Jazz and Civil Rights


The following pages describe the contributions toward social justice made by several prominent jazz musicians.  These pages are by no means comprehensive; many musicians  worked to further the rights of minority peoples in large and small ways.  In fact, every time a black performer steps onto a stage to play, he or she is promoting equality and justice simply by presenting themselves as a performer who has the right to publicly play their music as an equal to all other performers, their race or ethnicity having no place in that societal judgment.  It wasn’t always so; musicians (Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, for example) were regularly arrested for, or simply barred from,  playing in front of white audiences.

While these pages are largely about social action, make no mistake:  it is the music that matters.  From the very beginnings here in our country, Gospel music and the blues were the healing music, created by slaves, that gave strength and resilience to the oppressed.  The source of that healing is twofold:  spiritually, in the deep feeling that gave it its place in the world of the oppressed workers of the slavery-based plantations, and, esthetically, in its sheer beauty.  The tones created by Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and so many others are fully as musically masterful as any other work in our musical lexicon.  In fact, it is often said that jazz is America’s music.

In his book, “Music: A Subversive History,” Ted Gioia describes the timeless arc of music emerging in the outer edges of societies’ cities, towns and gathering places as expression of a deep common feeling, then gradually being absorbed and reshaped to fit into the confines of the dominant culture because of its inherent appeal .  Here, it was used in its altered form to promulgate the dominant culture’s purposes.  The evolution of jazz, from its cotton-field and church origins to the stages and studios of mainstream America, both exemplifies and challenges that cycle:  jazz remains today as an ongoing bed of creativity, where musicians express themselves in their own voice every time they play.  If , as some say, popular, big-stage jazz can be seen as accommodating to some degree to the demands of the culture and its marketplace, just take yourself to  the small clubs and local performance halls, and listen to the joy, pain, pride, and dismay of the cats who stand there and just play. If you can listen to what’s really going on, you’ve got to be moved by its beauty and spirit. 

In terms of civil rights and social justice, the relationship between music and the injustices perpetrated on peoples of lower standing began early in the history of mankind.  For us, we know that slaves on plantations and their families sang and chanted about their mistreatment behind the backs of their masters, and even in code when the whites were around to listen.  The early blues singers were the same- their sociological and economic plights played right along with love, sex, and violence to fill the air in the evenings, when the work was done and people gathered to unwind. 

In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong spoke out by changing the lyrics of a popular show tune; then, as swing and bebop came on the scene in the 30s, musicians began to become emboldened to make their public stands.   Benny Goodman was the first prominent white bandleader to hire black players for his groups- maybe he was the Branch Rickey of jazz- and people like Duke Ellington refused to take the stage where blacks were not allowed in the audience.  As the civil rights spirit emerged in society, prominent musicians like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and so many others began to speak out despite white producers and audiences who did not welcome their comments.  With the leverage that their celebrity and music gave them, these men and women, and now many more who have followed in their musical footsteps, took on the responsibility of success and risked their standings in the marketplace with messages about racial equality and social justice.   It seems their courage matches their talent in intensity- and importance. 

This series, Jazz and Civil Rights, presented by the Santa Fe Branch of the NAACP, is intended to provide enjoyment for those attending our meetings, help to foster a spirit of collaboration and continuing commitment to the goals of NAACP through the shared experience of listening to these courageous artists, and, at the deepest level, to keep feeding the fires of our movement burning in all of us through the power of music.  Segments of  various performances and recordings will play in the few minutes before each meeting, and the media link to the full performance and other works by the artists, as well as some historical commentary on the artist’s social action, will be posted on the NAACPSFNM website, under the menu heading “About,” and the listing, “Jazz and Civic Rights.”

Take heart and courage in the actions of these wonderful people, and enjoy their music. 

