The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2

The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2
Karl Ackermann By

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True jazz is, and always has been, subversive. —Tim Hagans
Part 1 of Jazz and Protest took an in-depth look at two landmark artists and the songs that laid the groundwork for protest within the jazz community. Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" took a circuitous route from its origins as a poem to its successful recording on a small label that was not afraid to lend a voice to a progressive movement. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" followed a similarly indirect course, taking the singer/composer's career off the tracks. Though they were the best known songs of the early Civil Rights Movement, these two pivotal compositions were not the only pieces of the time, nor the only actions, to address the issue of equality. There are numerous examples of jazz, as an instrument of change, occurring off the stage. Some were driven by the actions of those behind the scenes and flew in the face of well-entrenched opinions and practices of the time.

Off Stage Confrontations

In a Los Angeles suburb, in 1943, white U.S. military personnel and civilians perpetrated a number of violent attacks against Latinos, as well as some African Americans and Filipinos, ostensibly, to express condemnation of their "flamboyant" clothing—later known as zoot suits—as a purposefully rebellious act. The rationing of fabric during World War II led to the perception, by some, that the clothing was excessive and detrimental to the war effort. The incidents in Los Angeles inspired similar attacks in other California cities and in a number of other locations including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.

The Los Angeles-born producer, and founder of the Verve label, Norman Granz brought a decorum to the jazz scene by moving performances beyond the clubs and bars and into concert halls. Those efforts culminated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JAPT) performances which were an immediate success. Though the less intimate venue took sociability, often in the form of dancing, out of the equation, it opened up jazz to new audiences without diminishing the functional importance of the clubs. The inaugural concert displayed another Granz goal—racial equality, on and off the stage. The 1944 concert was a benefit performance to raise money for the defense of jailed Latino youths who had been caught up in the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles.

The internment of Japanese Americans was well under way in the early to mid-1940s, with more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans relocated to prison camps. A wave of misguided nationalism swept the country following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans, particularly White Americans, viewed recent immigrants with suspicion. At a reservoir off the Los Angeles River, a hang-out for local Mexican-Americans, José Gallardo Díaz, suffered fatal injuries in August of 1942. His autopsy was inconclusive as to the cause of death but he had been drinking and had a fractured skull leading some to conclude that he may have suffered his injuries as the result of a fall. Police had no motive to conclude that foul play was involved and no evidence suggesting any suspects. Nevertheless, they arrested seventeen local Mexican-Americans, and with substandard legal representation, convicted nine of them for second-degree murder, sending them to San Quentin Prison. The racial tensions that sprang from the incident sparked the Zoot Suit riots in 1943.

Los Angeles had its share of more liberal-minded luminaries, including Henry Fonda and Orson Welles, who took up the cause of the convicted teens and formed a defense team. Granz offered his JAPT as a means to further promote the cause. He planned his benefit concert and booked the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium doing his own leg work to promote the show. In the book Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press, 2011), author Ted Hershorn explains that the benefit concert was not an easy sell in all cases and not necessarily due to cause-related reactions, but to a jazz stigma. Hershorn writes, "The Los Angeles Times music critic Isabella Morse Jones turned down Granz's offer of tickets: it was simply 'beneath her dignity' to attend a jazz concert." Even Granz's friend, Atlantic Records founder Nesuhi Ertegun, suggested that the venue may have been too cultivated for jazz music, according to Hershorn. But the Philharmonic Auditorium had a mission to bring culture to the masses and so the concert was booked for July, 1944.

More than two-thousand people attended the show and the crowd was unusually diverse, lining up to see J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jacquet, and members of the Les Paul group, among many other lesser known names. Granz pushed the musicians to play extended versions of their numbers and the audience reaction was boisterous, further inspiring the musicians to give something extra. The success of the improvised show implanted the concept for Granz's later jam session formats. The success extended to financial rewards as well, contributing a significant amount to what was labeled the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. The resulting trial in 1944 turned around the convictions of the San Quentin nine.

