Volume X, Special Issue on Jazz

"Fight Jim Crow! A Jazzy Protest Born in the U.S.A." by Manuel Zabel

Manuel Zabel has graduated from the University of Leipzig and holds an M.A. in American Studies and Philosophy. His research interests include the cultural and philosophical dimensions of music, with a particular focus on jazz studies. Having been engaged at the Smithsonian NMAH in Washington, D.C., he currently works at the Goethe-Institut Australia in Sydney, Australia. Email:

This paper attempts to shed light on jazz music as a cultural phenomenon highly charged with extramusical content in a racialized America of the 1950s and 1960s.1 It will be shown that through their political connotations, the music’s meanings held significant importance for “black” and “white” agents alike.2 The paper aims at giving a thorough analysis of how jazz music could be used as a means of protesting sociopolitical inequalities in the sweeping context of the civil rights movement. Unbounded by the perimeter of pure aesthetics, jazz could progressively be found engaged outside of the musical realm in various ways, hence a closer look will be taken at the diversity of just those sorts of engagement. The (making of jazz) music could indeed turn out to be a rather subtle form of protest. And yet, implementations of deliberate concepts of establishing preferably long-lasting shifts in the American power structure had just as well been observed. It will be argued that jazz – as the very organ of all parties involved – had inevitably been used to the benefit of the promotion of a changing state of affairs concerning the relation between “black” and “white” Americans.

As the American society was imbued with racial discrimination directed at African Americans, the “jazz world” got just as well infested with “Jim Crow.”3 Articulations of “Jim Crow”-discrimination in the “jazz world” took on various forms – and so did the protest against such social inequities. Consequently, jazz was used as a cultural means for protest, and connected to political and social realities of the time in quite different ways. As jazz became more dominant while being increasingly embedded in a sociopolitical and cultural context, such interacting phenomena rose to become close-knit intermingling purviews, in which political beliefs as well as notions of “race” and ethnicity served the basis for (re)negotiating and (re)thinking the role of jazz (musicians) in the fight for social equality and justice.4

Viewed in its entirety as the politicization of jazz music and the expression of politically associated mindsets, the changing extramusical content of different idiomatic modes of jazz reveal motivations behind particular ways of protesting. Being not merely aesthetics, but also a means for explicitly relating to and expressing extramusical events, respectively, jazz became an art of “engagement.” In broader terms, the development toward an “engaged” art form demonstrates the correlation between cultural and sociopolitical spheres. Such an interrelation functions as the underlying basis for the use of music as an element of protest, an art form channeled through various modes of expression leading to materializations of mindsets such as record albums and so-called “jazz collectives.”

Those mindsets are referred to as both “colorblindness,” and its very negation. The universalist idea of an all-inclusive way of living (in the “jazz world”) stands in oppositon to the tendency of highlighting jazz as utterly “black,” eventually hailing it as an African American art form, which seemed to imply tenures and the negation of the legitimacy of the idea of “colorblindness.” Predominantly African Americans set out to be inclined to stress the importance of jazz being an African American cultural product exclusively. Without fail, this very occurrence cannot be equated with discriminatory behavior per se. But the development of taking pride in everything “black” seemed to lead to the establishment of a type of protest, “Crow Jim,” which unfolded as a phenomenon demonstrating how protesting discrimination became a form of discrimination itself.5

“Though Jim Crow and music have been partners for more than a half century in a shotgun wedding, with Uncle Sam in charge of the arsenal, the alliance has been an uneasy one from the start” (Feather 79). An inglorious marriage of this kind was based on developments outside of the aesthetic realm. A society that thought and acted according to guidelines whose main function was to legitimate the segregation of “black” and “white” Americans, had to breed an art form that was imbued with the power of implied conventions. It came about all naturally for “whites” to enjoy the pleasure of rights and privileges, which African Americans never had the right to call upon. The “Jim Crow”-code dictated a complex range of principles African Americans had to align themselves with unconditionally. Constraints joined in and specified a certain behavior that consisted not only in entering and leaving public localities through the back door. By the same token, African American artists had to keep a low profile in any event. That chunk of misdeed taken as a given, it was far from being uncommon to have them not even be allowed to interact with “white” guests unless such relations were explicitly called for. The audience at public events, likewise, was mainly segregated along color lines if “blacks” were not shamed into not being permitted to join the ranks of approved customers at all. In addition, “black” musicians always had to expect the possibility of deprecatory gestures by club owners, managers, labor unions and critics. They notoriously received lower wages than their “white” counterpart, had been underrepresented in magazines and newspapers, and of course, they were constantly exposed to potential illegal, or rather morally wrongful acts of harassment. The often bemoaned shortage of a decent hospitality was just as well an expression of discriminatory appointive practices, and thus extended the list of unsatisfying conditions “black” musicians had to endure on a regular basis. Archie Shepp’s words give an example of how enraged African Americans were about the club scenery being only one of several pieces within the social structure representative of persistent iniquities: “The club owners are only the lower echelon of a higher power structure which has never tolerated from Negroes the belief we have in ourselves that we are people, that we are men, that we are women, that we are human beings” (Monson 267).

