Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

It would be hard to overestimate the role of music in the civil rights movement. The vernacular forms of jazz, blues, and spirituals – along with their extensions such as Motown and soul music – all provided cultural resistance and spiritual sustenance in the 1950s and 1960s. The same year as Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, a now familiar soundtrack featuring John Coltrane’s “Alabama" (an elegy for the four girls murdered in Birmingham), Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” all invoked a musical useable past to register a national public Black presence. That year also saw the publication of Leroi Jones’s Blues People, the first work to analyze African-American vernacular musics as art forms capable of representing Black thought and resistance in each historical stage. In his influential collection of essays published the following year, Shadow and Act (1964), Ralph Ellison testified to the cultural leadership of swing-era jazz musicians such as Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young, and Charlie Christian from the Harlem Renaissance and on up through the Cold War and the freedom struggle.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the melding of the personal, political, and racial aspects of freedom were explicit in albums such as Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite (1958), Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite (1960), and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ The Freedom Rider (1961), as well as in Charles Mingus' thematic compositions such as “Fables for Faubus” and “Freedom.” In addition, many jazz musicians – especially drummers such as Art Blake and Max Roach — traveled to Africa to bring jazz back to its ancestral roots.