Lou Levin, updated November, 2023

November 2023

Mary Lou Williams

Music:      Dat Dere–   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVRWgNYwSLM

Mary Lou Williams was a swing and bebop icon, who is regarded as one of the greatest jazz pianists, composers, and arrangers of all time.  She played piano out of necessity at a very young age;  her white neighbors were throwing bricks into her house until Williams began playing the piano in their homes.

She was called “The Lady Who Swings the Band.” While her prominence as a musician was the central part of her life, she also recognized her greater obligation to society.  She devoted herself to aiding musicians suffering from addiction and illness, even offering her apartment as a rest home for those in need,  as well as teaching about jazz’s rich African American heritage;  for example,  she recorded The History of Jazz, a mixed album of music and speech.  

It was important to Williams that jazz’s African American heritage not be erased. In 1970, She distributed the “Tree of Jazz,” an illustration that showed the history of African American music from contemporary swing and bebop back to antebellum spirituals. 

In 1975, Mary Lou played the first-ever jazz mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City before more than 3,000 people. While there were objections to the jazz flavor of the mass, Mary Lou felt that jazz was a sacred form of African American expression. She told the New York Post,”…Jazz is healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere — in churches, nightclubs, everywhere.”

Mary Lou Williams, New York, ca1946, by Ky Olsen, is licensed under CC by 2.0

After her retirement as a performer, Mary Lou became Duke University’s first-ever “artist-in residence,” a position she held until her death in 1981. While there, she created The Mary Lou Williams Center For Black Culture, a hub for community-building, learning, exploration, and black identity development. The Center’s continuing mission is to provide a safe and affirming space that supports the diverse needs of Black-identified people at Duke University.  The Center promotes racial understanding, community building, and appreciation of the black experience in America by developing and presenting knowledge about African American people, history, culture, and contributions of the African diaspora.  

A midlife convert to Catholicism, Mary Lou turned her creativity toward liturgical music, combining it with jazz in masterpieces such as “Black Christ of the Andes” (1964) about the black Peruvian St. Martín de Porres Velázquez.

Williams opened thrift stores in Harlem to benefit impoverished and addicted musicians and put on giant benefit concerts, such as Pittsburgh’s first jazz festival in 1964 at the Civic Arena.

Looking back at the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said: “I did it, didn’t I? Through muck and mud.” Known as “the first lady of the jazz keyboard”.[35] Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz.[36]

Lou Levin, November, 2023

October 2023

Ella Fitzgerald

When  17 year old Ella Fitzgerald sang at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for her first public appearance, it was said that her sound was so perfect that the entire theater went silent. 

Already, of course, she had already faced severe racial discrimination.   After her mother’s death  when she was 13, her acting-up led to her being sent  to a reform school. There, black girls were segregated into crowded and dilapidated parts of the reformatory  and were frequently beaten by male staff.  There was a fine music program at the school, but  was it all white so she was excluded.  Eventually, Fitzgerald escaped from the school, and  for several years slept on the streets of Harlem .

After her Apollo debut, she was quickly enlisted by major bands and soon became a huge sensation.  But she was still treated like a criminal.  For example, she was arrested in her dressing room because she sang  at an integrated show in Houston.  But she rose above the ugliness with poise and grace —though the toll it took on this quiet star must have been enormous.

Fitzgerald clearly understood  how deeply entrenched racism was.  She recognized that there were some minds that would never change.  In 2018, an interview with New York radio host Fred Robbins emerged  that had been recorded  In 1963.  Robbins had promised Fitzgerald that the interview would air “all over the world.”  Instead, for obvious reasons, it was shelved and forgotten until  it was discovered 45 years later.

In the interview,  she had said:  “Maybe I’m stepping out of line, but I have to say it, because it’s in my heart.  It makes you feel so bad to think we can’t go down through certain parts of the South and give a concert like we do overseas, and have everybody just come to hear the music and enjoy the music because of the prejudice thing that’s going on.”

Despite her reticence to speak out, Fitzgerald was grateful for that interview opportunity, even if it might end up costing her. “I really ran my mouth,” she said, worrying, “Is it going down South? You think they’re going to break my records up when they hear it?”