The “white” resistance African American musicians often faced could also emerge as a rather subtle one to all intents and purposes. The Beat Generation of the 1940s and 1950s ranks among just those oblique instances of opposition. Headed by Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, the Beats are said to have simplified the cultural richness the “jazz world” offered. They distorted the image of the “black” musician, who then was accentuated “as the apotheosis of the purely existential ‘hipster,’ the Prometheus of orgasm [who] is not too far from the legend that ‘all God’s chillun got rhythm,’ particularly the darker ones” (Gennari 180). Mailer’s watchword – “the Negro . . . could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive” (4) – was once commented by Ralph Ellison obviously upset about such oversimplified portrayal of the African American: “That’s what’s behind Mailer’s belief in the hipster and the “white negro” as the new culture hero – he thinks all hipsters are cocksmen possessed of great euphoric orgasms and are out to fuck the world into peace, prosperity, and creativity” (Saul 69). What these representations partly show is how deeply anchored discriminatory racist ideas actually were in the mindset of those Americans who hailed themselves as vociferous supporters of African American culture.

Yet, another form of discriminatory action directed at “black” musicians consisted in business operations. Though the music business could be stylized as an “equal opportunity exploiter” (Randall Sandke) with both “black” and “white” musicians at times being heavily affected. As aforementioned mechanisms with regard to the treatment of African American musicians in clubs had been a reflection of “Jim Crow” in American society, so was the music business a representation of the broader social structure as well as both racist and outright capitalist principles that it featured. It is no wonder then that the marketing aspect to the music conjured up analogies with the former slave trade and the plantation economy. This hierarchy was headed by the executive branch of record labels, agencies, “white” critics and club owners. Consequently, tenures and the power over means of production and distribution of goods implied a state of dependency that Ornette Coleman expressed as follows: “They have to control what you do first, then give it to you like welfare . . .” (Taylor 40), while Shepp simply put it this way: “[Y]ou own the music, and we make it” (Lopes 256).

An examination of jazz music in sociohistoric terms implies (1) the assumption that music is ultimately influenced by the very social setting it is made in, and (2) the perception of musicians making a conscious attempt at musically expressing extramusical thoughts. This kind of correspondence between musical and sociopolitical events, and the effort of implementing aesthetic expressions of social developments signify a politicization of musical phenomena. The concept of historic causality that would suggest a fixed relation of ascriptions between sociopolitical events and their tonal counterparts will be denied from the outset, although “black” and “white” Americans did shape a social reality composed of conditions that, in turn, formed the historic transparency, which framed the background behind the development of jazz.

“Because much of the music reaffirmed its blackness and directly referred to the social upheavals of the early 1960s,” postulates McMichael, “jazz and the cultural practices of performance and consumption paralleled the civil rights movement, and occasionally were indistinguishable from direct action” (8). Within the framework of the all encompassing civil rights movement, the social setting shaped a purview that musicians began to carve out using aesthetic means. Their cultural engagement consisted in giving songs or entire albums certain names that referred or were explicitly dedicated to social developments. Musicians would play fund-raisers often organized by civil rights organizations, they founded their own labels, formed more or less independent artistic bodies, arranged series of events such as concerts, lectures and readings, applying patterns of non-violent resistance to “Jim Crow.” They organized their own festivals and took part in panel discussions in order to raise public awareness of sociopolitical inequities.

Aforementioned artistic movements represent a music being functionalized and redesigned. Thus, pieces of musical culture were utilized within the context of the fight for political and cultural acknowledgment. They would just as much become a means of exerting pressure on decision makers, on people fallen for discriminatory convictions, and on those who may have considered such racist roads America was moving on to be outright wrong, but who nonetheless kept their actions safe on the periphery. The music became an agent used as leverage, a medium turned into a weapon of purely aesthetic nature. Even though such “lethal aesthetics” may suggest apparently conflicting ideas, oxymoronic schemes of that kind do make sense, especially against the background of Johnny Griffin’s way of paraphrasing said notion: “I’m always talking about using my horn like a machine gun,” he says, “but not to kill anybody. I want to shoot them with notes of love. . . . It takes me away from all this black, white, yellow and brown and you’re lighter than me” (Taylor 70).

This certainly was a form of protest with which musicians tried to stimulate a social change by articulating their messages through the use of a body of aesthetic aid, for “[f]ist-fighting with cops is not a jazz standard” (King 1). Indeed, musicians were aware of their particular mode of protest, and its possibilities and limits that such tonal productions implied. The music represented a means of protest, an instrument with which visions could be articulated, though these visions remain located in people’s minds; that is to say, it has never been the art of engagement itself that would eventually have changed the state of affairs, but people instead. Since all kinds of people from all kinds of different walks of life participated in the overall fight for social justice and African American civil rights, “we [jazz musicians, note of the author] are only an extension of that entire civil rights . . .  movement that is taking place in America,” says Kofsky and adds: “That is fundamental to music” (63).

While the swing idiom used to represent a form of “white” cultural and economic exploitation of “black” musicians conjuring an assimilation of “black” cultural products, the new succeeding type of music – bebop – was soon to become the “black” musicians’ treasure with which they not only stood their ground, but also – consciously or unwillingly – stood up to everything considered “white.” Musically and politically stylized as the new avant-garde, African American musicians developed a music that could “be viewed in its social aspect as a manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation” (Kofsky 57). Since structural hardships such as a seemingly all ubiquitous racial segregation turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle for an African American musician to integrate by filling the spot in the socially established center, the American mainstream, bebop had the chance to rise. Being the musical expression of the necessity to tear apart the bonds that have tied them to those attitudes suggesting such assimilation-type-thinking, bebop – musically and intellectually – seemed to head for a defiance of “white” dispositions, “black” middle class values and, of course, a social environment brutal in its own habits of dealing with African Americans. “[T]he police beating Negroes’ heads, that ole club says, Bop, Bop, Be Bop! That’s where Bebop came from,” knows Langston Hughes, “beaten right out of some Negroes’ heads into their horns” (Banfield 87). Conscious attempts at originating musical innovations that would serve as a cultural veto cannot be denied, even though the time seemed not yet ripe for articulations of protest with mass impact. As Dizzy Gillespie recalls, aesthetic considerations seemed to be in the foreground instead, making the musicians’ way of protesting remain a more subtle one: “[W]e didn’t go out and make speeches or say, ‘Let’s play eight bars of protest.’ We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it made every statement we truly wanted to make” (Monson 411).

