Last issue we explored politics and jazz, including the historic moments surrounding and leading up to the announcement of America’s election of the first African-American president, likening it to the struggle and triumphs of jazz music. The election of the first black president has a connection with jazz music: both are milestones within the black community; both gave the black community a legitimate voice in society.
This issue we will continue to explore what I call the politics of jazz—the laws and social mores as they applied to jazz music and black musicians. Specifically, we will look at some of jazz’s artist heroes, and discuss how they dealt with and overcame the double standards applied to them. Most often their frustration was expressed through their music.
Betty Carter, one of the world’s most outstanding jazz vocalists, sings:
Jazz ain’t nothing but soul
It’s the song of my people
It’s about ‘taters and grits.
She gives a clear description of what the sound of jazz means to blacks. The details of the song describes in vivid tones, just what just jazz music really is.
In “I Love Jazz” Louis Armstrong tells us how jazz is composed:
It’s a little bit of this and that
Sometimes we sing,
Sometimes we play,
Sometimes we scat,
But most of all it’s how you feel about the groove.
And when it’s groovin’,
How the groove makes you move
Jazz music sprouted rock and roll
It was the very first music that we call soul,
Jazz is hot, it’s cool, it’s good, it’s bad. . .
Some jazz artists were forced to leave their birthplaces or homes because they took a stand for their civil rights in cities, often in the South, where racism was taking a longer time to die. Some racists believed that if they could put their hatred in the form of laws and creeds, they could justify it or hide behind it, claiming that racism was not personal, it was just the law.
Many jazz artists faced repercussions for their political stances. Louis Armstrong was banned from New Orleans and Hugh Masekela was exiled from his homeland. Nina Simone chose to leave America because of its hatred and bias and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, while Nat Cole contemplated a move to Cuba for similar reasons.
Eartha Kitt was ostracized for being biracial, Harry Belafonte was called a communist because of his stances on civil rights. In choosing to take political stands, black Americans’ careers were threatened by the entertainment industry. If they continued to publicly affirm or fight for their rights, they were even threatened with physical harm.
Some cunning entrepreneurs would literally offer these artists menial amounts of money to steal or plagiarize their music or their rights of ownership because most blacks didn’t know the law. Affluent blacks who did would advise the artists how they could go about maintaining the rights to own and record their music. In many cases their white counterparts would advise them as well. These white artists, civil rights supporters and politicians who openly stood by these black artists also suffered consequences.
Here is a more detailed look at the how the politics of jazz, directed at jazz artists and others, became parts of the biographies of some of the jazz greats. (The following excerpts are taken from various texts.)
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of her people in the U.S.A.
When she wrote “Four Women” in 1966, a lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and New York radio stations because “it was insulting to black people…”
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Brown Baby, Images,” based on a Waring Cuney poem, and “Go Limp, Old Jim Crow.” One song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title, was once the black national anthem in the U.S.
Billie Holiday was given a song-poem, “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching protest written by Abel Merropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan. She ran into trouble with racists, especially in the Jim Crow southern states, drawing much criticism and hatred as the song exposed the racism of the South.
But the song also gave Holiday a real hit record and new and international fame as a purveyor of socially significant ballads. The track continued to be identified with Holiday who, on April 20, 1939, made a record of this controversial title for the Commodore label, her own label having refused to record it.
Opinion divided sharply on the merits of “Strange Fruit” as a jazz vehicle, and the effect it had upon her instinctive taste and artistry. Critics feared it could lead to a self-consciousness that would destroy the strangely innocent qualities of earlier days.
On the touring circuit it was well known that Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Granz refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.
Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Norman wasn’t the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe. “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the fifties. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him––and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status––that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
If she had never made a movie, her music career would have been enough to ensure her legendary status in the entertainment industry. Films were icing on the cake. After she made an appearance on Broadway, Hollywood came calling. At twenty-one years of age Lena made her first film, The Duke Is Tops (1938). It would be four more years before she appeared in another, Panama Hattie (1942), playing a singer in a nightclub.
By now Lena had signed with MGM but, unfortunately for her, the pictures were shot so that her scenes could be cut out when they were shown in the South. Most theaters there refused to show films that portrayed blacks in anything other than subservient roles to whites, and most movie studios did not want to take a chance on losing that particular source of revenue. Lena did not want to appear in those kinds of stereotyped roles (and who could blame her?).
Lena’s musical career flourished, but her movie career stagnated. Minor roles in films did little to advance her film career, due mainly to the ingrained racist attitudes of the time (even at the height of Lena’s musical career, she was often denied rooms at the very hotels in which she performed, because they would not let blacks stay there). Had it not been for the prevailing racial attitudes during the time when Lena was just starting in show business, it’s fair to say that her career would have been much bigger, and come much sooner.
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole was the first black man to have his own television show. On December 1, 1957, Cole hosted the sixty-fourth and final episode of The Nat King Cole Show, a fifteen-minute weekly variety show aired on NBC-TV. It ends for a lack of national advertisers willing to sponsor a show hosted by a black man.
Some whites even inferred he was “too dark for television,” while others feared they could not deal with a black man “wooing” their wives with his good looks and melodic voice, not to mention his awesome style of dress. His articulate speech was no less a threat to those who felt it was indeed unheard of that a black man could speak so well.
Smitten by these ugly tones of racism and the politics of jazz, Cole contemplated moving to Cuba, where he was overwhelmingly popular and very well respected. But the move never happened, as he became sick with cancer that would take his life.
When Louis Armstrong returned to New Orleans for the first time since he had left in 1922 to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, he was greeted as a hero. But racism marred his return when a white radio announcer refused to mention Armstrong on the air, and a free concert that Louis was going to give to the city’s African-American population was cancelled at the last minute.
The words of jazz great, vocalist Betty Carter, say it all: “Jazz ain’t nothing but soul, it’s the song of my people.” And although the politics of jazz still rings true today, jazz is still going strong, it’s the history of my people.
About Marsha Noble
Tune in every Saturday morning for the JAZNU Show on WSSD 88.1 FM with Marsha Noble, the Jazz Pacemaker. Your Saturday mornings will never be the same. To email the Pacemaker, email@example.com or write to M. Noble Productions at P.O. Box 53-519, Chicago, IL 60653-0519 and send your jazz events for airing on the JAZNU Calendar.
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