How Jazz Influenced the Civil Rights Movement

Music can be a form of expression of our own opinions, life experiences, and can also be heavily influenced by pop culture when the song is written. However, music also aids a “helping hand” to political reforms. In recent years, we have seen the resurgence of racist attacks through the Western world. Racism has been present for decades, centuries even, but now, with new advances in technology, social media and news reporting; we are becoming far more aware of how segregated our civilization really is. 

17th century Irish literary works such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal’ and Marie Edgeworth’s ‘Castle Rackrent’ highlighted the issues of poverty and discrimination against the Irish people by the British crown. Similarly, Irish folk songs such as “Is fada liom oiche fhírfhluidh” (‘The Drenching Night Drags On’) also lent themselves to discussions about the poor living conditions of the impoverished Irish.

In Irish culture,  music has been a running methodology of expression and this can also be seen further afield. 

Jazz originates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a fusion of American and European classical music with African and slave folk songs. Jazz is characterized by swing and blues notes, complex chords, call and response vocals, and improvisation. 

On my radio show with Babylon called “JazzView”, I often speak about the artists who first established the genre of jazz into the forms we know today and a lot of those artists are of African descent. Interestingly my previous guests from the band Origin Story mentioned how “it’s odd how we are now playing music that was created by and to empower African slaves, that’s basically what jazz is about”.

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Nina Simon
Ron Kroon / Anefo Restored by Bammesk

The civil rights movement in the United States, spanned decades. Today we still see the fractures in American society, with the Black Lives Matter movement that came to the fore last year when protesting the death of George Floyd. This movement enabled a lot of suppressed issues and unjustified segregation to be brought to the surface. During the civil rights movement in the 1950’s however, jazz musicians found an opportunity to really empower their people and like-minded allies in the campaign. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Charles Mingus all created music hoping to bring publicity to the campaign.

In the book Freedom Now!, it mentions a quote by Thelonious Monk; 

“The police bothers you more in the United States than they do anywhere else. The police heckle the people more in the United States than they do anyplace else. You don’t have as much trouble with the police in no other country like you do in the United States. The police just mess with you in the United States for nothing. They just bully people. They don’t do that in no other country but the United States. They carry guns, too. And they shoot people for nothing”

Notably, Louis Armstrong kept his views relatively below the surface. That was until the Little Rock Nine crisis, where a school refused nine black students access in Arkansas in December 1959. This then led him to cancel his tour in the Soviet Union.

There was a massive turn against Armstrong, with many radio stations vowing to never play his music again or burning his records due to his stance against the discrimation. In an essay by Gerald Early from Washington University he states that the emergence of interest towards Jazz after WWII

“..created two forms of tensions within jazz: first, among some white performers who feel that whites have not been given sufficient credit for their contributions to this art which has had white participation since its earliest days; and, second, between black performers and the whites who mostly constituted the critics, writers, venue and record company owners who described, analyzed, promoted, publicized, recorded, and distributed this music.”

Adam Ritchie / Getty Images

Louis Armstrong’s song “What Did I Do to be So Black and Blue” was featured in the film version of the novel The Invisible Man, arguing that a Black American is still an American citizen, regardless of race. 

“The scene where the protagonist listens to Armstrong sing this song conveys this symbolically as he eats vanilla ice cream (white) drenched in sloe gin (red) while the blues play on his phonograph” (Gerald Early).

It would be difficult to go into detail of every song that was created during the civil rights movement and how that in itself brought about its own changes to the campaign. However, an artist I suggest you listen to to understand the embodied desperation and hopes of the black community during this time, would be Nina Simone. Her song “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to be Free” expresses her anger and disappointment with the state of American civil rights. Her lyrics were viewed as radical and poignant for the time and drew a lot of interest, as she refused to separate her art from her political views.

© lists the anthems of Black Lives Matter which include; Jay-Z’s “Spiritual”; Kenrick Lamar’s “Alright”; Common’s “Glory” and Chris Brown’s “A Lot of Love”. Music has always been a way to support social reform and lead us to a better understanding of human suffering, segregation, discrimination, and sexism. 

Tune in to JazzView this Thursday evening at 6pm where I will be discussing this topic even further, and playing some of the music from the leading artists of the time that embodied the civil rights campaign. 

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KathyAnn Murphy
KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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