Often understood as a reaction to the bebop movement, the so-called cool jazz evolved while being channeled through mostly “white” social circuits. The increasing popularity of “white” players and a growing “white” middle class audience seemed to conjure up a type of jazz turning more and more “white” in terms of its representatives being less interested in questioning the social status quo purportedly. With aesthetic as well as political regards cool jazz meant a development toward a detachment from “black” roots. Without running the risk of being classified as a non-conformist, jazz listeners could legitimately identify with the music now, since the focus on an incorporation of European classical influences pushed aside the more fierce and opportunist attitudes the beboppers used to display.

Having incorporated blues-, gospel-, and bebop elements, hard bop – partly paralleling, partly succeeding the “cool” players and their music – was vaunted as a genuinely “black” idiom, a “black” rebellion against the “bleaching” of African American musical forms and their extramusical content. Their “black” followers were now “proud to be black.” It was this drift that made hard bop exert a strong influence on the soul jazz movement, where “soul” pointed back to African American experiences—and this was not cool, but funky as Amiri Baraka knows:

The step from cool to soul is a form of social aggression. . . . Cool meant non-participation; soul means a “new” establishment. It is an attempt to reverse the social roles within the society by redefining the canons of value. [T]he “soul brother” means to recast the social order in his own image. White is then not “right,” as the old blues had it, but a liability, since the culture of white precludes the possession of the Negro “soul.” (Baraka 219)

The music – molded to become a form of resistance – expressed a rebellious stance based on ethical and moral virtues that made it increasingly turn into an art “now in service to a higher moral authority, a greater good. And the effect on the jazz world would be far-reaching indeed,” exclaims Sandke (119). As the civil rights movement broke out of conformist constraints exercised by a reactionary America, African Americans tended to understand the music to be an art form progressively referring to sociopolitical concerns. The context, in which those extramusical events appeared to have ripple effects on the “jazz world,” made African American musicians establish an increasing interest in the development of political awareness. Thus, the sociopolitical environment served as a stimulus inspiring “black” musicians to rejuvenate, to redefine their self-conception. “The nascent black liberation movement,” postulates Kofsky, “was probably the major social force impinging on the consciousness of black jazz musicians in the mid-fifties” (38).

After all, a new type of music was going to represent in the 1960s what hard bop became known for during the 1950s. The New Thing evolved as an even more intense expression of a growing African American self-assertion. “Don’t you ever wonder,” asks Shepp, “just what my collective rage will . . . be like, when it is – as it inevitably must be – unleashed? Our vindication will be black as the color of suffering is black” (Kofsky 121). “Here,” Kofsky comments on said challenge, “speaks the new radicalism of the black jazz musician” (121). Displays of such new forms of radicalism were to be found in the jazz music of the 1960s, which just as well as preceding musical styles posed a concomitant phenomenon of the all-encompassing sociopolitical climate. Through the use of such cultural artifacts identities were constructed that presented the African American in a new light. This time the avant-garde was called free jazz and pointed to a transformation of the “black” consciousness. Hence, a certain set of ideas forwarded by the “Black Panthers” appeared to become as prevalent as Martin Luther King’s vision of a non-violent form of protest. The correspondence between the new musical alignment and the musician’s political stance became the basis for the project of crushing aesthetic as well as sociopolitical conventions.

The free jazz realm provided the musicians with a base for experimenting with aesthetic conventions. Previously established ways of composing and improvising would soon be replaced by newly-arranged forms of collective improvisation that seemed to strike a heavy load of political connotations. The rejection of limiting musical elements meant a denial of sociopolitical limitations. “[H]armony,” as Monson sums up, “was a sonic reconstruction of the chains that had bridled blacks, of the rationalism that had stifled African spiritualism” (307). The “angry sound” appeared to be a direct reference to the musicians’ “angry mind.” One of those “angry minds” was Shepp whose determination expressed a paradigm shift from “We shall overcome” to “Black Power”: “We are not angry young men,” he clarifies, “we are enraged” (Kofsky 120).

Being convinced of the righteousness, the legitimacy of rebellious stances did not necessarily mean that musicians would have devoted themselves to particular expressions of those attitudes conforming to demonstrations of “Black Power” beyond cultural achievements. “I have a strong feeling that’s the best way to protest,” acknowledges Philly Joe Jones. “All that screaming and hollering you hear in the music. . . . It’s another way to protest, other than the violent way” (Taylor 44). Accordingly, Don Byas responds to the question whether he had ever felt a sense of protest in his music: “I’m always trying to make my sound stronger and more brutal than ever,” he says. “My form of protest is to play as hard and strong as I can” (Taylor 54).

