patron saint in the rebellion”.  But it was a position that cost her money and her health. Her recordings are many and varied, and often great. Included here should also be “Four Women” (from Wild is the Wind, Philips, PHS 600-207), “Backlash Blues” (based on a Langston Hughes’ poem) and available on Sings the Blues, RCA, LSP-3789) and of course, the wonderful – “To be Young Gifted and Black” (Black Gold, RCA LSP-4248), where Simone turns its positive and lifeaffirming message into a statement of black pride. 

Max Roach; We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, Candid, 9002

Another singer who took up the cause, and suffered as a consequence, was Abbey Lincoln, releasing great jazz albums under her own name (Straight Ahead, Candid, CJS-9015 and Abbey is Blue, Riverside, RLP12-308), which feature both explicitly political numbers and jazz standards, but given a whole new emphasis. She also worked with – and was married to – Max Roach, creating fine music, such as in the classic We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, Candid, 9002), which mixes her soulful blues singing, his hard bop drumming, with lyrics from the great Oscar Brown Jr. (known for, amongst many others, the evergreen – “Work Song”). The songs are wonderful and powerful, and direct in their message. Even the cover is direct , with no ambiguity: the black musicians are sat at a restaurant counter, evoking the sit-ins againstdesegregation. Released in the 1960 and including tracks such as “Freedom Day”, “Tears for Johannesburg” and “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” it was a controversial album. Perhaps the subject matter put people off. In later years it has been revaluated, and is now rightly seen as a gem of an album.

Like We Insist, there were a growing number of albums where the design of the sleeve was itself political. Thelonious Monk for example, on his 1967 album Underground (Columbia, 460066) is sat at his piano, with a sub machine gun slung over his back and a Nazi tied up behind him. Ostensibly, it is Monk posing as a member of the French Resistance. Apolitical fancy dress? Maybe, but the title is evocative of both the Underground Railway of the mid-19 century which was used by escaping slaves, and also of the 1960s underground counter-culture. Also look at the meaning of a black man with a gun; this was a year after the Black Panthers had been formed, who would make a point of being armed. This was the period of race riots and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.By coincidence, 1967 was also the year American Nazi Party leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated. 

The Dollar Brand Trio: Anatomy of a South African Village Fontana, 888 314ZY

Underground is one of those records which contain stunning music, a brilliant message and a remarkable sleeve. The same can be true of Anatomy of a South African Village (Fontana, 888 314ZY) by The Dollar Brand Trio, with its cover by Marte Rolling, the Dutch painter and sculptor who produced striking album sleeves for the Fontana label in the sixties. Her trademark was drawings of heads, which had further drawings on them, as if illustrating the thoughts and experiences of that person. With this album, on the head one can see a figure of black African and a guard dog, a symbol of Apartheid, between which is the word Free.

Archie Shepp; Attica Blues Impulse AS – 9222

This round up is completed by another example of a great sleeve, powerful message and quite simply magnificent music. Holding Attica Blues (Impulse! AS – 9222), the 1972 album by saxophonist Archie Shepp, one is hit by the images it conveys: his sax laid across a piano like a weapon; behind him are stacks of books to his left, and on his right, a poster of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their famous black-gloved salute during the playing of the national anthem as they stood on the podium in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The title track is a reference to the Attica Prison riots. Elsewhere, there is the track “Blues for Brother George Jackson”, the influential black author. Shepp is best known for his free jazz, but on this album he manages to combine a whole range of styles. It is perhaps fitting that we end with Archie Shepp, because we began by reference to personal taste, and for me, this is one of the most invigorating albums ever made. And has the passing of time tempered his power? Well, earlier this year Shepp played a concert of Civil Rights jazz songs at the Barbican, with a number of well-known names in support (Carleen Anderson for example, was a backing singer!). The audience was mixed – black, white, young and old – and all were blown away by his performance. The years have gone by but the music is still as potent, and with a whole new generation finding its voice against injustice, jazz music from the civil rights era can act as inspiration.

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