Ella Fitzgerald, Amsterdam, 1962   Photo: Ben van Meerendonk  AHF, collection IISG, Amsterdam

Throughout her career, her manager Norm Granz was fighting for Civil Rights by keeping the shows clean and with no signs of discrimination.  During Ella’s time on tour, they both made sure that the labels that had writing representing segregation were either cleaned of that material or taken down.

During her life, Fitzgerald was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Equal Justice Award and the American Black Achievement Award, as well as many other honors that celebrated her talents and accomplishments both in the jazz world and in the civil rights movement.  She received  honorary doctorates from Yale, Dartmouth, and several other universities. 

Fitzgerald was seen as an inspiration. Her drive pushed her career forward, and by using her talent and help from her friends, colleagues, and her manager, she was able to break down seemingly impossible barriers simply by courageously doing what she did:  sing her heart out with stunning tone and clarity, no matter what the circumstances .  She is seen in the Black community as a magnificent  icon with her transformative powers through jazz.  She is seen in the jazz and music communities as one of the best  who  ever stood in front of  a microphone. 

Aside from music, Fitzgerald was a child welfare advocate and regularly made donations to help disadvantaged youth. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Go to Youtube with “Ella Fitzgerald.”  You can’t go wrong with any tune you choose, but here’s a couple if my favorites—

All of Me:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sr_EX9Ppfjw

Misty:  https://youtube.com/watch?rv=POLakkBlj8

Lou Levin, October, 2023

September 2023

John Coltrane

This coming Friday, September 15, is the 60th anniversary of the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in
Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

In August of that year, Birmingham had hosted the “Salute to Freedom” concert, where musicians like Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald performed at Miles College to celebrate the Birmingham Campaign’s protests of segregation in the city.

A few weeks later, On September 15, the Church, a hub of the anti-segregation action, was bombed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Fifteen timed sticks of dynamite, placed under the front steps of the church, exploded.

Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesly, 14, were killed. The girls were
attending Sunday School when the explosion took their lives.

Three days after that tragedy, Martin Luther King spoke in the sanctuary of the church. The service opened with the
hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ and when the huge audience stood to sing, voices outside the church joined the
swelling chorus; it was said that “a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself” was heard in that vast chorus.

“John Coltrane 1963” by Gelderen, Hugo van / Anefo CC01.0

King’s words and the deep expressions of mourning, prayer and hope among the grieving congregation and so many others inspired the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who then wrote the mournful ballad, ‘Alabama.’ The rhythms of his composition were patterned on King’s speech.

After his successful battle with drug addiction, Coltrane had come to see his music as a pathway to the divine. Among his later compositions was ‘A Love Supreme,’ the purpose of which was to capture the essence of God in music.

Three songs were written in the wake of the bombing from 1963 to 1964:
Coltrane’s “Alabama:” www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd5R0susntk
Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam:” www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ25-U3jNWM
Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday:” www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQ0y-vO9QLE

Lou Levin, August, 2023

JULY 2023

Thelonius Monk

Thelonious Monk, Minton’s Playhouse, N.Y.,
 ca. Sept. 1947 8William P. Gottlieb 06241)

Thelonious Monk was a jazz pianist during the ‘50s through the ‘70s, whose focus was on breaking the rules of the jazz idiom.  He played with all the greats, and made his mark playing in a somewhat rough, thick, highly punctuated style.  His sound is immediately recognizable to even the non-expert.  If you’re a casual listener, you won’t know exactly what’s going on, but you’ll surely know something’s different about the sound of that piano. 

While Monk was not a vocal crusader for civil rights, he answered the call by playing in settings whose political intentions were clearly pronounced.  For example, on Sunday afternoon, August 7, the New York chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized “Jazz Sits In,” a fundraiser in support of the “southern student movement;” Monk played the gig gratis.  The next month, he played at Carnegie Hall to participate in “A Salute to Southern Students,” a huge benefit concert for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), commemorating the third anniversary of the sit-in movement and to raise money for SNCC’s ongoing work. 