This way of politicizing free jazz illustrates that there was more to the process of musical improvisation than just the aspect of aesthetic arrangements of the sound material. The making of music became a social activity, a joint connection within a network incorporating not just the African American community. The attempt at categorizing such politicization also reveals that free jazz as a cultural phenomenon transcended sociopolitical events, eventually making it the equivalent of conceptions of “Black Power.” Thus, John Coltrane could be hailed as the “Malcolm X in Super Bop Fire” (Amiri Baraka). “Militancy and music,” as Lott recalls, “were undergirded by the same social facts; the music attempted to resolve at the level of style what the militancy fought out in the streets. If bebop did not offer a call to arms, as one writer has said in another context, it at least acknowledged that the call had been made” (459). And what bebop turned out to be capable of, free jazz could hit more than ever.

Progressive incidents that happened on a sociopolitical basis within the context of the civil rights movement forced a politically motivated jazz that called attention to social drawbacks that were to be resolved. One way of protesting comprised the production of albums that were completed by additional material partly featured in booklets.

Sonny Rollin’s “The Freedom Suite” was recorded in 1958—five months after the inglorious incident at Little Rock in 1957. It contains a 19-minute piece of the same title that Rollins himself identified as the first major sociocritical commentary in the “jazz world.” It concerns a musical portrayal of the African American struggle for freedom that Kofsky was going to call “a veto of ‘no confidence’ in Western civilisation and the American Dream” (Palmer 165).

A 1961-Down Beat-issue quotes Max Roach as follows: “[T]he purpose of the artist is to mirror his times and its effects on his fellow man. We American jazz musicians of African descent . . . have to . . . employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through” (Lopes 251). Roach sought to express his urge on “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” that he recorded in 1960. As the title suggests, he insisted on the implementation of freedom. The liner notes read as follows: “Protest is a final, uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long” (Roach 1960). The protest’s clout was to be enhanced through Abbey Lincoln’s screaming, which could be found described as a symbol of “the screams of history urging a fair accounting, a liberation from pain” (Saul 245).

One of the contributions Charles Mingus made came to be called “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” Released in 1960, the album features a song titled “Original Faubus Fables,” which, by way of comparison, criticizes quite explicitly Little Rock’s outbursts of racial hatred through the incorporation of text material. This scorching criticism comes along as a parody mocking governor Faubus, thus countering the irrationality of all the enmity directed at African Americans. Mingus reacts to those forms of “white” discrimination by thwarting them through his raggedly appearing professionalism.

John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” – officially released in 1963 – contains a musical piece named “Alabama.” Recorded in the studio two months after the church bombing of Birmingham, Alabama, “it represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me” (Coltrane 1963). Coltrane’s description of his work delivers an insight into how he balanced “Black Nationalism’s” politically loaded weights and those of a spiritually affected approach to art. Being a symbol of both poles Coltrane seemed to position himself in the center, which enabled him to express musically his stance on sociopolitical events, making them to be the source of artistic adaptations without dismissing the concept of music suggesting art to be situated beyond political relations. In this respect, his music was political without being a political issue.

After Charlie Haden had assembled a group of musicians forming what became known as the “Liberation Music Orchestra,” the “orchestra” made a record of the same title in 1969. Haden would use musical material borrowed from socialist fight songs of the Spanish civil war, the German labor movement and the American civil rights movement in order to refer musically to an extramusical context. “The music in this album,” according to the liner notes, “is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing, without racism, without poverty and exploitation; a world where men of all governments realize the vital importance of life and strive to protect rather than to destroy it” (Haden 1969).

At the beginning of the 1960s, aborning institutions were on the rise with which musicians tried to carve out a space of opportunities for African American artists. Aesthetic, economic and sociopolitical considerations led to the creation of so-called “jazz collectives” such as the Jazz Artists Guild (JAG), the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA), the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS), the Jazz Composers Guild, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Musicians focused on the junction of how they could contribute to the (“black”) community not limited to musicians only. Certainly, jazz had been understood as a social force representing collective reactions to sociopolitical parameters before, which, in turn, had an impact on the “jazz world” too. But with the newly-launched projects the music’s application within the confines of a broader social context was soon going to be interpreted in different ways. Hence, musicians began to align themselves with a practicality that had not been on their agenda before. Their political stance remained the basis for the urge to grow independent from the logic of private enterprise and a “Jim Crow”-dogma considered to be the major source of suppression. Consequently, the musicians’ cultural products would partly be produced, distributed and merchandised by themselves. Particular groupings committed themselves to public relations through the organization of free concerts in public open spaces, and by offering services to African Americans such as free lessons and the provision of food and clothing. Internal coordination was mostly based on voting, and the facilitation of training programs designed for (upcoming) musicians used to be part of the sociocultural agenda as well. In the course of this endeavor it was focussed on the creation of a flourishing African American cultural sphere at a time when the cultivation of self-help and the pride in everything “black” seemed to be indispensable for establishing a “black” autonomy not only in the “jazz world.” The musicians’ visions could turn out to be of egalitarian nature displaying the alignment with universalist ideas of an all-embracing community that permitted the inclusion of musicians no matter what their skin color. Not always, though, had the establishment of such cross-color teamwork proved strong enough to resist the urge of those who could not help having their firm reservations about the overall practicality of these ventures as well as feelings of resentment and distrust toward “whites” take over control. Consequently, separations had more often than not been enforced on the basis of color lines.

Sure enough, antipathy thrust aside, the existence of expressions of solidarity between “blacks” and “whites” cannot be argued away. On the contrary, it has to be emphasized that one of the underlying concepts of an opposition to “Jim Crow” was the “colorblind” approach. The ideal of “colorblindness” – paraphrased by Dan Morgenstern as “a potential brought to fruition in the pleasurable interracialism” (Gennari 260) – and the belief in the power of solidarity among people of all skin colors proved to be close-knit convictions. The skin color and particular appreciations of musicians and their artistic productions were not considered to be correlative entities. The concept of “colorblindness” could be applied in different ways. Eventually, it had a powerful impact on the way musicians of any color indulged in the making of music, and on what actions they took in a cultural environment that had always been to a great extent influenced by sociopolitical and economic intrusions.

