Jazz, Civil Rights and the Big O

January 19th, 2009 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

Subjects: ,

It’s a big, beautiful, bittersweet coincidence that Barack Obama’s inauguration takes place the day after Martin Luther King Day.

To honor Dr. King and acknowledge the extraordinary day to follow, Pizaazz will reprint excerpts today and tomorrow from a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal by American historian, novelist and jazz critic Nat Hentoff. Enjoy!

“On…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.”

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 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 Café, 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.

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 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.

In a 1944 New Yorker profile of Duke Ellington, Richard Boyer told of a white St. Louis policeman enthusiastically greeting Ellington after a performance, saying: “If you’d been a white man, Duke, you’d have been a great musician.”


 

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