The Role of Jazz in Political Participation in the Mid-20th Century



Figure 1: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Gjon Mili, (n. d.). Duke Ellignton and Cab Collaway performing at the famous Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance [Photo] History.com

In the 20th century, jazz music and musicians introduced an African American music creation that presented a European harmonic structure combined perfectly with African rhythmic intricacy, elaborating a broad style of compositions as a new form of entertainment in America (Dunkel, 2012). Jazz was also a contributor to American political development, because it occurred during the Black liberation struggle. Therefore, such period represented a significant cultural evolution in African American socio-political progression (Ibid.). The political change and the rise of Jazz substantially influenced sustained collective activism allowing Negro and Civil Rights Movements to take shape (Ibid.). This article aims to discuss the political climate and social justice engagements relevant to the developments of the genre, in order to analyse the role of jazz music and jazz musicians in political participation in the Mid-20th century.


The article utilizes the perspectives of social movement theorists to achieve the review's objective because they constitute a central point of view in noting down the artistic and cultural scene as it happened. In their works, the social movement theorists established how jazz music and musicians became a helpful political resource in accomplishing goals set by African American political activists who were on the frontline of the Black liberation struggle (Dunkel, 2012). This gave rise to the New negro era and their involvement in political activism through several organizations.



Figure 2: A jazz performance of Louis Armstrong on the Trumpet and King Oliver alongside Creole Jazz Band photographed in 1923 [Photo] Get Action AOM.

In the early 1920s, the New Negro era political organizations used jazz popularity and influence to mobilize funds through concerts for their respective political activities (Dunkel, 2012). They then benefited from jazz development, as they involved musicians politically during the 1930s. They emphasized transforming jazz musicians into celebrated symbols of New Negro advancement to get them more engaged with liberation activities (Dunkel, 2012). 1963 and 1964 were also significant years that widely involved jazz music and jazz musicians. The activists facilitated Jazz in criticizing the American democracy, mainly during the US presidential election (Dunkel, 2012).


If freedom was the mindset of the Roaring Twenties, then jazz was the soundtrack.

Funding the Political activities through Jazz Concerts


The role of jazz music and jazz musicians in political participation began in the initial phases of jazz development in the early 1920s. As African Americans engaged the new musical techniques and traditional African traditions to build music collections, popular radio shows also emerged (Haller, 1991). There were amateur concerts and big-band jazz performances broadcast, which attracted a considerable public for entertainment (Haller, 1991). Other significant advancements that came with the rise of Jazz include nightclubs, dancehalls, and theatres where black entertainment thrived (Haller, 1991).


Notably, the developments were critical in building the New Negro era political organizations. They caused the dispersion of blacks in the cities, presenting an electoral base that allowed such organizations to launch their political ambitions for the black community (Haller, 1991). In this regard, between 1925 and1943, the New Negro era political groups integrated Jazz in building up political interests. Funding political activities was one of the activist organizations' main concerns. However, they solved the fund's challenge by capitalizing on the emergence of platforms that expanded jazz music and musicians' reach (Haller, 1991).


Figure 3: Bert Photo Studio (1926). A group photoshoot of the Bennie Moten's Orchestra [Photo] Kansas City Museum.

Stages presented an opportunity to raise funds because jazz music had spread to a broader audience, including the richer class in society. Subsequently, activists enhanced their influence by organizing jazz concerts which would attract fans able to spend and ultimately support their more critical goals (Haller, 1991). The new Women's Auxiliary to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) National Office was one of the political organizations that capitalized on the benefit shows. They organized a jazz concert that involved prominent artists like Duke Ellington in 1929 to facilitate funds for managing their national headquarters' operations (Haller, 1991). Upon its success, jazz marketability became a top part of the black political evolution and a political resource of the day.



Transforming jazz musicians into celebrated symbols of New Negro advancement


In the 1930s, the New Negro era political organizations took another step in including Jazz in their political works. This solidified their political wave in the black liberation struggle, as they capitalized on jazz musicians' influence on the public. Such an approach transformed jazz musicians into celebrated symbols of New Negro advancement as their presence in public was valuable in cutting across race and class boundaries (Absher, 2018).


The liberation struggle organizations involved local Harlem groups and African American jazz musicians like Fess Williams, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson (Absher, 2018). Their primary role was to appear in Black America's struggle for liberation activities and perform in support of the organizations' goals. Duke Ellington and his renowned orchestra associates were perfect examples of musicians celebrated as symbols of New Negro advancement. During the interwar period of African American political activism and jazz development, Duke Ellington played with an influential band, the Ellington Orchestra (Absher, 2018). Therefore, political organizations including the NAACP, Urban League, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), and Communist Party organizations all involved the band in performing beneficial shows (Absher, 2018).

Figure 4: Bettman (1964) A meeting in the NAACP headquarters attended by (From Left to Right) Baynard Rustin; Jack Greenberg; Whitney M. Young, Jr.; James Farmer; Roy Wilkins; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King; John Lewis. [Photo]. Betty Images.

The Harlem Renaissance


The inception of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s was greatly influenced by the existence of Art on a broader spectrum. Jazz being on the rise, it raised racial consciousness feeding the New Negro Movement incepted by Matthew Kotleski and Hubert Harrison in 1917. The movement addressed issues of race and class among the people of colour in the fields of art, i.e. writers, poets, and musicians. Its major influence was in the New York neighbourhood, and it spread to Paris over time. The Harlem renaissance brought together notable jazz figures such as Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Paul Robeson. Women figures such as Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Robinson Josephine Parker, and Lena Horne were also active in the renaissance. The artists combined jazz and African soulful blues for an exceptional music performance in concerts in New York City (Boundless US history, n. d.).