One of the expressions of a “colorblind” way of thinking proved those classifications of musical idioms wrong that had become manifest in generally established notions about cultural products, which in consideration of their origination and production were defined in terms of static attributions: either they were perceived as typically “black” or typically “white.” While bebop and hard bop were largely thought of as African American musical forms, cool jazz along with the third stream were by way of example customarily considered “white.” However, as evidenced by the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) that was made up of four “black” musicians, assumptions were also invalidated that cool jazz was exclusively “white.” Obviously, as Jost points out, the value system one is submitted to can turn out to be independent from ethnic and social affiliation as well as sociomusical origination. Apart from that, the soul movement had been influenced partly by “white” musicians and their songs. Such crossovers regarding ethnic and cultural origins of those musicians representing respective musical idioms illustrate the fact that musicians did defy artificial classifications, and thus abandoned color lines. “Aesthetics,” Monson affirms, “however, are more malleable, mobile, and pluralistic than social structures despite their roots in particular cultural communities and geographic locations” (74).

Just like aforesaid definitions and implied categorizations never proved true entirely, “black” and “white” musicians also overrode static theoretical parameters by conducting musical performances altogether in the studio as well as on stage. Such performances represented forms of practiced “colorblindness” beyond the socially inflicted “Jim Crow”-code. During an interview held in 1976, Oscar Peterson states that “I’ve always said that talent of any kind comes in a variety of colours—black, white, brown, yellow; tall, short; fat, thin; monster-like or gentle” (Palmer 290). There had been collaborations between musicians who, in turn, formed a community that transcended dichotomies such as black/white, authentic/learned, civilized/primitive, African (American)/European. When Gene Lees asks Gillespie if the “white” musician would steal a piece of “black” cultural value, a cultural possession when playing jazz, Gillespie expresses his deep adoration of the music: “You can’t steal a gift,” he says. “Bird [Charlie Parker, note of the author] gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it” (Lees 96). Such overlapping did not mean that the African American culture would have been overshadowed by “white” productions. The music served as an objective category instead, whose quality turned out to be the decisive factor in determining whether or not the musician was “good enough.” A high value was set on individual creativity and musical diversity. Consequently, in 1965 Duke Ellington states that jazz “has become so integrated you can’t tell one part from the other so far as color is concerned” (Gerard 2, 3).

In this respect, even what by some purists was claimed to be “black music” did not measure up to what the term seemingly identified, because the sound material it was based upon could be utilized by musicians no matter what their skin color. Thus, the ability to play jazz “authentically” and its often asserted precondition – the direct relation to what came to be known as “blackness” and African American roots – had been decoupled. Billy Taylor denied the African American community the exclusive right for owning the music, saying that “[j]azz is no longer the exclusive medium of expression of the Negro. As the Negro has become more articulate and outspoken, his music has reflected his growth” (Feather 85). It was this growth that stood for progress, the progression of something considered highly precious: the legacy of American musicians. So jazz, construed as ”the only true American art form” (Feather 208) could legitimately be conceived to be “black music” even though it had to be stressed that jazz as an American product came into being through “black” as well as “white” musicians and their contributions. From that point of view, “black music” was neither an idiom that could be operated “authentically” by African Americans only, nor was it one that did not feature “white” musicians actively involved in the creative growth of the music. In fact, as Baraka knows, “[i]t was a music capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well” (149).

Those progressive values had also reached out to the audience; that is to say, an all-embracing integration increasingly even meant to insist on an audience not being segregated along color lines. Members of the NAACP picketed a segregated audience of one of Marian Anderson’s concerts in 1951, Dave Brubeck revoked an entire tour through the American south after local universities protested Brubeck’s band formation – his bass player, Eugene Joseph Wright, was “black” – and Ray Charles cancelled his performance in 1961 after “black” students exerted pressure on local decision makers:

The moral climate after Brown and the Montgomery bus boycott clearly had an effect on the terms of the debate over mixed bands and mixed audiences. If in the mid-1940s playing with a mixed band was taken as a sign of a progressive racial attitude, by the mid-1950s a performer had to refuse to play to segregated audiences to meet the rising moral standards of the civil rights movement. (Monson 61)

Furthermore, the legitimacy of an application of “colorblind” conceptions was demonstrated by what Leonard Feather called the “Blindfold Test.” Published in both Metronome as well as Down Beat magazines, musicians listened to sequences of song material and were then supposed to guess who they heard. Feather sought to illustrate that neither “race” nor gender classifications would necessarily correlate with the artistic material produced by the musician. On an empirical basis he could prove wrong the thesis that “black” musicians had the ability to naturally play jazz more “authentically” than “white” musicians. Roy Eldrige once claimed he could hear, if the music was played by a “white” or a “black” artist. According to Feather he did not even reach the 50 percent-mark.

In the early 1950s efforts were made to abolish racial segregation within the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The African American local 767 was to be fused with the “white” local 47. Decision makers and musicians involved generally had an open mind on the merger, although one was just as well skeptical about the undertaking since respective terms and conditions had to be negotiated, especially those rights of African American musicians. Eventually, the merger was passed in 1953, which made Los Angeles, California – a nodal point in the context of the merging – as Monson emphasizes, “the first victory in a much longer process of desegregating the AFM; it became something like the Brown v. Board of Education case of the music world” (48).

