Jazz: A Powerful Voice for Social Change

When Jazz Was King

Minister, activist, civil rights leader — and jazz lover. King penned the forward for the first Berlin jazz festival in 1964.

Jazz emerged as a distinct musical style when uptown musicians began to improvise blues and other roots music over the earthier vernacular dance styles popular in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Harlem

Harlem is a neighborhood in upper Manhattan that is home to numerous African-American landmarks and historical sites. Bounded by Central Park North on the north, Fifth Avenue on the east, the Hudson River and 155th Street on the west and south, and the Harlem River on the north, this area was the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement during the 1920s and 1930s.

The literature of the Harlem Renaissance dealt with many themes, but one of the most common was racial injustice. Virtually every writer addressed this theme in one way or another, from Langston Hughes’ protest poems to Claude McKay’s novels and essays.

The jazz scene in Harlem is still thriving and you can experience it today at the renowned Apollo Theater on 125th Street. Take a chance and sign up for the weekly amateur night, or just stop in to listen and watch. The performers range from up-and-coming artists to some of the most famous names in music.

New York City

During the 1920s, New York became the center of jazz’s development. Louis Armstrong emerged as a star and influenced the sound of the music with his complex compositions and emotional range. Jelly Roll Morton also made a series of influential recordings that added sophistication and a framework for soloists to explore. These innovations led to the Swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz shifted away from its New Orleans roots and polarized listeners.

By the time King delivered his Berlin remarks, jazz had entered the global arena and was established as an image of American cool. It was a musical form that could be exported to show the world that America loved and respected its Black citizens. The 1964 Berlin festival was a celebration of that idea and a recognition of the power of jazz. In the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, that same strength could be harnessed for social change.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression swept the United States in 1929-1941, decimating household incomes, bank accounts, stock investments and, of course, jobs. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, it was a terrifying time.

Despite the hardship, American culture continued to produce an enormous amount of music. Broadcasts offered escapist entertainment through comedy programs like Amos ‘n Andy, soap operas and sports events. Bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman drew crowds to Art Deco ballrooms with their swing music. And after Prohibition ended in 1933, jazz clubs and cocktail lounges were happy to fill the nation’s thirst for alcohol.

But the Depression took its toll on many musicians. While audiences still flocked to dance bands, many jazz performers found their gigs drying up as people cut back on extravagances such as buying records. By 1932, only six million records were sold, a 95 percent drop from the 104 million sold in the peak year of 1927.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil War might have officially abolished slavery, but that didn’t put an end to discrimination against Black Americans. In the midst of this struggle that would last into the 1950s and 60s, musicians like Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone helped amplify the movement’s voices with music.

As the protest marches, sit-ins and boycotts erupted across America, many of those involved felt exhilarated yet terrified. Music was often used to calm nerves and rally those in attendance. Jazz in particular was tailor-made for the movement because of its ability to characterize the fight, while also providing solace and hope.

From compositions that made no question about their politics, such as Sonny Rollins’s 1958 “Freedom Suite,” to the covers of songs like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” which mirrored a lunch counter sit-in, dozens of artists were able to speak to the growing sense of Black pride and raise a racial consciousness that could serve as the foundation of any organized effort for change.

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