Critiquing the American democracy through Jazz


After the 1930s, the role of jazz music and jazz musicians in political participation progressed through phases that allowed the black community to gain relevance in US politics. However, some gaps still needed to be addressed by the political organizations to further advance the black liberation struggle. The blacks were yet to fight the democracy challenge, mostly in workplaces and institutions like schools and assemblies, which contributed highly to racism by cutting firmly between the two cultures in America (Hersch, 1995). Therefore, the jazz influence meant insurrection against societal standards that did not serve the interest of the black community.


Figure 5: Runyon, R. (1921). King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra. [Photo]. KanAcademy.

The push for democracy fast-forwarded to 1963 and 1964 when jazz music and musicians extensively engaged in politics. It was the period of the US presidential election, thus presenting a coincidental chance that commanded the attention of the top officials to listen to the activists' grievances for democracy (Hersch, 1995). The activists capitalized on the opportunity to push their agenda by facilitating Jazz to critique the American democracy, which extended the efforts to present a presidential candidate, Gillespie (Hersch, 1995).


His candidature was intended to test the place of democracy in US politics in a way that would be historically revolutionary: his campaign for the Presidency extended the effort to market protest, expanding the liberation struggle (Hersch, 1995). Equally, by establishing their philosophies and goals in new social spaces, the main organizers hoped to achieve sustained equality and fairness that would give every citizen a chance to improve their lives (Hersch, 1995). Therefore, jazz music played a remarkable role in advocating for harmony and freedom in place of racial hierarchy and distrust in the US, including its social-political movements.


In the '50s and '60s, jazz gave birth to the rise of pop culture with artists such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie. Through the lens of jazz music and its role in political participation, in the 21st-century movements such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) still continue to address the structural and systematic issues of racism in America.

The institutionalized challenges such as racism, education, segregation and equity prompted black people to be more involved in the movement. Furthermore, Cold War was a tool mainly used by opposers of the black liberation struggle that took a toll on the activists' efforts to win the fight with the New Negro wave. In this context, the role of jazz culture in politics not only benefited the Americans. The advancements, in fact, spread worldwide with the rise of jazz collections as they developed.


One benefit of the general outcome related to the role of jazz musicians was the sustained non-violent direct-action protest enacted in democratic countries. This change was allowed by the reinforced activists' mental and physical will to pursue peaceful demonstrations, along with the evolving role of jazz music in political participation. It gathered like a snow bowl: for instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1960s and 1970s saw groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) join the fight (Janken, n. d.).


Figure 6: Getty Images (1923) Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and her band. [photo]. Biography.

Conclusion


The birth of jazz music was characterized by a political atmosphere setting precedence for socio-political struggles such as the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey as well as the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jnr. This highlighted the role of music as a political tool besides entertainment, as it was used in the mid-20th century. It addressed different class and race issues through concerts and gatherings. Remarkable figures such as Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone actively made sure the dream of jazz was achieved in political activism. They continued with the legacy through their jazz and blues performances as well as active participation in movements as the Civil Rights Movement.


In the '50s and '60s, jazz gave birth to the rise of pop culture with artists such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie. Through the lens of jazz music and its role in political participation, in the 21st-century movements such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) still continue to address the structural and systematic issues of racism in America. Therefore, it goes without saying, if freedom was the mindset of the Roaring Twenties, then jazz was the soundtrack.



References


Absher, A. (2018). The Black Musician and the White City. Race And Music In Chicago, 1900–1967. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/30245/648333.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Boundless US History (n. d.). A culture of Change, the Roaring Twenties 1920-1929 https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/chapter/a-culture-of-change/

Dunkel, M. (2012). Marshall Winslow Stearns and the Politics of Jazz Historiography. American Music, 30(4), 468–504. https://doi.org/10.5406/americanmusic.30.4.0468

Haller, M. H. (1991). Policy Gambling, Entertainment, and the Emergence of Black Politics: Chicago from 1900 to 1940. Journal of Social History, 24(4), 719–739. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3788854

Hersch, C. (1995). "Let Freedom Ring!": Free Jazz and African-American Politics. Cultural Critique, 32, 97–123. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354532

Janken, Kenneth R. (n. d.). “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center.

<http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917beyond/essays/crm.htm>


Image References

Figure 1: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Gjon Mili, (n. d.). Duke Ellignton and Cab Collaway performing at the famous Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance [Photo] History.com https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance#&gid=ci025d979fd000271c&pid=harlem-renaissance-gettyimages-146032616

Figure 2: A jazz performance of Louis Armstrong on the Trumpet and King Oliver alongside Creole Jazz Band photographed in 1923 [Photo] Get Action AOM. https://www.artofmanliness.com/living/entertainment/jazz-appreciation-for-beginners/)

Figure 3: Bert Photo Studio (1926). A group photoshoot of the Bennie Moten's Orchestra [Photo] Kansas City Museum. https://pendergastkc.org/collection/10792/kcma-pc35-0763/bennie-motens-victor-recording-orchestra

Figure 4: Bettman (1964) A meeting in the NAACP headquarters attended by (From Left to Right) Baynard Rustin; Jack Greenberg; Whitney M. Young, Jr.; James Farmer; Roy Wilkins; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King; John Lewis. [Photo]. Betty Images. https://www.gettyimages.ch/detail/nachrichtenfoto/new-york-ny-at-a-meeting-here-in-n-a-a-c-p-nachrichtenfoto/517350918?language=fr

Figure 5: Runyon, R. (1921). King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra. [Photo]. KanAcademy. (Source https://www.khanacademy.org/)

Figure 6: Getty Images (1923) Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and her band. [photo]. Biography. https://www.biography.com/news/bessie-smith-ma-rainey-biography



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Emmanuel Mamadi

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