After all, TV shows such as those broadcasts produced by Robert Herridge titled “The Sound of Jazz” (1957) and “The Sound of Miles Davis” (1959) featured integrated formations of “black” and “white” musicians. McMichael directs attention to the fact that these instances exemplified a space in which African American musicians could emerge as decision-making authorities having the right to be involved in the process of laying out conceptions, terms and conditions of respective performances. These proceedings represented a model of social interaction that had been struggled for in the sociopolitical purview. The fact that the shows had been broadcasted on CBSthe symbol of an exploitative economic system in the hands of “whites” – could be read as a sign “[that] provided an important space for the transgression of dominant racial codes” (McMichael 11). The music facilitated the generation of webs of social relations, which seemed to have the potential of restructuring dominant codes else prevalent in the actuality of everyday life. “The connections among jazz, political activism, and racial identity in the early 1960s,” McMichael reasons, “show that jazz music historically has provided sites of integrationist subcultures in which racial boundaries exist but at moments do not reproduce the same power relations as in mainstream society” (6).

In any case, there were also those who argued for an “independent black music,” thus, neglecting instances of “colorblind” reasonability. In the light of the sociopolitical environment they considered legitimate the claim for a social exclusion, a separation from “white” musicians. Against the background of events that took place in the 1950s such as those at Montgomery, Alabama, and Little Rock, Arkansas, the legitimacy of the concept of “colorblindness” was increasingly disapproved. Social injustice could not be fought by qualifying, leveling, not least by ignoring what was thought to be the major source of “all evil.” While a “colorblind” concept was by some seen as a morally rightful statement, again others were convinced of the impossibility of reducing the skin color to an irrelevant status. Based on moral considerations, “colorblindness” put into action was thought to be nothing but an insensitivity ultimately ignoring realities in society as a whole, including constitutive injustices. Accordingly, the “black” skin color had to be highlighted in order to make it a symbol of utterly positive values. In the purview of jazz one way of accomplishing just that was by pointing to a musical modernity characterized by “black aesthetics.” “Black” artists attempted to defy the dictate of “white” discrimination. Their reactions to “Jim Crow” took on a renewed “black” pride in the African American legacy, in “black” roots, and in African American artistic capabilities. Such a “black” identity served as the basis for fighting “white” suppression.

Musicians militating against attitudes in line with the idea of “colorblindness” did so, because to them such attitudes equalled a paternalistic view on African Americans. “Whites” would not realize that they implicitly considered their skin color to be transparent, invisible, the norm according to which everything else had to be measured. Value judgments were claimed to be deduced on the basis of everything “white” simply being standard, authoritative, controlling. This stance had been denounced since it was seen as a practice entailing the concept of Eurocentrism. In moral terms such a code of practice was considered plain wrong, because it implied a particular hierarchy that even a “Jim Crow”-discrimination was based upon. Not all musicians neglected the idea of “colorblindness” per se. But many of them saw themselves forced to uphold passing criticism on “colorblind” ideas “until white people recognize[d] that their identity, privilege, position, and power are based on a racial entity, whiteness, that consists of nothing more than domination” (Panish 6).

In order to neutralize the effects of implicit “white” stereotypes it was thought that one had to emphasize everything that could be subsumed under the great umbrella term “blackness,” because a “‘race-blind’ discourse in a racialized society [was considered] blind only to itself and to the racial discrimination that it seek[s] to conceal” (Keaton 124). The pragmatic orientation associated with a “black” identity was based on the idea of a “strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Spivak). Such a “‘strategically essentialist’ notion of blackness” (Panish 8) functioned as an underlying theoretical concept of justifications with which one faced accusations made by those who allegedly mistook this type of essentialism for outright biologism. While physical differences could be interpreted in biological terms, they had no effect on individual attributes, and group characteristics, respectively. Consequently, cultures arise from social experiences, and thus do not represent genetically coded differences, but rather those that are rooted in the “essence,” the content of historic processes.

Those musicians, who favored the creation of a sphere of “black music” hermetically separated from all other kinds of “white” intrusions, assumed that the relevance of a practiced indifference toward the skin color and the ethnic origin it implied, would ultimately lead not only to a loss of the status African Americans enjoyed as outstanding artists in the “jazz world,” but also to a loss of their cultural identity, because “color-blindness has encouraged Americans to work toward the elimination of all racial difference under the idea that the natural tendency of all minority groups in the United States is to ‘assimilate’” (Panish 6). Such an anticipated assimilation making “black” musicians conform to “white” standards had been perceived as synonymous with an annihilation of “black” cultural qualities.

Under these circumstances, the African American minority could not afford not to attach importance to the color of the skin “and its effects on the distribution of wealth, power, status, and opportunity in society” (Panish 8). Hence, especially “black” musicians identified the skin color as a significant mediator, a constitutive element within a sociopolitical system of rules. “[E]ven in [a] generally hospitable avant-garde environment,” observes Panish, “race was a (if not the) primary element structuring their relationships and work” (29).