On another occasion, Danny Scher, a Jewish 16-year-old jazz fan, wanted to book Monk for a benefit performance at his high school auditorium in Palo Alto, California, a predominantly white town 40 minutes outside of San Francisco.  It was 1968, a time of riots over racism and social inequality. The Vietnam War had no end in sight.  MLK  and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated—the country was being torn apart at the seams.  The Monk Quartet agreed to play. Posters were hung in East Palo Alto, a predominantly African-American community, and the Monk’s performance brought the two towns together.  

It was recorded by the janitor, whose only compensation came when he asked Monk to tune the school piano!

Here’s a link to one of his signature tunes, Blue Monk:


JULY 2023

Sonny Rollins, Freedom Suite

In 1958, four years after Brown v Board of Education, Sonny Rollins wanted to speak his voice for the struggle for equality and the then newly developing Civil Rights Movement. 

The liner notes were unapologetic and blunt:

The piece, a series of variations on fairly simple melodic material, caused a sensation, but Riverside Records decided it was too incendiary and pulled the recording, reissuing it under the title Shadow Waltz, the name of another track on the recording. Orrin Keepnews, the producer and part-owner of Riverside Records, wrote a new set of liner notes that stated Rollins’ intentions much less succinctly:

 “Here I had all these reviews, newspaper articles and pictures,” Rollins later said. “At the time it struck me, what did it all mean if you were still a nigger, so to speak? This is the reason I wrote the suite.”

Sonny Rollins DSC0214z is licensed under CC by SA 4.0

At this time, making direct statements like this was still a radical thing to do, particularly for people who were seen as “successful“ in the public view. But the tragedy of little rock was still very fresh in people’s minds, and the national consciousness was just beginning to the crime of discrimination, though there was little action to match the growing intensity of the outcry.  This statement was open, forceful, and direct, and it came from a man profoundly introspective and intelligent, who had previously only expressed himself through his playing.

While it may not appear to be terribly radical or groundbreaking today, given all that has passed in the 65 years since, it was, at the time, a shocking and dangerous statement, and Rollins made it in the knowledge that he was inviting backlash and censorship to the highest extent.  In fact, that is what happened (see Riverside Records, above). That fact that Rollins courageously continued his music-making, and his voice, is further tribute to the giant of the jazz world. 

Listen to The Freedom Suite here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MN1GmUhHr1M

Lou Levin, July 4, 2023

JUNE 2023

Max Roach & Abbey Lincoln

Max Roach, considered to be one of the all-time great jazz drummers, and his wife, Abbey Lincoln, a highly regarded jazz vocalist, created an album titled, We Insist! as a direct statement about Civil Rights and the place of Jazz in the struggle. This was a work very different than anything anyone else had done previously; it was fiercely expressive and emotive, personal, uncompromising, and, like his playing, strong, direct, and blatant. Inspired by the rising anger about the plight of the black people in America, it was far from the pacifist, complaining politics of the mainstream civil rights movement of the time. Roach explained that it was a prayer of preparation for struggle that was then starting to build in intensity. It was seen as a rallying cry for equality rooted in the history of blacks in this country.

The music was first performed at New York’s Village gate, in a concert sponsored by the Congress For Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.); it was also presented at the NAACP annual convention in Philadelphia, and at the Newport Jazz Festival.

File:Opdracht Parool, Abbey Lincoln (jazz-zangeres), Bestanddeelnr 919-3554.jpg” by Jack de Nijs / Anefo is marked with CC0 1.0.
Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Oct. 1947″ by ky_olsen is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

Max’s wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln, was equally vociferous about civil rights. “There is no such thing as jazz,” she said. “There’s only a song and your spirit and your ancestors.” “I, Abbey Lincoln, sing about what is most important to me, and what is most important to me is being free of the shackles that chain me in every walk of life that I live. If this were not so, I would still be a supper club singer.”

