How Jazz Helped Hasten the Civil-Rights Movement
By NAT HENTOFF
January 15, 2009
On Jan. 19, Martin Luther King's Birthday, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rockefeller Foundation, also focusing on the next day's presidential inauguration, will present at Kennedy Center "A Celebration of America." Headlining the cast are Sandra Day O'Connor and Wynton Marsalis. As Jazz at Lincoln Center declares, Dr. King called jazz "America's triumphant music," and the presence of Mr. Marsalis is to "illustrate that American democracy and America's music share the same tenets and embody the same potential for change, hope and renewal."
This focus on jazz as well as President-elect Barack Obama (who, I'm told, has John Coltrane on his iPod) should help make Americans, including our historians, aware of the largely untold story of the key role of jazz in helping to shape and quicken the arrival of the civil-rights movement.
For a long time, black and white jazz musicians were not allowed to perform together publicly. It was only at after-hours sessions that they jammed together, as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke did in Chicago in the 1920s.
In the early 1940s, before I could vote, I often lied my way into Boston's Savoy Cafˇ, where I first came to know jazz musicians. It was the only place in town where blacks and whites were regularly on the stand and in the audience. This led police occasionally to go into the men's room, confiscate the soap, and hand the manager a ticket for unsanitary conditions. There was no law in Boston against mixing the races, but it was frowned on in official circles.
I had heard, however, of a New York jazz club, Cafˇ Society, where there was open, unquestioned integration. In "Cafˇ Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People," a book by the late Barney Josephson, with Terry Trilling-Josephson, to be published in April by the University of Illinois Press, Mr. Josephson, Cafˇ Society's founder, is quoted as having said: "I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn't, so far as I knew, a place like it in New York or in the country." He hadn't ever been to imperiled Savoy Cafˇ in Boston.
But Jim Crow was so accepted in the land that when Benny Goodman, during the 1930s, brought Teddy Wilson, and then Lionel Hampton, into his trio and quartets, it was briefly big national news. And Artie Shaw later hired Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge, both of whom often met Mr. Crow when having to find accommodations separate from the white musicians when on the road.
When booked especially -- but not only -- in the South, members of black jazz bands had to be put up in homes or other places in black neighborhoods. Nor were they seated in restaurants outside of those neighborhoods. In a 1944 New Yorker profile of Duke Ellington, Richard Boyer told of a white St. Louis policeman enthusiastically greeting Duke Ellington after a performance, saying: "If you'd been a white man, Duke, you'd have been a great musician."
With his customary regal manner, Duke, smiling coolly, answered, "I guess things would have been different if I'd been a white man." Later, Duke told me how, when he was touring the deep South from 1934 to 1936, he sidelined Jim Crow.
"Without the benefit of federal judges," he said, "we commanded respect. We had two Pullman cars and a 70-foot baggage car. We parked them in each station, and lived in them. We had our own water, food, electricity and sanitary facilities. The natives would come by and say, 'What's that?' 'Well,' we'd say, 'that's the way the president travels.' We made our point. What else could we have done at that time?"
A stronger point was later made throughout the South and anywhere else blacks were, at best, seated in the balcony. In his touring all-star tournament, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Norman Granz by the 1950s was conducting a war against segregated seating. Capitalizing on the large audiences JATP attracted, Granz insisted on a guarantee from promoters that there would be no "Colored" signs in the auditoriums. "The whole reason for Jazz at the Philharmonic," he said, "was to take it to places where I could break down segregation."
Here's an example of Granz in action: After renting an auditorium in Houston in the 1950s, he hired the ticket seller and laid down the terms. Then Granz personally, before the concert, removed the signs that said WHITE TOILETS and NEGRO TOILETS. When the musicians -- Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Lester Young -- arrived, Granz watched as some white Texans objected to sitting alongside black Texans. Said the impresario: "You sit where I sit you. You don't want to sit next to a black, here's your money back."