“‘Negro-ness,’ by the fifties,” concludes Baraka, “for many Negroes (and whites) was the only strength left to American culture. This form of cultural arrogance was certainly useful in defining the emergence of the Negro as an autonomous human factor within American society” (220). The concept of autonomy more often than not requested a practice of exclusion, which made “whites” to be treated as intruders in what “blacks” thought was an inherently “black” specialty, while the latter arose as agents resembling epic-like characters reminiscent of “the avenger of the dispossessed.” To be tied to African American roots thus seemed to be perceived progressively as a criterion of an “authenticity” displayed in the cultural realm that could not be met by any “white” American. The “black” color of the skin served as a manifest expression of respective historic frames of reference. This way of thinking had been ascribed not only to sociopolitical conditions heavily marked by “Jim Crow,” but also to biologically essentialist constructions. Such interpretations incited “black” musicians to conventionalize the color of the skin as the condition of the possibility of an innovative creation of jazz music, regardless of social processes. In the course of such an erroneous belief the pigmentation itself became an absolute condition, a sine qua non. “[T]his construction of blackness has traditionally been used in ways that are essentialist – by marking traditions as mutually exclusive (black and white) it naturalizes and dehistoricizes blackness” (Panish 8). It was just this very spotlighted history of a people that mystified the conditions of an “authentic” playing.

Identity as a product of history that links “black” musicians to their African (American) ancestors, to the “white” man’s slaves, along with individual experiences with “Jim Crow” as well as the growing up in a milieu intensely shaped by the African American community presupposed what was generally classified as “soul.” “Whites” could not have “soul.” A cooperation between “white” and “black” musicians was less seen as an act of racial reconciliation, a peaceful collaboration, instead it was more of an interaction with the enemy humiliating one’s own “soul mate.” “[T]here was a deep psychological significance behind the move,” realizes Feather. “It enabled them to become members of a private club, a Crow Jim organization with its own values, its own truths and its own rejection of white American society’s rigid tenets” (83).

Countering the (once) all-pervasive “Jim Crow,” African Americans increasingly shut “white” musicians out from certain practices attributing downgrading meanings to them irrespective of any social relations, while at times falling prey to a thinking, which categorically condemned everything “white.” With such an unhealthy habit of outrivaling assumed adversaries it may not cause surprise to see “Crow Jim” to be coined as the new term denoting what was being done to “whites.” The term identifies a form of discrimination, whereas the “jazz world” represented one of the first social scenes where the discourse of reverse racism emerged, in spite of the provision of space for the application of universalist models. The reverse discrimination “Crow Jim” served as a description of an unfair dealing with “white” musicians, a resentment directed at “whites,” which resulted from a “Jim Crow”-discrimination that scarred African Americans severely. Lopes was going to direct attention to how the Time Magazine had put it in 1962: “[I]t is shared in some degree by many Negro jazz musicians, and its major cause is anti-Negro prejudice in a field that Negroes regard as their own. Its result is the regrettable kind of reverse segregation known as Crow Jim – a feeling that the white man had no civil rights when it comes to jazz” (254).

“Crow Jim” implied tenures, and could be portrayed as reverse racism, because it signified a form of discrimination that targeted social groupings that else disrespected minorities, but had never been discriminated before. “[A]t the heart of jazz,” discovers Hentoff, “there are many Negro musicians who are not yet ready to extend full musical and social equality to whites. . . . Jazz has come to mean for many Negro musicians, therefore, a secret society to which American whites have to pay heavily to be admitted” (254).

The hitherto seemingly ubiquitous code of conduct permitted “white” and “black” musicians to perform together in a public, official context of performances on rare occasions only, and so did African Americans just as well appear to be engrossed in a “miscegenation scare.” Precisely this “racial undercurrent” (Leonard Feather) meant that “black” musicians tended to express their reservations about “whites” more blatantly. Jazz was supposed to be positioned as an invariably African American domain. Not only did “whites” have no right to use jazz, because such utilization was considered an act of appropriation of “black” possession, they would also not even be able to play jazz “authentically.” All they could do is playing by way of imitation. As Conrad reflects on such positions, “any white musician who draws on black sources for his music is (a) an inferior artist and (b) a mercenary usurper” (284, 285). That way, the blues and the swing feeling – in many places accentuated as archetypal components of (African American) jazz – could indeed be used by “white” musicians, however, such practices would neither be legitimate, nor would they be “authentic,” nor could be reckoned with an innovative advancement of musical material. “Being black,” identifies Gerard, “is [the] prima facie requirement for induction into the blues. Whites need not apply” (167).

Truly, various musicians used to suffer from all kinds of extensions of “Crow Jim” a number of times. They offer a host of examples that identify deep-seated forms of antipathy to “whites.” The clarinet player Tony Scott moaned about a hostile attitude Duke Ellington’s “black” band members exhibited toward him, which eventually made him leave the band in 1953. Ellington himself commented on this incident by saying that Scott was “the only musician who was forced out of my band by race prejudice” (Feather 81). Bill Evans complained about just the same type of thinking displayed more by the audience than band members when he was performing together with Miles Davis as the only “white” band member in 1958. “The guys in the band defended me staunchly,” Evans recalls. “We were playing black clubs, and guys would come up and say, ‘What’s that white guy doing there?’” (Kahn 1). Expressing his lack of understanding as to Davis’ band roundup, Art Farmer once questioned the team play including “white” band members whose existence obviously appeared to be rather grotesque and incomprehensible to him: “Man, why have you got those white guys on your gig” (Lees 188)? It becomes apparent that the underlying concepts of such occurrences are once again of the same kind, especially when Don Stratton, while contributing to the formation of a big band in Harlem in order to keep “black” kids off the street, would at times receive everything but acknowledgment for what he was doing: “Man, we don’t want Whitey teaching us about our music” (Lees 190). Along the way, Oliver Nelson received “a lot of static from guys who would give him phone calls and push pictures of slave ships under his door” (Sandke 181) because he would not stop cooperating musically with “white” musicians such as Ed Shaughnessy. When in 1961 Sonny Rollins began playing with Jim Hall, Rollins recalls that “there was some controversy about the fact that Jim was white” (Lees 187). After all, in 1959 the Bell Telephone Company tried to keep Ella Fitzgerald from engaging her “white” guitarist Herb Ellis for one of the TV productions the company had sponsored. She refused to comply with respective demands, the company’s executive branch gave in, but Ellis eventually could not be seen on screen. It has to be remarked, though, that in this case it has been “white” authorities forcing such an exclusion. The incident takes on an extremely grotesque tinge, because it illustrates strikingly how “Jim Crow” can end up giving way to “Crow Jim” on the basis of clashes of “Jim Crow”-codes prevalent by way of law and moral codes having become established increasingly in social spheres. This is not to say, though, that “Jim Crow” and “Crow Jim” would not have always made themselves at home in the absurdity of sociopolitical realities of the time.

