Revolutionary From the Jump

The area surrounding Trump International Hotel and Tower went ballistic on Saturday, 11/7, when it was (finally) announced that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. Celebration enveloped Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, with hundreds of happy people waving Biden-Harris signs, bicyclists shaking tambourines and drivers honking horns. One particular SUV inched down Broadway with a self-made edit of YG’s “FDT” looping its chorus ad infinitum: “Fuck Donald Trump” over and over into the crisp autumn air.

Hip-hop has been acknowledged as a source of social protest at least as far back as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 magnum opus, “The Message.” But before hip-hop bum-rushed the show, the African-American art form known best for voicing Black liberation was jazz.

Consider Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in the South. Pick any number of songs from Nina Simone. Gil Scott-Heron’s catalog, Miles Davis’ politics. The very existence of jazz—this free, improvisational, collaborative music—it can be argued, is “absolutely about where [Black] people weren’t allowed to go, which made them travel in their music,” singer Georgia Anne Muldrow told The New York Times in September 2020.

Jazz has been revolutionary from the jump, since its beginnings at the dawn of the 20th century. The Bronx birthed hip-hop; jazz famously originates in New Orleans, in the red-light district of Storyville, the communal gathering space of Congo Square. During the genre’s formative days of cornetist Buddy Bolden and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation ruled America; white supremacy influenced jazz in its cradle.

Creoles—people of mixed blood, European and Black parentage—made up a sizable portion of New Orleans’ population. Many (due perhaps to relatively moneyed backgrounds) studied classical piano and earned their bread as musicians preceding the “separate but equal” legislation sanctioned by the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson.

After that ruling came down, Creoles were considered Black and thus forbidden to play in whites-only establishments. The result: Creoles mingled more often with Black musicians, lending their classical training to the ragtime-blues hybrid popularized at vaudeville and minstrel shows in the early 1900s.

Fast-forward to 2021 and our rosy notions of jazz as “America’s classical music,” a democratic gumbo whose ingredients are the mutual contributions of Black and white musicians. Most of us don’t question this conception.

But Irish-American bandleader Nick LaRocca—whose Original Dixieland Jass Band was behind jazz’s first hit song, 1917’s “Livery Stable Blues”—told interviewers that jazz was “an exclusively white creation,” insisting that “Black people had nothing to do with it,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The art form subsequently suffered the gaslighting of LaRocca’s claim to have invented jazz and bandleader Paul Whiteman’s 1920s crowning as “the King of Jazz,” among other appropriations.

There was plenty to protest, sometimes in the only way a musician could: by persisting.

The World War I-era bandleader, arranger and composer James Reese Europe earned a posthumous reputation as the Martin Luther King Jr. of jazz (a title conferred by Eubie Blake). In the segregated army of that conflict, Lieutenant Europe led the military band of the Harlem Hellfighters regiment, which performed proto-jazz for rapt French, British and American military audiences.

Beginning eight years prior to serving his country, Jim Europe made a name for himself organizing The Clef Club, a union/booking agency for Black musicians, and leading a band at Carnegie Hall decades before white jazz performers like Benny Goodman. By 1919, he was the most famous Black bandleader in the United States. His enormous potential was cut short that year, however, when, at age 38, he was murdered by a drummer in his band during a dispute. Though he did not perform protest music per se, Europe’s mere existence is a good place to start any discussion of jazz as a medium for defying repressive institutions.

“Strange Fruit” can reasonably be considered the mother of all jazz protest songs. Recorded in 1939, with lyrics about Black bodies swinging from the poplar trees of the South, it struck a deep chord with audiences.

Songwriter Abel Meeropol (a Russian-Jewish immigrant from the Bronx), sickened by the lynching of two Black men in Indiana, first published his lyrics as a poem in 1937, but as a song, “Strange Fruit” became an American classic when Billie Holiday performed it at Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub in ’39. Artists from Sting and Annie Lennox to India.Arie and Andra Day have covered it over the decades, and in 2013 Kanye West sampled a Nina Simone rendition on the Yeezus single “Blood on the Leaves.” Still, the song is owned by a jazz singer.

Oscar nominee Queen Latifah immortalized the chutzpah of Jazz Age blues singer Bessie Smith in the 2015 HBO biopic Bessie. Twelve years prior to “Strange Fruit” hitting the airwaves, Smith famously challenged white supremacy with the sheer force of her character. At a 1927 summertime concert in Concord, N.C., hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan arrived at Smith’s outdoor show to terrorize her and her audience. She emerged from the tent shaking her fist, raging at the racist mob, effectively chasing the hatemongers away. Smith’s brave response and continued performance is another precursor of jazz as protest and the liberated personalities who make up its discography.

Duke Ellington (born Edward Kennedy Ellington), the very incarnation of sophistication, eventually succeeded James Europe as the most renowned Black bandleader in America. Beginning in 1927, his 11-piece ensemble was broadcast live from the Cotton Club in Harlem, entering living rooms from coast to coast. Duke, too, by embodying Black excellence throughout the course of his six-decade career, intrinsically stood in protest of Jim Crow and its aftermath.

“In the 1930s, I think that jazz certainly makes the whole country more than a little bit African American,” jazz scholar Gary Giddins opines in the Ken Burns-directed 2001 documentary series Jazz. “Ellington specifically. When you listen to a piece like ‘Sepia Panorama’ or ‘Black Beauty’—one of the loveliest melodies in American music—you think that being an African American must be the grandest state that a human being could achieve. There’s a sense of patriotism that Ellington brings to it… a sense of wonder and delight and tremendous pride.”

Maybe the most influential figure in jazz, Louis Armstrong was also an exemplar of Black mastery. The trumpeter-vocalist-bandleader crisscrossed the globe during the Jazz Age, through the Depression and beyond as an ambassador of the music he often guided like a lodestar. His jovial onstage personality and the omnipresence of his broad smile nonetheless made some African Americans feel as though he were genuflecting before the white gaze.

Said Miles Davis in his 1989 memoir, “I always hated the way [Armstrong] used to laugh and grin to the audiences. I loved the way Louis played trumpet, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks. I just hated when I saw him doing that, because Louis was hip, had a consciousness about Black people, and was a real nice man. But the only image people have of him is that grinning image off TV.”

But then there’s Armstrong’s rendition of Fats Waller’s 1929 “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Originally recorded for a musical titled Hot Chocolates, the song took up a character’s preference for light-skinned women. Armstrong stripped the song of any self-pity, turning it into a treatise on living while Black in a world of white privilege.

“In those days, if one Black man called another man ‘Black,’ that was fighting words,” Armstrong bassist Arvell Shaw told Jazz director Ken Burns. “But Louie, he was the first man I heard to say, ‘You’re Black! Be proud of it. You’re not white; you’re not yellow—you’re Black.’ He would say that when it was so very unpopular.”

Click here for Part 2: "Kind of Blue and Kind of Bloody."


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Artists sound off on the prospect of being nominated
They're changing the game... for some.
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