As this music reached deeply into more white Americans, their sensitivity to segregation, affecting not only jazz musicians, increased. A dramatic illustration is the story told by Charles Black, a valuable member of Thurgood Marshall's team of lawyers during the long journey to Brown v. Board of Education. In 1931, growing up white in racist Austin, Texas, Black at age 16 heard Louis Armstrong in a hotel there. "He was the first genius I had ever seen," Black wrote long after in the Yale Law Journal. "It is impossible," he added, "to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old southern boy's seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black then in any but a servant's capacity. It was just then that I started toward the Brown case where I belonged."
Armstrong himself, in a September 1941 letter to jazz critic Leonard Feather, wrote: "I'd like to recall one of my most inspiring moments. I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I walked on stage and there I saw something I'd never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together -- naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that, you know you're going forward."
As Stanley Crouch, a keenly perceptive jazz historian and critic, wrote recently in the New York Daily News: "Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one's individual ability. Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America."
Also providing momentum were the roots of jazz -- going back to the field hollers of slaves reaching each other across plantations; gospel songs and prayers connecting slavery here with Old Testament stories of deliverance of Jews from slavery; and the blues, the common language of jazz, echoing in Armstrong singing "What did I do to be so black and blue?"
In his recently published "The Triumph of Music" (Harvard University Press), spanning four centuries and diverse nations, Tim Blanning of Cambridge University, tells how black musicians have helped prepare and participated in the civil-rights movement. As when opera singer Marian Anderson, denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939, sparked the start of the 1963 March on Washington by rousing the huge crowd with "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned."
I was there, at the back of the stage, covering this typhoon of protest for Westinghouse radio; and during Martin Luther King's world-resounding speech, Tim Blanning writes, "Mahalia Jackson called out to him: 'Tell them about your dream, Martin!'"
The tribunes of soul music also quickened the tempo of what A. Philip Randolph, the primary organizer of the March on Washington, called "the unfinished revolution" -- among them James Brown, "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
During the 1950s and early '60s, when my day and night jobs were all about jazz, I wrote of the civil-rights surge among jazz creators: Sonny Rollins's "Freedom Suite"; "Alabama" recorded by John Coltrane; and an album I produced for Candid Records that was soon banned in South Africa -- Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite."
It was Max who first taught me the connection between jazz and my other passion, the Bill of Rights. "Like the Constitution, we are individual voices," he said, "listening intently to all the other voices and creating a whole from all these personal voices."
My involvement in his "Freedom Now Suite" -- whose album cover carried a wire-service photo of black students at a whites-only lunch counter in the South -- was to work with the engineer on the sound checks and the timing of the tracks. I wouldn't have dared interfere with the incandescent fusion of anger and triumph in the studio, with Max propelling the black American experience from "Driva Man" to "Freedom Day."
One of the griots was the magisterial Coleman Hawkins, who invented the jazz tenor saxophone, and whose signature sound was so huge he didn't need a microphone in a club. He filled the room that day. And Abbey Lincoln, the former subtly sensual supper-club singer, was transformed before my eyes into a blazing Sojourner Truth.
After Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to leave her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., Dr. King spoke before some 15,000 black citizens in, and on the sidewalks around, Holy Street Baptist Church. Dr. King, as recalled by his close friend and adviser Clarence B. Jones in his new book, "What Would Martin Say?" (HarperCollins), energized the transportation boycott that followed the arrest: "We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness in a mighty stream."
Not long after, when some black civil-rights activists rebuked Ellington for not having been publicly enough involved in the movement, he said to me: "People who think that of me have not been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and pride in the Negro have been our most significant themes in talking about what it is to be a Negro in this country -- with jazz being like the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to be associated with."
Suddenly he brightened: "When Franklin Roosevelt died, practically no American music was played on the air in tribute to him. We, our band, were given a dispensation, however. We did one radio program, during the period of mourning, dedicated to him."
On Jan. 20, joining Franklin Roosevelt in the lineage of American presidents will be Barack Obama. If I'd been asked about the music to be played, I'd have suggested to Wynton Marsalis that he and the orchestra swing into a song I often heard during an Ellington set, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be."
Not that Jim Crow has finally been interred, but jazz has been a force to hasten that day. Clark Terry, long an Ellington sideman, told me: "Duke wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming. He doesn't even like to write definitive endings of a piece. He always likes to make the end of a song sound like it's still going somewhere."
So we will be on Martin Luther King's Birthday and Inauguration Day.
Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.