Jazz and Civil Rights


The relationship between music and the injustices perpetrated on peoples of lower standing began early in the history of mankind, particularly on the terrain and cultures outside of the dominant power bases.  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 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.”

Lou Levin, February, 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.