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Six Jazz Classics and the Fight for Civil Rights

When organizers of the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival approached Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to write an introduction for the festival program book, he wrote, “God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”

Dr. King’s statement about oppression and creativity speaks to the role jazz plays in the struggle for equality. The fight for civil rights from the 1930s through the ’60s was volatile, scarred by violence against peaceful protesters and activists fighting segregationist Jim Crow laws and other kinds of oppression. Jazz musicians responded with music that poured out the heartbreak and justified rage of the era.

Duke Ellington’s “New World a-Comin’”

Roi Ottley’s 1943 book New World a-Coming looked optimistically at life in 1920s and ’30s Harlem where he grew up, expressing hope of a better future for African Americans. Duke Ellington’s composition of the same name premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 11, 1943. The tune’s graceful swing and beautiful melody are quintessential Ellington. He wrote of his inspiration, “I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization …”

Listen to “New World a-Comin”

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)—a teacher and civil rights advocate—wrote the scalding poem “Strange Fruit,” eventually setting it to music after seeing a photo of the lynching of two African American men in 1930. The horrifying image of a “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” galvanized singer Billie Holiday. It painfully took her back to the time her father was refused hospital treatment because he was Black, which contributed to his death.

Holiday sang the song for the first time in 1939, and it became the powerful closing of many of her concerts. “Strange Fruit” was an anthem for those striving for equality, but also a trigger for reactionaries. Holiday often encountered racist hecklers and walkouts when she performed the song.

Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger ordered Holiday to stop singing “Strange Fruit.” She refused. She was later entrapped while buying heroin from one of Anslinger’s operatives and spent a year-and-a-half in prison. After her 1948 release, she was not allowed to renew her cabaret performer’s license and could therefore not perform in nightclubs. Instead, she sang several sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall, including one on March 27, 1948, when she riveted audiences with “Strange Fruit.”

Listen to “Strange Fruit”

John Coltrane’s “Alabama”

The September 15, 1963, Sunday-morning fire-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, left four young African American girls dead. It was a hideous climax to a string of events in the state: the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1961 beating of Freedom Riders (students activists from the Congress for Racial Equality) in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 imprisonment, and the Birmingham commissioner of public safety turning fire hoses on protesting children in May 1963.

A quiet man, John Coltrane was reluctant to make political statements, choosing instead to speak through his music. His long-time pianist, McCoy Tyner, once said the rhythms of “Alabama”—which Coltrane wrote after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—were inspired by a speech given by Dr. King. While it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular text—and Coltrane never confirmed that he was writing about recent events—what is indisputable is the work’s gravity and haunting melody. In his book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff called “Alabama” “an accurate psychological portrait of a time.”

Listen to “Alabama”

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”

Alabama wasn’t the only Southern state convulsing in racial turmoil. In Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his home by a Ku Klux Klan member. The Alabama church bombing was just a few months later. The murders enraged and incited singer Nina Simone.

Simone called “Mississippi Goddam” her first civil rights song, a scalding indictment clothed in an up-tempo show tune. Simone sings of a litany of injustices, bemoans the state of the country, rages against placating authorities, and demands “All I want is equality / For my sister, my brother, my people, and me.” You can feel her rage on a recording of her performance at Carnegie Hall in 1964 when she speaks to the audience mid-song, “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?”

Listen to “Mississippi Goddam”

Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”

Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus is remembered for defying the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders and calling in the National Guard to prevent nine African American students from integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. President Eisenhower eventually stepped in and sent troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school. The searing image of young students surrounded by a phalanx of soldiers just so they could go to school is, in many ways, a snapshot of the era.

The incident inspired composer-bassist Charles Mingus to write 1959’s “Fables of Faubus” for his Mingus Ah Um album. Mingus was a genius of biting sarcasm, and his loping tune features his cutting call-and-response with drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus asks, “Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie,” to which Richmond shouts, “Governor Faubus!”

Unfortunately, executives at Mingus’s record label refused to let the lyrics be heard. The version on Mingus Ah Um is only instrumental, but the tune was re-recorded as “Original Faubus Fables” for another label and lives on in all its unfiltered defiance.

Listen to “Original Faubus Fables”

We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

Composer-drummer Max Roach and singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. had been working on the We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite as early as 1959, with the intention of performing it for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. The album was released in 1960 and featured some of the greatest jazz artists of the day, including vocalist Abbey Lincoln (later Roach’s wife), the tragically short-lived trumpeter Booker Little, trombonist Julian Priester, and a guest turn by legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Ray Mantilla and Michael Babatunde Olatunji provided Cuban and African percussion accents.

The album never blinks. Its opening “Driva’ Man” startles with the violence of the slave master’s whip, painfully depicted by Roach’s biting drum rimshots. Lincoln’s breathless, almost rushed vocal evokes the wonder, disbelief, and joy of emancipation in “Freedom Day.” The central “Tryptich: Prayer, Protest, Peace” is a Roach and Lincoln showpiece. Her bluesy wordless vocals in “Prayer” float around Roach’s bare drum riffs; her raging screams in “Protest” crash against his explosive playing; and her ethereal vocals dance with his syncopated drumming in “Peace.”

The inspiring “All Africa” has Lincoln calling out the names of African tribes and Olatunji responding with spectacular drumming, while “Tears for Johannesburg” looks to apartheid in South Africa, referencing the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of innocent protesters. We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite is more than a concept album. It’s a painful history of exploitation, a cry for justice, and catalyst for change.

Listen to We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

This music serves up very painful issues with no filter, confronting some of humankind’s worst impulses. But is also seeks a better way, the hope for that “New World a-Comin.’” Dr. King said it most eloquently: “Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”


Photography: King by Rowland Scherman; Ellington courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives; Holiday by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress; Coltrane by Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo; Faubus by John T. Bledsoe, Library of Congress; Mingus by Tom Marcello; Lincoln by Jack de Nijs / Anefo; concert memorabilia courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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