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by World Music October 06, 2020


Black History Month - Jazz Legends and Civil Rights

People of colour should be recognised and celebrated the year round, but this month provides a fantastic opportunity for us all to highlight the outstanding contributions that black people have made to the world.

For us at World Music Network, this means taking a moment to celebrate the impact that black people and communities have had on music, as well as the power of music as a cultural force for uplifting and togetherness.

World Music Network is a label committed to celebrating the beauty and diversity of musical cultures both past and present, and this month we'd like to highlight some of the pioneering Jazz innovators that became so vital to the Civil Rights Movement. They wrote and performed songs that spoke to the hearts of their brothers and sisters, which became anthems of the movement; they refused to play to segregated audiences, put on benefit concerts in support of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and supported the campaign for civil rights.

Billie Holiday
The Rough Guide To Jazz And Blues Legends: Billie Holiday

In 1939, Billie Holiday’s adaptation of Abel Meeropol’s poem, “Strange Fruit”, described the horrors of Jim Crow-era lynching. Holiday's rendition is widely considered the first influential jazz protest song. Her performance of the song often shocked audiences from their complacency, with some becoming very uncomfortable. 
Holiday faced threats, fear and resistance on a daily basis, but she did not stop performing it.

Holiday’s label refused to record or distribute “Strange Fruit”, fearing backlash and the alienation of white listeners, which would lose them revenue and reputation. In response, Holiday recorded the song with Commodore Records, during a four-hour session in April 1939. 

Learn more about Billie Holliday's music

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s relationship to the civil rights movement was complicated. Many felt that a black man so much in the public eye should be more outspoken. His contribution came in more subtle means; benefit concerts, refusing to play to segregated audiences, and speaking through pure musical expression. ‘If jazz means anything,’ Duke Ellington once said, “it is freedom of expression.”

Ellington used his musical skill to contravene racist beliefs and boldly demonstrate black excellence as a resistance tactic against the racist stereotypes of African Americans. In response to being rebuked for not having been publicly enough involved in the movement Ellington said: "People who think that of me have not been listening to our music. For a long time, social protest and pride in the Negro have been our most significant themes in talking about what it is to be a Negro in this country -- with jazz being like the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to be associated with."

Learn more about Duke Ellington's music

Nina Simone
Rough Guide To Nina Simone

Hailed as the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, Nina Simone’s unique style seamlessly fused jazz and R&B with her classical piano roots to accompany her profoundly beautiful voice. Simone became a key voice of the Civil Rights Movement, writing powerful protest songs that invoked the emotions of the struggle for Black Freedom.

In response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls in 1963 she wrote “Mississippi Goddam”. Simone's composition “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” was written as in memory of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. She also wrote “Young, Gifted and Black,” borrowing the title of a play by Lorraine Hansberry, which became a popular Civil Rights Era anthem. Simone also performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Learn more about Nina Simone's music

Thelonius Monk
Thelonious Monk

One of the most innovative and idiosyncratic figures in jazz history, Thelonious Monk. Almost from the outset the pianist pursued a singular artistic vision as player and composer and played a key part in the birth of the music which emerged from New York City in the mid-1940s, which, with its new harmonic and rhythmic ideas, ultimately became known as bebop. Bebop was known for confronting the status quo. With rapid chord changes and tempos, it 
couldn’t be ignored by carefree dancers like the swing music that preceded it. Bop demanded the listeners' attention and was a voice that compelled change. 

As Robin D.G. Kelley notes in his biography; Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, there were many instances of Thelonious Monk answering the Civil Rights Movement benefit concert call: : "One Sunday afternoon, August 7, the New York chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized "Jazz Sits In," a fundraiser in support of the Southern student movement." [...] "Monk didn’t work at all in January, and his next gig was gratis. On Friday, February 1, he headed over to Carnegie Hall to participate in "A Salute to Southern Students," a huge benefit concert for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The New York-based Friends of SNCC sponsored the concert to commemorate the third anniversary of the sit-in movement and to raise money for SNCC’s ongoing work in Mississippi, southwest Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and South Carolina." 

Learn more about Thelonious Monk's music


We've highlighted just a few of the jazz legends that contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. This article could be incredibly long, with many other musicians contributions to be covered. John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and many many more artists helped to support the movement in some form, using their music to break down the barriers of racial prejudice and social injustice.

We'd like to leave you with the eloquence of Dr King himself: 

"It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls."

"Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music."


We would also like to highlight charities that champion black lives and culture, please visit the following links to find out more:

Black Lives Matter UK
Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health
Exist Loudly Fund