How Jazz Hastened Civil Rights
Jazz had a largely unappreciated role in hastening the arrival of the civil rights movement, according to veteran jazz writer Nat Hentoff. As early as the 1920s, white and black jazz musicians played together in after-hours jam sessions. But it was not until the 1940s, Hentoff said in the January 15, 2009, issue of the Wall Street Journal, that jazz musicians and their audiences mixed publicly in clubs—tentatively at first, but then freely and openly, in violation of local laws and mores. As jazz captured more and more avid listeners, white Americans started to understand the effect of segregation in all aspects of American culture.
Here is a favorite excerpt of mine from Hentoff’s article:
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.”
Another favorite excerpt:
[Louis] 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.”
Hentoff quoted Stanley Crouch, whom he called a keenly perceptive jazz historian and critic:
Once the musicians 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.
Right now, we are in a period of profound change in nearly all sectors of our society. What forces are at work right now—unappreciated—that will have a profound influence on the future of science, culture, politics, economy and global relationships?
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