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Race Relations and Their Expression in Jazz

By Published: June 14, 2006
The post slavery years saw the emergence of a new social class, consisting of black men moving from place to place, either looking for employment or running away from the law, often both. They needed a music that would give meaning to their solitary existence and new individual mobility. The music that answered this need was the blues. It was the music of slavery, with its African features mentioned earlier, with the addition of train imitations with simple instruments such as the guitar and harmonica. This response to individual alienation later resonated with alienated whites and brought on a blues revival in the 60's.

The Southern backlash against the black population, beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, put an end to virtually all black hopes for integration. Ragtime gave way to the more African jazz, the blues were in demand, and the melancholy spirituals developed to the more vibrant gospel. This trend was fortified when the black soldiers of world war one, who hoped their service would alleviate the conditions of their race, encountered instead vicious race riots and lynching. In the 20's, Louis Armstrong, a barefoot son of a prostitute from New Orleans, blended ragtime, blues, and New Orleans parade music into one music that became the standard for black, and even some white, musicians. His African approach to playing showed the way to others, and was soon followed by the Duke Ellington orchestra from New York, and a little later by the Count Basie orchestra from KC. While his music did contain the European influences of ragtime and parade music, it did not conceal its obvious African properties, in sound, rhythm and form. From the depression of the 20's, until the late 40's, blacks did not see any change coming in regard to their social status in the US. This resulted in the development of styles of music that followed Armstrong's path, with accented African features, such as the swing bands, the jump style of Louis Jordan, and the Gospel style of Thomas Dorsey. In those years, white economic domination meant that most of the profit from the music went to whites—record labels, club owners and booking agents. White control of the media meant that in the 20's the official King of Jazz was Paul Whiteman, and in the 30's it was Benny Goodman, both of them white men who themselves knew they did not deserve the title.

The economic boom of the post WW-II years brought many blacks up North, changing for good the majority status within the black community from the Southern rural to Northern urban. Rebellious young blacks needed to express their impatience with the ongoing racial oppression. They came up with Charlie Parker, who led a musical revolution called Bebop with a tune called "Now is The Time , and used Heroin to block out mainstream white society. One of his contemporaries, pianist Hampton Hawes, wrote in his biography that bebop was his way of rebelling against societal oppression. Other blacks who found jobs in the industries of the North, developed a new hope for racial equality. These were the years of "Brown Vs the Board of Education , and change seemed possible again. The new mobility was not evenly spread, and the different trends within black society grew more distinct. The modern minded, rebellious black jazz musicians found a growing audience among young, rebellious whites, and a shrinking black audience, limited mainly to street people and intellectuals. Their insistence on breaking down all musical rules associated with European culture gave birth to Free Jazz in the 60's. But their total dependence on white record companies and club owners meant that they could not survive economically.

The division of black society between supporters of the integrationist dream of MLK and the black-nationalist position exemplified by Malcolm X needed a musical parallel. Soul music was at first on the side of integration, with lyrics such as "A change gonna come , and "Respect , all performed by racially mixed groups. The nationalists had the Free Jazz musicians, looking more to Africa, a continent shaking off colonialism and sending optimistic waves throughout the black Diaspora. The murders of JFK, and more significantly those of MLK and Malcolm X virtually put an end to the integration stream. From the streets of Augusta, Georgia, emerged James Brown, who said "Say it loud, I am Black and I am Proud , and sounded more African than most Africans, without ever being in Africa or even listening to African music. His music proved that African traditions were never really forgotten among the transplanted Africans in the US, thus scoring a major victory for black in their battle for a separate identity. His influence can today be strongly felt in the music of sophisticated jazz musicians such as Steve Coleman, and of hip hop artists and modern soul singers.

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