Jazz, Civil Rights and the Big O, Take II

January 20th, 2009 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

Subjects: ,

On the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States of America, Pizaazz presents additional excerpts from Nat Hentoff’s article on the interplay between jazz and the civil rights movement:

“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.

After renting an auditorium in Houston in the 1950s…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…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.”

During the 1950s and early ’60s…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.”

If I’d been asked about the music to be played (on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration), I’d have suggested…that the orchestra swing into a song I often heard during an Ellington set, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

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.”


 

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