This was not to be Granz's only brush with defending victims of discrimination. One of the more notable incidents occurred at a concert in Houston, Texas in October, 1955. Houston was—at that time—a city entrenched in white rule and with a police department that answered to the governing demographic. Granz knew the inherent dangers of Black artists performing in the Deep South but he was also aware of the city's wealth and appetite for jazz music. It was an opportunity that couldn't be ignored when Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour program included prominent names such as Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa and Lester Young. Granz met with a representative of the Houston Music Hall to ensure that all signage related to segregated seated and bathrooms be removed before the performance. As a result, he later had to absorb the cost of returning ticket money to White audience members who refused to sit next to Blacks. What he would not do was re-seat these disgruntled patrons to appease their racially driven preferences.

One of the sets on that evening's card featured Ella Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie. Fitzgerald's cousin, Georgiana Henry, accompanied the singer as an assistant. Before they took the stage, Jacquet and Gillespie passed the time, off-stage, in a low-stakes game of shooting dice while Fitzgerald and Henry shared a piece of pie. Granz insisted that what happened next was a set-up, probably initiated by someone working with, or for, the Houston Music Hall. Though the door to the stage's waiting room was unlocked, Houston City Police broke down it down, charging in with guns drawn in a histrionic and laughable display of law and order. Fitzgerald, Lewis, Jacquet, Gillespie and Henry were arrested as was Granz when he intervened, demonstrating that politics and panic were not mutually exclusive. Granz posted bail for the group and later spent thousands of dollars in order to have the charges against the performers dropped.

An Underdog with a Cause

In the midst of an unprecedented year of releases that included Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia), Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia), John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic) and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic), 1959 was the year that Charles Mingus weighed in on the Civil Rights movement with his historic Mingus Ah Um (Columbia) and—in particular—"Fables of Faubus," a musical indictment of then Arkansas Governor, Orval Eugene Faubus.

In 1957, and in defiance of the well-known US Supreme Court integration ruling (Brown v. Board of Education), Governor Faubus refused to comply with the Court's order to stop the segregation of the Little Rock, AR School District. Faubus called out the state's National Guard to block nine black students from entering the Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered by assuming federal control of the Arkansas National Guard and ordering them to stand down. Eisenhower sent in one-thousand paratroopers to ensure that students were given safe passage into the school. Faubus was not deterred and rather than integrate the Arkansas schools, he ordered them shut down for the 1958-1959 school year. He was elected to six additional terms, a reflection of Arkansas' populist sentiment against integration.

Mingus was no stranger to anger so it isn't surprising that the outrageous actions of Faubus triggered a response from the composer. But Mingus was not known for political works and "Fables of Faubus" was more a misanthrope's personal rant than an activist's manifesto but was nevertheless regarded as a significant contribution to the Civil Rights catalog. There are conflicting anecdotes as to the exclusion of "Fables of Faubus" lyrics on Mingus Ah Um. Some believe that Columbia Records refused to include the lyrical version on the album, feeling that the words were too incendiary. Other versions insist that the lyrics were not written until after the instrumental version was released. Whichever scenario is accurate, it is noteworthy that the vocal version of the song was released on the much smaller label Candid label in 1961, taking the same convoluted route of big label rejections of "Strange Fruit" and "Mississippi Goddam." The opening verse of "Fables of Faubus" quickly gets to the point. Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!/Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!/Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!/Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!/Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!. While not high-concept poetry, the visceral call and response between Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond was emotionally persuasive. Mingus Ah Um was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2003.

Black jazz artists of the Civil Rights era were finding their activist voices by incorporating pointed pieces in otherwise non-political albums, including John Coltrane, whose "Alabama" was in reaction to the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But it was Max Roach's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960) that brought full-album content to the Civil Rights Movement. Roach's then wife, Abbey Lincoln infused blues and gospel into her vocals, in sharp contrast to the overall avant-garde ambiance of the album. On "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace," the raw emotion of her voice conveys a palpable grief for suppressed people from South Africa to the plantations of the U.S. "Driva' Man" and "Freedom Day" share a direct link to slave life in the south while the tracks "All Africa" and "Tears for Johannesburg"—as their titles indicate—focus on repression on the African continent. Across gospel, blues and to some extent, jazz, artists of the time had tended to align themselves musically, with Martin Luther King's approach of peaceful resistance. Roach, however, leaned toward the more radical philosophy of the Black Power Movement. The net result was that critics were on the fence in their reaction to We Insist! and particularly harsh in the their reception to Lincoln's contribution. Years later, the album would be viewed as a landmark recording.

Vietnam and Jazz: "Crack the sky, shake the earth!"


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