The sounds of the bass drum booming, the buzzing of the trumpet, the mellow, rich tone of the piano and the soulful scat of a singer who embodies self-expression and freedom — these are all elements of the genre known as jazz.
The music, which originated in New Orleans, is a balm that has healed many souls. It also has conveyed powerful political and human rights messages. From “Strange Fruit,” the 1959 song about lynchings made popular by singer Billie Holiday to “We Made It Through That Water,” the 2010 song about Hurricane Katrina survivors written by the Free Agents Brass Band, the music has carried voices to places they would not otherwise be heard.
While Freedom Riders, protesters and civil rights activists stood on the front lines in the struggle for freedom and justice, it was musicians that provided a soundtrack to their fight for equality. Although musicians weren’t necessarily in the streets marching, boycotting segregated stores or participating in sit-ins at lunch counters, they experienced racial injustice both on and off stage and used their music to call out and resist injustice.
The music – jazz, blues, soul, R&B, folk – came from the lived experiences of Black people, their trials and triumphs. Songs like John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” gave voice to the grief and anger of African Americans in the face of oppression, often deadly, during the civil rights movement.
Entertainers were often forced into closer proximity with white segregationists during the Jim Crow era. Dr. Michael White, jazz clarinetist and historian, remembers swallowing his feelings during a performance for a college fraternity and sorority that were honoring the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“Just the event itself was a type of microaggression,” he said.
White said his life was threatened at the age of 24 when he played in the St. Joseph Day parade.
“I remember there was a group, like a motorcycle gang. We had stopped and they were looking. One guy looked at me and called me the N-word, and he said if I looked at him, he’d kill me,” White recalled.
White said the improvisational style of jazz gave Black musicians a type of freedom. They were able to gain prominence on stages and play solo parts independently.
In 1957, as the governor of Arkansas mobilized that state’s National Guard to block Black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, New Orleans’ most famous jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, broke his silence against segregation. Armstrong, one of the most famous entertainers in the world at the time, took a courageous stand while the United States tried to use him as a goodwill ambassador to other countries during the Cold War while Black people endured oppression at home.
Armstrong told a reporter he felt like he should withdraw from a Soviet Union jazz tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Armstrong said. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?” he said in an interview with Larry Ray Lubenow of the Grand Forks Herald.
As Black people pushed for voting rights, integration, and personal freedom during the civil rights movement, a musician’s prominence may have provided some benefits but it also put them in precarious positions.
Dodie Smith, a Freedom Rider, remembered sitting at a club one night with Worthia G. “Showboy” Thomas, a New Orleans rhythm and blues trombonist who “would never let white folks take his picture.” Smith said Thomas told her about his own incident of racial violence.
Smith recalled Thomas telling her that he was forced to sing a song called “High Society.” An old white man came up to him while he was sitting at a restaurant “reached in his pocket, took a gun out, [and] put it to his head,” Smith said. With the weapon pointed at him, Thomas began singing, “Oh, I wish I wasn’t high society.”
“Black musicians went through a lot,” Smith said.
Racial harmony was and still is a goal.
Tyrus Chapman, a trombonist for the Hot 8 in New Orleans, wrote a song called “Let Me Do My Thing.” His lyrics call for people to come together: “Blacks and whites, we all need to get along, all we need is to show love.”
“Everybody comes from different walks of life, but we are one people,” Chapman said.
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