All these examples illustrate an equal variety of discriminatory mechanisms at work. They represent radical implementations within the “jazz world” that seemed to highlight jazz as a “Utopia, where distinctions of social class and ‘race’ no longer are a matter for concern” (Gennari 253) – a daydream, an irrelevance of extramusical criteria that turned out to be an illusion only. But just like politics of human interaction in general, more often than not emerging as a phenomenon that is slightly more complicated than simply “black and white,” the musicians’ reality also seemed to constantly swing back and forth between implementations of two rivaling ideas in the midst of negotiations over what is right and what is not. And one knew that “[i]f one embraces the race game, one submits to a certain set of limitations; if one champions the human game, the charge yowled through the bullhorn of regimentation is one of naiveté” (Crouch 45).

In October 2012 I talked to Lee Konitz over the telephone being ready for an interview. My “list of firsts” contained questions that revolved around jazz music as a representation of cultural activism and artistic interventions challenging sociopolitical conditions as well as resulting articulations of racial confrontations between “black” and “white” musicians. Unfortunately, all I received were words of refusal, although Konitz hesitatingly wrapped them in a kind fashion. Moreover, his words testified to a peculiar power of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, sympathies and love, but also forms of prejudice and outright hatred all of which were going to strain interpersonal relations back then. Just like in every other domain of life, it used to be a force that had the potency of bringing people together by creating bonds of intimate friendship. However, it just as well made its claim on “blacks” and “whites” alike and vehemently insisted upon its right to destroy such cordial relations. The “jazz world” used to be the very scene for such struggles to happen:

I tell you the truth. I’m a little bit reluctant about talking about the situation with the blacks and whites. It’s too personal. I should talk to a psychiatrist about this [laughing, note of the author]. I just thought about all the complications that happened in those years, and I don’t feel like going through that again. . . . It’s a . . . very important point. I appreciate your attitude, and the subject matter. It’s very important to talk about it, but I’ve talked about it over the years so much that I don’t feel like going through that again.


Works Cited

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1 The terms “America” and “American” will be used as equivalent to denominations such as “USA” and “US (American),” respectively.

2 Denotations such as “black” and “white” are thought of as generalizations, or rather simplifications. As descriptions of identifications with an ethnic-cultural, even national belonging – either self-imposed, or inflicted from “outside” –, they represent expressions of politicized subjectivity, an attribution of qualities constituting particular identities. Depending on those who categorize, these identities can turn out highly diversified, and nonetheless be adopted by the very same person, or group of people. For this reason, said denotations will exclusively appear in combination with quotation marks in order to indicate their ambivalence and simplistic character.

3 The term “Jim Crow” reportedly derives from so-called “minstrel shows,” specifically from a song titled “Jump Jim Crow” once written by a “white” American entertainer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice. In line with what used to be a commonly conducted procedure in those shows, Rice would apply charcoal to his face so that it appeared to be black entirely. After all, he could create a derogative image of “black” Americans by implementing schemes of theatrical acting, overemphasizing African (American) stereotypes—infantile, naive, always smiling, lazy, foolish and subservient.

4 The term “race” identifies a category, which classifies individuals and groups of people on the basis of visual identities, outward appearances. Such identities imply value judgments, which, in turn, make “race” to be no neutral and objective concept of order. In fact, it becomes a tool for enforcing power-political considerations, historically being enmeshed in an assumed right of domination and a forced subordination of ethnic minorities. Thus, “race” suggests power relations predominantly legitimated by pseudo-scientific simplifications. For that reason, this paper will treat the term in the very same way it presents the terms “black” and “white“— “race” will solely be found in quotation marks.

5 The author is very much conscious of the fact that stories about “Jim Crow,” told by those, who had to live them all the way through, at times tremendously suffering from countless acts of harassment, give an overall sad picture of how dramatic and far-reaching both the psychological and physical subsequent damage was (and still is), which had been done to African Americans. “Crow Jim” in the “jazz world” cannot be identified as a form of discrimination being equally radical, which is due to the social hierarchy being epitomized in the form of political, institutional and economic manifestations. And yet, the author believes that “Crow Jim” can legitimately be presented as a type of discrimination. A discriminating behavior directed at those, who acted in a “Jim Crow” fashion, might have meant nothing but self protection. Then again, “Crow Jim” clearly emerged as an expression of an unfair treatment, plain prejudice. Even if it was a sign of moral compensation, the gospel of poetic justice still appears to be rather questionable as long as it contains those methods, which had been rightfully criticized and labeled discriminatory in the first place.