In our presentation, Ms Lincoln sings “Driva Man,” in front of Max’s quartet, which features Coleman Hawkins, one of the great saxophone players in jazz history. To listen to the piece in its entirety, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IF6q6XKKrik

Lou Levin, May 23, 2023

MAY 2023

Louis Armstrong

Listen to Louis Armstrong  perform “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jscvpihVAoQ

In 1929, Louis Armstrong recorded “(What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?)”, a song from a popular musical written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf. However, he had re-written the lyrics and made them into a commentary about social injustice.   The lyrics include the phrase:

My only sin
Is in my skin
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

This was a furiously defiant and risky commentary on racism as he saw it, in an age when the issue was clearly not to be openly discussed. When it was first written in the show, the song was a humorous comment on a black women’s lonely love life. But Armstrong changed the lyrics to accentuate the social meaning of the song and make it a powerful social commentary.  The lyrics, “I’m white, inside / But that don’t help my case / Cause I Can’t hide / What is in my face,” are an example of Armstrong’s deepening the impact of the text. 

Teresa Łubińska Kalinowska, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

His work on this song is typically seen as one of the first times the problem of racism in the United States was brought to so public a setting as popular music.  Armstrong, respected by both whites and blacks, used his position to make an attempt to bring the problem of racism in the American society.

Close to 30 years later, as he witnessed the turmoil around the desegregation of public schools, Armstrong was again very outspoken, unafraid to be critical of his country. When, in 1957, the National Guard prevented nine Black students from entering a high school in Little Rock, he canceled a tour to the Soviet Union, and said publicly, “the way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

Lou Levin, May 26, 2023

APRIL 2023

Nina Simone

The second selection in our series, Jazz and Civil Rights, features Nina Simone singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” written by Billy Taylor, jazz pianist. Ms Simone was a strong advocate for black rights, and recorded several songs in this vein.

Nina_Simone_1965_-_restoration1.jpg by Ron Kroon for Anefo Restored by Bammesk, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

“I wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” Listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDqmJEWOJRI

March 2023

Horace Alexander Young

The first selection in our series, Jazz and Civil Rights, features Horace Alexander Young playing saxophone, then reading Dr King’s speech on this topic at the Berlin Jazz festival in 1964. Mr. Young is a jazz player and singer who was the chair of the music department at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design until its closing a few years ago, and frequently performed in Santa Fe. He now lives in Houston.

This selection, recorded by Mr Young in his studio, is only available on our website; it was not submitted to youtube. Please see our website for more information about Dr King’s speech. Please also feel free to contact me with questions, comments, etc, at loulevin@yahoo.com

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties.” Those words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. There can be little doubt about Dr King’s appreciation and high esteem for the contribution of jazz performers to the cause of civil rights, and the incredible spirit and force Black musicians have brought in order to create under intense racial unrest and hatred. For our purposes, scientific studies have now confirmed what we had already known- that music brings people together, in struggle, joy and community. Growing up in Baltimore, and spending many hours in its jazz clubs and music halls, it was remarkable to me to see and feel the spirit that was present in these settings, and how the Miles Davis’, John Coltranes, Jimmy Smiths, and so many others all brought and heightened the essence of community to the audiences they performed for. Music is universal and feeling and connecting to sound and lyrics is something we all do. The emotional and musical impact behind the Blues is something we all have felt. The same for jazz. Just listen and let the sound of it take you.

Lou Levin, March 13, 2023

Please note: The music and other material in this series are not presented for any financial or editorial purposes. The purposes of the series are (1) to provide enjoyment for NAACP members attending our meetings, and (2) to help foster a spirit of collaboration and continuing commitment to the goals of NAACP through the shared experience of listening to these artists who were courageous enough to use their talent in the service of civil rights.