Jazz Artists in the Civil Rights Era

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Civil Rights didn’t end in the 1960’s; it’s an ongoing struggle that involves all of us. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we’ll highlight some albums that mirrored the early days of the era—albums that I discovered while in high school.

But first, I want to share again an excerpt from something that Dr. King wrote about jazz for the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964:

“God has wrought many things out of oppression. God has endowed creatures with the capacity to create-and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed humanity to cope with the environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them to music, only to come out with some new hope and sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.”

John Coltrane, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Charlie Mingus, Cal Massey, and Archie Shepp. Nat Hentoff, a politically-engaged and prolific writer and columnist, ran the Candid Records label, which issued a famous Max Roach album with lunch-counter protest cover art called “We Insist!“. Nina Simone sang the incendiary “Mississippi Goddam.” Coltrane performed a sad dirge, “Alabama” to mourn the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. Sonny Rollins recorded The Freedom Suite for Riverside Records as a declaration of musical and racial freedom.

Charles Mingus, for his part, wrote a song called, “Fables of Faubus,” about the racist governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus who infamously ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling at Central High School in 1956. Finally, there was Cal Massey, a trumpeter-composer who wrote an extended work commissioned by the Black Panther Party called The Black Liberation Movement Suite. Parts of the Suite were recorded by Archie Shepp, but amazingly, it was never recorded in its entirely until 2011. Massey’s music was for a period blacklisted. Let’s not forget Oscar Brown Jr.’s witty song, “Forty Acres and a Mule” from his 1965 album Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington. It superbly catalogues promises made but never delivered.

I bought these records way back then, enjoyed, and learned from them. They remain musical statements that relate to the Civil Rights movement and the legacy of MLK. I hope you’ll check them out.

Here is Nina Simone performing “Mississippi Goddam”:

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