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How Jazz Helped Fuel the Civil Rights Movement

Starting with the age of bebop, jazz ceased to cater to popular audiences and instead became solely about the music and the musicians who played it. Since then, jazz has been symbolically linked to the civil rights movement.

The music, which appealed to whites and blacks alike, provided a culture in which the collective and the individual were inextricable. It was a space where a person was judged by their ability alone, and not by race or any other irrelevant factors.

“Jazz,” Stanley Crouch writes, “predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”

Not only was jazz music itself an analogy to the ideals of the civil rights movement, but jazz musicians took up the cause themselves. Using their celebrity and their music, musicians promoted racial equality and social justice. Below are just a few cases in which jazz musicians spoke out for civil rights.

Although sometimes criticized by activists and black musicians for playing into an “Uncle Tom” stereotype by performing for mainly white audiences, Louis Armstrong often had a subtle way of dealing with racial issues. In 1929 he recorded “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” a song from a popular musical. The lyrics include the phrase:

Is in my skin

To be so black and blue?

The lyrics, out of the context of the show and sung by a black performer in that period, were a risky and weighty commentary.

Armstrong became a cultural ambassador for the U.S. during the Cold War, performing jazz all over the world. In response to increasing turmoil swirling around the desegregation of public schools, Armstrong was outspokenly critical of his country. After the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, during which the National Guard prevented nine black students from entering a high school, Armstrong canceled a tour to the Soviet Union, and said publicly, “the way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

Billie Holiday incorporated the song “Strange Fruit” into her set list in 1939. Adapted from a poem by a New York high school

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