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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 1

Karl Ackermann By

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In general, protest music of the 1960s had a diplomatic vibe about it, sometimes couching outrage in metaphorical language. Simone, the next door neighbor of Malcolm X in Mount Vernon, New York, breached the peaceful approach just as her neighbor had in rejecting the passive resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and calling for a more retaliatory response to racial injustice. But Simone's career was damaged by "Mississippi Goddam" and her enthusiasm for the movement waned after the 1968 assassination of King. From the perspective of the Civil Rights movement, Simone left off with 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968)—an album that included a reprise of the Civil Rights song "Backlash Blues." She left the US for Barbados and then Liberia before finally settling in Paris. Simone's assets evaporated and she played small venues for minimal pay still preferring that life to a return to the US. Simone died in southern France in 2003.

Before and after Simone's Civil Rights benchmark was established, other notable jazz figures had left their mark with recorded works of protest. Beyond Civil Rights, the Vietnam War was fertile ground among artists with a social conscious. In The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2 the contributions of Charles Mingus and Max Roach and more modern artists such as Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Noah Preminger and others will be explored.

Nina Simone: 'Nuff Said

Simone continued to release new studio material up until 1993's A Single Woman (Elektra Records) but with mixed success. Between 1964 and 1993, she had fewer than a half-dozen widely popular singles though I Put a Spell on You (Phillips, 1965) produced two of her most memorable releases; the title track and "Feeling Good" pushed the album into the Billboard Top 20 in the UK, but—signifying her diminished significance in the US—I Put a Spell on You just barely made it into the Top 100 in her native country.

Rather than a platform for her political activism, 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968) showed just how extensively Simone's influences were spread. The album included covers of two Barry Gibb (The Bee Gees) tunes, George Gershwin, Fletcher Henderson and the famous Rev. Thomas Dorsey spiritual "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." But in the midst of this weirdly eclectic mélange of styles and genres, Simone's most profound statement comes in the form of "Backlash Blues" written by Langston Hughes and Simone, friends and part of an activist group of Black intellectuals and artists.

Simone had recorded the song previously on Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA, 1967) but this version was recorded three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the visceral emotion of the twelve-bar blues piece plays out in lyrics such as "You give me second class houses/ And second class schools/ Do you think all colored folks/ Are just second class fools?." Rather than simply lamenting the state of Civil Rights, the song ends with a warning, "You're the one will have the blues not me/ Just wait and see."

Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit

As the original label indicates, the writing credit for "Strange Fruit" is attributed to Lewis Allan. The name was a pseudonym used by Abel Meeropol; not an uncommon practice for Communist party members at the time, though it is not clear that this was Meeropol's motivation.

The Greenwich Village club Café Society opened in 1938 and was the first fully integrated club in the US, though some—like the Cotton Club—occasionally bent their rules for Black "celebrities." The club would eventually host the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis but in its first full year, it regularly capitalized on the talent of Billie Holiday. While her "Strange Fruit" performance was controversial, Café Society's owner, Barney Josephson, had a progressive, left-leaning agenda, one that would later cost him his club in the Communist targeting "Red Scare." He not only welcomed Holiday's performance of the song, but insisted that she close her shows with it.

Margolick's Strange Fruit... relates that having to continually perform the emotionally draining song sickened Holiday, singing it with her eyes closed and likely imagining the "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." But as it became a staple of her act, Josephson gave the song itself, equal billing to Holiday. Less accepting of the song was Holiday's label, Columbia Records and her producer—the man who "discovered" her—John Hammond. Hammond flatly refused to allow Holiday to record "Strange Fruit" and Holiday sought another label.

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