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Jazz and Radical Politics


Major social changes in the United States have fundamentally determined the evolution of jazz music, just as they have other art forms. The 1930s were the period of the rise of jazz and the organized Left. Concretely, this meant big bands and the Communist Party. Notwithstanding some early dogmatic opposition to jazz from cultural commissar Mike Gold, the party soon threw itself into proselytizing for jazz and fighting segregation in the music business.

Major contributions to jazz writing were made by veterans of this era. Writing as Frankie Newton – in homage to the trumpet player who had joined the party – E.J. Hobsbawm wrote numerous articles that were collected as The Jazz Scene. To Hobsbawm’s credit, the radical nature of jazz is not something conveyed in the lyrics of a song but in the music’s willingness to speak for the pain and aspiration of the most oppressed sector of society.

Billie Holiday

Paradoxically, it is the simplest and least “political” jazz that has best resisted the temptations of compromise, respectability and official recognition. Bessie Smith, who never sang in white theatres and would not have changed her style if she had, is – like the blues – the least corrupted and corruptible part of jazz, and, therefore, the purest carrier of the jazz protest. (It may be significant that, of all the biographies and autobiographies of jazz artists, those of the women singers express the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog most persistently.)

Like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday also expressed this bitterness, especially when she mounted the stage to perform “Strange Fruit.” This bitter denunciation of lynching in the Deep South perfectly expresses the affinity between jazz musician and leftist in the 1930s and ’40s. Written by Abel Meerpol, a Communist high-school teacher and CP member, the song cut straight to the heart of racial oppression in the U.S. Meerpol, writing under the name Lewis Allen, also composed “The House I Live In,” a plea for racial tolerance popularized by Frank Sinatra, who was close to the party when he first performed it. Besides winning recognition for his songs, Abel Meerpol was well known as the adoptive parent of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s children.

John Hammond, Talent Spotter

Holiday premiered “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, a Greenwich Village nightclub that was launched in 1938 by Barney Josephson, who wanted to create an alternative to the snobbery and racism that pervaded uptown clubs. His brother Leon, who worked there, was a party member – and a participant in a plot to assassinate Hitler! Helen Lawrenson, the club’s publicist, maintains that Earl Browder came up with the idea of the club as a way to raise money for the CP.

When Josephson ran low on start-up funds, bandleader Benny Goodman and Columbia Records executive John Hammond each put up $5,000 to help make Café Society a reality. Although John Hammond was never a member of the Communist Party, he was probably the best-known left-wing figure in the jazz community of the 1930s and ’40s. As a record producer, a Nation magazine contributor and a board member of the NAACP, he fought against segregation both within the jazz world and in American society as a whole. In addition, he was instrumental in developing the careers of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and a host of other jazz musicians, many of whom – including these two – became friends of the Left. For an introduction to John Hammond’s legacy that emphasizes his important accomplishments, we can turn to the chapter in Lewis A. Erenberg’s Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture entitled “Swing Left: The Politics of Race and Culture in the Swing Era.” Erenberg writes:

“Goodman’s phenomenal success validated Hammond as a talent spotter, and music industry executives had to pay attention. As a jazz devotee and a cultural radical, however, Hammond was primarily interested in promoting Negro performers who ‘could not get a break because of their race.’ He was Teddy Wilson’s major backer during the 1930s, but he also went out of his way to push the Basie band. After hearing Basie on his powerful car radio, Hammond drove to Kansas City to hear the band in person, and then publicized it endlessly in his Down Beat columns and among his many musical connections. It was the Basie band’s ‘un-buttoned, never-too-disciplined’ style that attracted Hammond. He interpreted it as an ‘authentic’ black band, unlike Duke Ellington’s ‘show band,’ which, he believed, had lost touch with its blues roots.”

The John Hammond-Duke Ellington Rift

To get the full dimensions of the Hammond-Ellington rift, we need to consult David W. Stowe’s Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America. In chapter two, entitled “Between Conjure and Capital,” there is a detailed account of the polemics that took place between the highly regarded band leader and the leftist jazz producer and critic. Hammond had fired the first shot in 1935 with an article in Down Beatt entitled “The Tragedy of Duke Ellington, the ‘Black Prince of Jazz’: A Musician of Great Talent Forsakes Simplicity for Pretension.” He saw Ellington as the musical equivalent of a Black bourgeoisie that had distanced itself from its people: “It would probably take a Granville Hicks or a Langston Hughes to describe the way that he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped on his people and his original class.”

In a very real sense, the tensions between the incipient Black nationalist Duke Ellington and the integrationist Hammond prefigure those that would take place years later between LeRoi Jones and Roy Wilkins. There was far more “Afrocentrism” in Ellington’s music than in any other swing band of the 1930s. Ellington wrote a homage to Ethiopia entitled “Menelik, King of Judah” that was not unlike those found in reggae. He also wrote an all-black musical called Jump for Joy (subtitled A Sun-Tanned Revu-sical) that, according to Ellington, was intended “to take Uncle Tom out of the theatre, eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway, and say things that would make the audience think.”

