How Jazz Music Supported Black Pride, Social Change and Political Activity

Seminar Paper, 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 3




1. Introduction

2. Jazz and its roots in slave music

3. The situation of early African American jazz musicians

4. How and why jazz musicians took action with their music
4.1. John Coltrane- Revolution of the psyche
4.2. Billie Holiday- A “Strange Fruit”
4.3. Louis Armstrong- the “Uncle Tomming” entertainer?
4.4. Charlie Parker- From swing to bebop

5. Music as an instrument of protest
5.1. The upcoming of bebob
5.2. We shall overcome

6. Conclusion

7. Sources
7.1. Works cited
7.2. Internetsources:

1. Introduction

It is important to make people aware of the largely untold story of the key role jazz music had in helping to shape Black pride and encouraging social change as well as political activity in the United States. For this reason, I choose to write about this subject in my paper. In my opinion ways of non- violence that supports the process of change in a society should be given particular attention. I want to emphasis that this work should be taken as a theoretical attempt for it cannot be proved to which extent jazz music had an influence on social change and how things would have developed without the upcoming of jazz music.

My sources for this paper were mainly online sources. To this very specific subject the internet offered more information. So the basic question which will be discussed in this paper is how culture has a meaning on Black Revolution.

2. Jazz and its roots in slave music

When we go back and think of slaves working on plantations it becomes clear that the only way they could express themselves was through art and more specific music. It was the only form of expression which wasn’t instantly repressed as it happened to political and economic opinions. Afro-American/ American Negro work songs were the direct forerunner of blues music (Jones, 15).

So it can be seen as a tradition of African American music to broach the issue of social, economic and political struggle. For jazz has its roots in early blues music, this tradition had been picked up. This tradition has been continuing until today in Gospel, Soul, Blues, Reggae and Rap music. The struggle must not necessarily be expressed by the lyrics but can also be expressed through the music itself. Just think of Coltrane’s saxophone playing in “Alabama” for example. The song is throughout melancholic.

3. The situation of early African American jazz musicians

Early jazz music such as Billie Holliday‘s or John Coltrane‘s can only be understood by viewing the connection to the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968 and by considering the conditions of Black people at the times of Jim Crow.

In the 1920s, the USA had to face a greater extent of segregation than to any point of time after the Civil War had ended. Southern African Americans had been denied to vote, several rights of appeal and the possibility to move to certain areas were refused. Furthermore, they could not register for numerous schools, were not treated in many hospitals and miscellaneous institutions. African Americans even were excluded from churches, businesses and farms. No abandonment of Jim Crow laws was conceivable, not even a trend of loosening the discriminating code was in sight. Peretti claims that during the 1920s Jim Crow laws were even intensified. An additional threat for African Americans was the Ku Klu Klan and other white radical groups. After jazz was established in the north, it began to make its way up to the south of the Ohio River and the Mason Dixie Line. The descendants of slaves were faced with people who insulted, harmed them physically and even took their lives. These inhuman actions mostly happened in public and were displayed so everyone could watch the humiliations. (Peretti 177).

Although slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865, by the end of the Civil Rights Movement Blacks were still not treated equally to Whites. For a long period Black and White jazz musicians were not allowed to perform together in public. In the early 1930s, Black and White jazz musicians could not play any concerts together and could not perform together in clubs. The Jim Crow laws of the Southern states were acceptilated between 1876 and 1965. Although “Separate but equal“ was the legal doctrine Blacks were disadvantaged in every respect ( ).

This was also the case in Montgomery, Alabama. On public buses Blacks could only occupy the rear seats while White people were privileged to sit down. Rosa Parks, a woman of African American origin in 1955 refused to give up her seat for a White person. As a result she was arrested and brought to justice. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) complained in court and won. On 13 November 1956, the Supreme Court confirmed that racial segregation was unconstitutional and repealed the segregation on buses (

While and after giving a concert African American jazz musicians were confronted with violence as well. Often they played for a White audience but had to keep away from them anyway after the show. If musicians were for instance talked to by White women, they risked being accused by way of example for molesting.

In many cases African Americans at jazz event could get involved with the police very easily. Sometimes when people would lean on the rope that was put in front of the stage, to wish for a song, which should be played by the band, the police threaded them as they had commited a violation. In a lot of cases even women were beaten down. White sometimes even would feel provoked when a Black[1] man in jazz club would take a drink from a White woman. (Peretti 179).

Maybe this is why especially Black jazz musicians, that were also descendants of slaves, developed a certain sense for racial discrimination and inequality.

4. How and why jazz musicians took action with their music

4.1. John Coltrane- Revolution of the psyche

Incidents like the bus boycott or sit-ins occurred during the Civil Rights Movement which was a worldwide political movement for equality before the law, between about 1950 and 1980. There were many organizations like NUL, NALC, SCEF, FOR, NCLC, NAACP, SNCC, CORE, SCLC and SDS that fought for the political and economic independency of African Americans in the USA. The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movements shaped moral pressure on musicians and influenced them to take action as well. There were numerous jazz musicians who used their music to revolt and express their anger about the oppression they experienced (Reader: Jazz music in American culture).

For example how John Coltrane did in his song Alabama. Coltrane wrote the song Alabama in response to the bombing of a Baptist Church where four Black girls were killed. It was a racist attack by some Ku Klux Klan members. It is even said that Coltrane patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech he held for the four girls who were killed. Coltrane’s grandfather introduced him to politics and gave him several books by Black people that he should read. His grandfather who was a reverend influenced Coltrane a lot and raised his interest for politics (Kahn 34).

If you listen to Coltrane, in some parts you can hear the rage he tried to express. The drummer as well rises from a whisper to a pounding rage when he plays the song Alabama. The whole mood of the song is very melancholic but still hopeful. This shows not only the anger of the oppression and the events but the sadness as well. Coltrane’s sound was definitively shaped consciously but also subconsciously by the developing Civil Rights Movement that extended in the US in the late 1950‘s and 1960‘s.

He did not agree with W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of a “double-consciousness”. For one being and American but also being reminded of being a “negroe” by other people’s reaction. Having a double-consciousness could mean being able to have two perspectives but implies certain ambivalence as well (Reader: Einführung in die amerikanische Kultur und Kulturwissenschaft 87).

For Coltrane there was nothing in between. Just like for Malcolm X, a politician and a radical leader of the Civil Rights Movement Coltrane rather took a firm stand concerning the situation of Black people. It was expressed in the way he played his music. In his opinion there was no need any longer for Black culture waiting for the appreciation by White society but there was definitely a need that Black people started to appreciate their own culture themselves. Coltrane and Malcolm presented an image of a decolonized Black selfhood (Saul 260-261).

Coltrane’s famous album “A Love Supreme” and Malcolm X’s biography gained so much attention for they represented counterimages of the working-class African American. They did not accept the image of the African American as inferior. In the case of Coltrane denying this role, meant denying bebob’s irony and presenting a religious, self-discovering, very personal music (Saul 263-264).

In Coltrane’s opinion, playing in an authentic way, meant living authentically. He in 1958 said that most musicians were interested in the truth, they had to be, for saying something in a musical way was expressing the truth (Kahn 36).


[1] Although Peretti spelled “black” with a small “b”, in this paper “Black” is spelled with a capital “B“ to underline that the spelling with a small “b” refers to a color and the spelling with a capital “B” refers to a social group.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


How Jazz Music Supported Black Pride, Social Change and Political Activity
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Jazz music in American culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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jazz, music, supported, black, pride, social, change, political, activity
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Anonymous, 2010, How Jazz Music Supported Black Pride, Social Change and Political Activity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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