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Civil rights movement

Jazz and Resistance

American novelist and radio host Farai Chideya once said: “Take an emancipated and transplanted race, then put them up against discrimination during rapid industrialisation. That cultural cauldron produced music which criticised segregation with candour, sadness and humour.”

Chideya’s statement could easily be about the Blues, as its emphasis on turmoil and calling out social injustices were commonplace in 1920s America. However, Chideya wasn’t talking about the Blues, she was talking about a new genre entirely: Jazz.

Jazz, as we know it, has become synonymous with all things that are “cool”, but its origins are seldom acknowledged nor understood by the public at large. This uniquely American art form was born out of enslaved Africans singing songs to pass the time as they toiled through cotton fields.

Though it’s clear singing acted as a coping mechanism to deal with the dehumanising treatment they faced, this form of expression was used as a medium to retain the culture and traditions of their African heritage. In doing so, jazz was defiant from its inception as it resisted subjugation, and American – but ultimately European – notions of African inferiority.

Jazz music became increasingly popular as musicians made their way from the South to the industrialised cities of the North, but this didn’t mean the burgeoning genre found favour amongst individuals. This was true for a few prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, who viewed jazz as the antithesis of “high culture”. Moreover, jazz music did not appear to be compatible with the “New Negro” movement, leading some to condemn the genre entirely.

The relationship between jazz and resistance is evident further when examining where this genre was performed, and by who.

Jazz music was played in speakeasies where inter-racial mixing was the norm. White Americans from all social classes would frequent such venues, taking part in the various dance crazes that were created around this time. The illicit activities were not merely a rejection of the law, they signalled rebellion and opposition to racial segregation.

Moreover, jazz became a vehicle for African American musicians to denounce the oppression and racist violence they faced.

Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, for instance, was a condemnation of the lynching of innocent African Americans at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Although she was threatened by Henry Anslinger, the head of the FBI, to stop performing the song, she continued to do so knowing there would be reprisals. “Strange Fruit” eventually became a call-to-arms where anti-lynching campaigners used the song to encourage Congressmen to propose an anti-lynching bill. As such, jazz became a tool to confront white supremacist violence and challenge state-sanctioned barbarism.

Jazz music became the unofficial melodious backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement, too. Artists saw it as their duty to write music that reflected the times, as seen in John Coltrane’s musical narration of “Alabama”, an interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr’s eulogy given at the funerals of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing victims. Nina Simone was equally as forthright in performing tunes that denounced racial violence and brutality.

Ultimately, jazz music encapsulated the intense struggles African Americans experienced, while also acting as an outlet to affirm their roots. Martin Luther King Jr. summarised this notion perfectly, stating:

“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.”