Indeed, one can easily see the influence of Ellington on Charles Mingus, perhaps modern jazz’s best-known Black radical. His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, contains bitter denunciations of white racism and the struggle to achieve dignity and success in the white-controlled jazz business. It ranks with the autobiography of Malcolm X, and other classics. Like Ellington, Mingus sought to elevate the status of Black people in his music, but with even more of a political edge. Although Mingus started out understandably as a desegregationist in the 1950s, his music and his ideology moved in a more nationalist direction in later years in harmony with broader trends in the Black community.

Black Nationalism vs. Integrationism

Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus” in 1959 to protest Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus’s decision to call out the National Guard two years earlier to prevent the integration by Little Rock Central High School of nine African-American teenagers. The song was first recorded on the 1959 album Mingus Ah Um *, but Columbia Records deemed it too controversial for release. It was not until 1960 that Mingus was able to release the lyrics on the album *Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, released by the more independent Candid label:

Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your evil plan)

Of course, one might wonder why Columbia Records might have refused to allow these words to be heard, given the fact that John Hammond virtually ran the jazz division. This opens the door to more recent criticisms of Hammond that have questioned both his commitment to Black rights and, just as important, his dealings with Black musicians as a corporation chief. Frank Kofsky, author of John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s, a book that makes the occasionally overstated case that Coltrane’s music expressed Black nationalist sentiments, deals with the question in Black Music, White Business. Kofsky writes that the “tangled relationship of John Hammond and Columbia Records and Bessie Smith” illustrates the political economy of white domination of black music. He also writes:

“The first and most important point to emphasize is that, as author Chris Albertson reveals in his biography of Bessie Smith, Hammond signed the singer to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave her a small, fixed fee for each performance she recorded and no royalties. Such contracts were apparently standard practice with the executive, for Billie Holiday unequivocally stated in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: ‘Later on John Hammond paired me up with Teddy Wilson and his band for another record session. This time I got thirty bucks for making half a dozen sides.’ What is more, when she protested about this arrangement, it was, according to her, a Columbia executive named Bernie Hanighen – and not John Hammond – ‘who really went to bat for me’ and ‘almost lost his job at Columbia fighting for me.’”

Hammond and Billie Holiday

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a full assessment of Hammond’s role in jazz, suffice it to say that he never broke completely with his class. Consider how he advised a family friend to shun Billie Holiday in his memoir, On Record:

“I couldn’t wait to bring Billie Holiday to Café Society. It was the perfect place for her to sing to a new audience with the kind of jazz players who brought out her best. Unfortunately, her appearances were not the success they could have been, and they proved to be the end of my association with Billie’s career. She was heavily involved with narcotics, and she had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.

“It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the manager’s family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Café Society again.”

Political Bebop

After the decline of the big-band era, bebop surfaced as a trend that at first blush seemed to be a retreat from the engaged politics of the 1930s. The small groups that played such adventurous works as “Bloomdido” or “Groovin’ High” never seemed to take up the big issues of peace and racism that the previous generation had, nor did they seem particularly interested in whether you could jitterbug to them. While this is true on one level, on another the bebop musicians were pioneering a new kind of identity that refused to cede an inch to the “entertainment” expectations of largely white audiences. Except for Dizzy Gillespie, these musicians had broken completely with the almost minstrel-like aspects of bandleaders like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Their music was based on expressions of Black independence and pride.

In What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians, Eric Porter writes:

“The politics of bebop’s style reflected this broader ethos, as intellectual practice and sartorial display coincided for musicians and their audiences. Although Eric Lott’s assessment of bebop essentially describes three cohesive and rather narrowly defined cultural and aesthetic politics, his description of bebop’s ‘style’ calls attention to the way musicians and fans alike engaged in serious mental endeavours that responded to the world around them. ‘Bebop,’ he writes ‘was about making disciplined imagination alive and answerable to the social change of its time,’ and the style ‘was where social responsiveness became individual expression, where the pleasures of shared identity met an intolerance for racist jive.’ Beboppers and their fans even adopted the personae of intellectuals; goatees, berets and horned-rimmed glasses became the uniform of the subculture. The adoption of this regalia of the intelligentsia not only distanced musicians from the mainstream but also challenged racist ideologies that were based in part on a belief in African American mental inferiority. We may also understand bebop style as a signifier of musicians’ collective search for a better understanding of music theory and the world around them.”

In no short time at all, bebop was superseded by “hard bop.” This style retained the rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness of bebop, but married it to an explicit Black identity that more often than not saw itself as an adjunct of the struggle for equality. Artists like Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan sought to give expression to the Soul of Black Folks, as W.E.B. Du Bois would put it in the title of his book.

Later on, the best of hard bop was integrated into the “New Thing” – avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. This hard-edged and often dissonant style was the artistic counterpart of the urban rebellions and the resistance to the Vietnam War. Music and politics were merged seamlessly in the recordings of Archie Shepp, an outspoken Black nationalist who recorded one explicitly political album after another from 1965 on, and who is still going strong.

This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Fighting Harper).


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