Research Paper: Impact of Jazz During the Civil Rights Movement

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¶ … Jazz during the Civil Rights Movement

In America, music has a tremendous influence on culture. Part of the reason for this, is because it has the ability to transcend racial and political lines. As the artists, the songs and the ideals that they represent will transform, the way people interact with each other as well as various social institutions. At which point, a seismic shift will occur, in how racial relations and political events are being perceived. A good example of this can be seen with Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement, as the music would transform politics (creating a shift in society). What happened was the period after the end of the Civil War saw the implementation of the legal system known as Jim Crow. These were a series of different laws that made it legal, to have different facilities for various races of people (based upon the principal of separate but equal). Over the years, this standard was often applied throughout society. ("Jim Crow Laws") Jazz, would play an influential role in changing this policy, by forcing blacks and whites to integrate with one another. This was accomplished through: their love of the music and the idea that they were doing something that had never been accomplished before. (Hentoff) to fully understand this impact requires examining the artists as well as their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. This will be accomplished by examining a number of different performers to include: John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Billie Holiday and Ornette Coleman. Once this takes place, it will provide the greatest insights as to how Jazz would define the Civil Right Movement and the changes that it represents.

Jazz provided a common ground where blacks and whites could come together, as they would be evaluated based on their ability to perform. This is important, because the genre of music would start out by questioning the moral legality of Jim Crow. Where, various artists from the 1920's to the 1950s would continue to work together, on a host of different collaborative projects. At the same time, they would integrate their bands with artists from a variety of different racial backgrounds. This would to lead to a shift in the views of black and white, as the music would force society to reexamine their own racial beliefs. (Hentoff)

John Coltrane

John Coltrane became a part of the civil rights movement after 1963.This was a year that was marked by: Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech and was a time when racial tensions were rising dramatically. While not a vocal critic of the racial injustices that were occurring, Coltrane believed that his music could be used to instill a higher level of consciousness in the listener. Where, he felt that the music could help to create a shift in the views of the listener, by addressing issues that highlight the injustices that were taking place. As a result, he performed in many concerts, to support the movement and wrote songs that were dedicated to the cause. A good example of this can be seen with the song "Alabama," as this was his greatest contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. As the lyrics, were inspired by: Martin Luther King's words and left a lasting impression on Coltrane. At which point, he would use this inspiration, to highlight the issue through the words of the song itself. This is important, because it shows how Jazz was used as a tool, to create a greater understanding of contemporary issues through the songs and lyrics. (Tichroew)

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was often referred to as an Uncle Tom (by Civil Rights activists). This is because he would often perform for white audiences. However, in his early and mid career he would write lyrics that were considered to be critical of the Jim Crow laws. A good example of this can be seen in the in 1929 song Black and Blue, as Armstrong would sing, "My only sin. Is my skin. What did I do. To be so black and blue." (Tichroew) This is significant, because it shows how the ideas of implementing various injustices, in the songs and lyrics would help to inspire other artists. Over the course of time, this would fuel the free spirit that a diverse group of performers would feel from: the music and ideals that it represents.

Archie Shepp

Archie Shepp's Fire Music revealed his views on racial discrimination. As this was his second album, that was an eclectic collection of traditional and contemporary Jazz. The idea was to use the music as a way to highlight the racial injustices that were occurring. A good example of this can be seen with his song Hambone. Where, this would mix traditional elements of Jazz (such as Big Band sounds) with various rhythms, melodies and solos. This is important, because the song would be utilized to highlight the frustrations that Shepp would have when working as inner city youth counselor. As the programs were underfunded and would often serve as a part of the strategy, to help the white aristocracy clear their feelings of regret and guilt about what was occurring. (Townsend)

Max Roach

Max Roach was a great Jazz musician. His contribution to the Civil Rights Movement was though the various albums that he produced and as an outspoken critic of injustice. His work We insist! Freedom Now Suite (in 1960) was proof of his views on racial discrimination. As this would challenge the status quo and question the policy of separate vs. equal. His other albums Speak Brother Speak (in 1962) and Lift Every Voice and Sing (in 1971) instilled the same message. This is significant, because Roach would serve as a foundation, for highlighting social injustices through his music and political activism. (Tichroew)

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday's greatest contribution to the civil rights movement is the song Strange Fruit (composed in 1939).This was inspired by a heart wrenching incident that occurred in 1930. As two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith had been brutally lynched by an unruly mob. This song is full of emotions and soon became the anthem for Civil Rights Movement. As the events from the lynching and the views of what took place would be seen throughout the lyrics. Evidence of this can be seen with the lines from Strange Fruit where it says, "Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant south,. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh. Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck. For the rain together, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot. For the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop." (Tichroew) This is significant, because it shows how Holiday would be the first of many artists that would take actual events and incorporate them into their songs. As a result, one can easily draw a parallel between the influences of Holiday and the Jazz movement from the 1940's to the 1960's.

Ornette Coleman

Ornettte Coleman was a Saxophonist and a controversial figure in the world of Jazz. His style of improvisation set him apart and created a new a standard for the musicians to follow. As he would often use: a collection of different sounds and instrumentals, to create a unique form of Jazz that was outside of the mainstream. Where, most artists were focused on the traditional Bebop format that had been used for decades by the status quo. His album the Shape of Jazz to Come (in 1959) and Free Jazz (in 1960) were a shift that occurred in the music. As the improvised style, would highlight the sense of freedom and unity that was being expressed through the various songs. This is important, because this would set the standard for all artists in the future, as they would embrace the ideas of Coleman, to express their frustrations with society (through the different sounds that he innovated). As a result, of his outstanding contributions to Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement Coleman received: the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (in 2004), a Grammy for lifetime achievements (in 2007), the Miles Davis Award and an honorary Doctorate in music from the University of Michigan (in 2010). This is significant, because it shows how Coleman was able to highlight various injustices through: the sounds and structure of the music (versus the actual words). (Tichroew)

Clearly, Jazz would have a dramatic impact upon the Civil Rights Movement. Where, it would serve as a way of uniting various artists together (from a host of different racial backgrounds). This would set the stage for helping to inspire various civil rights leaders, as the music would question the status quo and the polices that they represent. Over the course of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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