Thesis: Jazz and the Civil Rights

Pages: 10 (2983 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Music  ·  Buy This Paper

Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

An Exploration of Situation and Style

From Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Toni Morrison's Beloved to the African-American painter Charles H. Alston's portraits, art forms have traditionally made the emotions of the American civil rights movement more tangible. Throughout history, though, no art form has been more associated with the plight of the African-American than music. In fact, the Negro spiritual first marked the issue during the pre-Civil War era. Even after the Civil War, these spirituals became songs of the civil rights movement, beats that civil rights warriors would sing as they marched for their freedom.

Because of music's monumental contribution to the civil rights movement, it is not hard to imagine that something of a civil rights genre would arise, a type of music so closely associated with the civil rights movement that it would become their unofficial campaign music. This genre appeared, and it was jazz.

The connection between jazz and the civil rights movement is not a new observation, but it is a relatively unexplored one, although some scholars have poured a great deal of effort into unearthing the connection between the political movement and the musical style. One of those scholars, Gerry Sloan, publicly addressed the issue at a 2005 Martin Luther King celebration in Arkansas. Not only did Sloan use the celebration to establish how jazz was an important component of the civil rights movement, but also he compared jazz styling to the personality and drive of Martin Luther King, calling both King and jazz revolutionary, expressive, and understanding the importance of freedom. Although Sloan acknowledged that King, a Baptist preacher, was probably not a fan of jazz, he suggested that the musical genre lent far more to the social, political, and cultural world than smooth tunes. In fact, Sloan argued that not only was jazz thematically important during the civil rights movement based on its content, performs, and time period, but also that it mimicked the civil rights movement in terms of its style (Williams).

Although some may argue that Sloan's view of jazz and the Civil Rights is not only inaccurate, but far fetched, just listening to the mellow flow of jazz notes played under an open sky suggests that the music genre is meant to imitate freedom. Thus, Sloan's study of both jazz's situation and style and how both of these elements contributed to the establishment of jazz as a music genre carefully entwined with the civil rights movement. In fact, through a comparison between the history of both jazz and the civil rights movement, and an exploration of two jazz stars, one can determine that the early history of both jazz and the civil rights movement entwined the two, making the full-fledged jazz and civil rights movements of the 1940s and 1950s undeniably connected.

Comparison of Jazz and Civil Rights History

Like old Negro spirituals had called others to prayer and action at the mistreatment of a slave and the funky music of the 1960s that attempted to persuade most to give up violence and war, jazz is a genre that embodied the political and social struggles taking place in the very streets of recording studios -- or even the street corners -- where the musicians composed their next musical masterpieces. The jazz movement was no different, quickly absorbing the tumultuous climate around it and turning it into soulful melodies and smooth measures. While both jazz and the civil rights movement reached a peak around the 1950s neither simply sprang into existence. Rather, both aspects of society followed a similar timeline beginning as far back as the late 1800s. This timeline allowed both jazz and the civil rights movement to evolve into movements with all of the developments of musical evolution and social justice developed during the years of their formation, laying the foundation for the monumental jazz and civil rights movements of the 1940s and 1950s.

The timeline chronicling the birth of the civil rights movement began with the death of another social institution -- slavery. For this reason, one can list the beginning of the civil rights movement as 1863, when the emancipation proclamation was signed, or as 1864, when the Civil War ended. Some may even place the beginning of the movement with the beginning of the Underground Railroad. While African-Americans and their advocates had been rallying for their freedom throughout the 1860s, the emancipation proclamation and the end to the civil war did not guarantee them equal rights. In fact, many former slaves remained employed in their master's plantations for little or know money; some were not even informed of the action that freed them. With the Civil Rights Act of 1866, congress attempted to insure African-Americans of "the same right in every State and Territory in the United States" ("The Civil Rights Act"). In 1900, one of the first African-American congressional representatives George H. White introduced an anti-lynching law that was never ratified and no similar law was ever re-introduced ("African-Americans in the Twentieth Century"). Regardless of these acts, and other attempts to insure the rights of African-Americans, they continually faced persecution in schools, the work place, and a variety of entertainment venues. Southern Jim Crow laws managed to disenfranchise a variety of African-American voters. Although the Civil Rights Movement would not reach its peak -- or be fully acknowledged -- until the 1950s, this was the era of W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, who championed the cause of African-Americans in both society and business. By 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had formed, African-American publications were in wide circulation, and African-American higher education had spring up throughout the country, while the courts continued to uphold segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers attacked, murdered, and harassed African-Americans, and law enforcement officials looked the other way ("African-Americans in the Twentieth Century").

This social situation paired intelligent and socially responsible African-Americans who not only contributed literature, music, and philosophy to the American community, but who also fought and died for their country during World War Two, with government-acknowledged segregation, lynching, abuse, and persecution. Like pressure in a powder keg, this situation continued to produce sparks until the 1950s, when it erupted into the fire that was the civil rights movement.

Similar to the "pre-civil rights movement," which provided for the social situation that lead to the full-fledged civil rights movement, a stage called "pre-jazz" lead to the development of jazz genre. Pre-jazz can be understood as the "time before the conscious recognition of jazz as an individual music" genre, the period in which "musical and cultural influences merged to create the uniqueness and diversity of jazz" ("Pre-Jazz"). Like the pre-civil rights movement, the pre-jazz era took place from around 1850-1900. During this era the folk music that would come to heavily influence the jazz genre came together through unique experimentation. Because most of the musical influences on early jazz are old Negro spirituals and plantation folk songs and dance music, the fact that the pre-jazz and early jazz age coincided with the pre-civil rights movement becomes increasingly more significant ("Pre-Jazz").

This significance resulted in the importance of the jazz genre's progression, not only as a musical experience, but also as a cultural experience and foundation for the advancement of African-American art and presence in society. As the civil rights movement began to progress with emancipation proclamation and the end of the civil war, thousands of former slaves became contributing members of society, releasing their unique culture and musical artistry into mainstream American culture for the first time. The music, which evolved from African-American folk and dance music into blues and eventually jazz, contained unique qualities that made a significant contribution to American music. Some of these characteristics included improvisation and high emotion, which was a direct result from "field hollers, sorrow songs, and spiritual music from the early slaves" ("Jazz History').

While the African-American contributions to jazz music are certainly significant, the genre is not comprised of African-American culture alone. Instead, jazz represents a blending of African and European cultures -- a synthesizing of the dominate and simple European musical styles and the complex African melodies and harmonies of field songs, ragtime, and the blues ("Pre-Jazz"). As the music developed, many of the characteristics that described the pre and early civil rights warriors' attempts at justice characterized the genre of jazz. Just as intelligent African-Americans who both contributed to society and fought for the United States during World War Two were not only segregated and persecuted, but also lynched and harassed by a variety of groups and individuals, so too was jazz seen as "(il)legitimate entertainment," because of its "predominantly black influences," in addition to its "connec (tion) with loose morals" ("Jazz History"). In fact, it took the inclusion of whites to establish this art form filled with African-American emotion and culture as legitimate ("Jazz History").

While both the pre and early jazz and civil rights movements eventually bloomed into full-fledged movements… [END OF PREVIEW]

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