Other Places: Jazz And Civil Rights

The eve of next Tuesday’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of The United States is also the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday, January 19, there Nat Hentoff.jpgwill be a celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, observing both occasions. The veteran journalist Nat Hentoff uses this conjunction of historic events as a point of departure to discuss the role of jazz in giving impetus to the civil rights struggle that made possible the election of a black president. Here is one dramatic story from Hentoff’s article in The Wall Street Journal:  

In his touring all-star tournament, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Norman Granz by the 1950s was conducting a war against segregated seating. Capitalizing on the large audiences JATP attracted, Granz insisted on a guarantee from promoters that there would be no “Colored” signs in the auditoriums. “The whole reason for Jazz at the Philharmonic,” he said, “was to take it to places where I could break down segregation.” 

Here’s an example of Granz in action: After renting an auditorium in Houston in the 1950s, he hired the ticket seller and laid down the terms. Then Granz personally,


before the concert, removed the signs that said WHITE TOILETS and NEGRO TOILETS. When the musicians — Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Lester Young — arrived, Granz watched as some white Texans objected to sitting alongside black Texans. Said the impresario: “You sit where I sit you. You don’t want to sit next to a black, here’s your money back.”

Hentoff reflects on advances involving, among others, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Brown vs. Board of Education lawyer Charles Black. He connects incidents and trends from slavery to the 1940s through today. Hentoff calls it “the largely untold story” of jazz and the civil rights movement. To read his essay, click here.
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