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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.


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