Importance of Jazz

In America music has a tremendous influence on culture. Many immigrants brought their culture to America with them. Jazz music has a direct correlation with African Americans and their culture from Africa and became intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement. During the Civil Rights Movement African Americans were being treated unfairly. Many African Americans joined movements such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and more to help fight injustice. Others started to perform Jazz. African Americans would start gathering to listen to these musicians perform. Through the music many of the performers would sing about what was happening around the Civil Rights Movement such as social injustice and racial equality. A famous couple that performed together were John and Alice Coltrane, who were known for bringing up what was happening around the world at the time. The white community has always been against the African Americans’ music ever since they started playing music while working on the fields. That never stopped the African Americans from doing what they love. Being derived from the Blues, Jazz was performed in various settings and places. Jazz brought the black and white communities closer as they had something in common, their music. Jazz helped many African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement by motivating them and bringing them all together during performances with positivity. Jazz is an important part of the Civil Rights Movement, it impacted many African Americans, influenced white musicians, and helped African Americans in society.

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African Americans had it hard with music from the moment they came to America. African slaves used drumming and singing as a type of communication to the gods. While working in the fields they began to drum and sing work songs which was then later banned. When they would sing the work songs, they sang to the gods to help the crops grow. They would usually sing in African languages, so their masters did not know what they were saying. In effect to them praying to the gods, References to the gods or religions of Africa were suppressed by the white masters as soon as they realized what these were. The whites soon learned that too constant evocation of the African gods could mean that those particular Africans were planning on leaving the plantation as soon as they could! (Jones 19). Whites saw African religion as barbarous. Soon after they banned the drumming because they saw it as a form of revolt. Although African Americans began drumming in different ways such as clapping the hands and tapping the feet a technique known as pattin’ juba. Without African Americans there would be no African culture, the African Americans also brought the Blues which then transitioned into Jazz to America.

The Blues and Jazz have many similarities because Jazz derived from the Blues, although Jazz is harder to define because it is a broader genre than the Blues. Certain aspects of the Blues derived from slavery, which would soon form the path the blues would take. In fact, the freedom of slaves had a great positive impact on the African Americans through the Reconstruction Era. It was during this period that the overthrowing of African Americans rights as new citizens caused organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, Men of Justice, and Pale Faces started to appear and revolt. These organizations primarily consisted of disenfranchised poor white men, their ways eventually caused the more uneducated African Americans to accept the idea of segregation to be the last option for them to continue living in the white South. These events eventually lead to African Americans gaining more status in America, even at its worst according to LeRoi Jones this idea was taken to be too Negroid (Jones 58). This caused churches of color to start using more white church music as they could, while white churches housed more traditional music and the choir will sing Bach or Handel during certain holidays. Colored churches were known to house more soulful lyrics in their music. These soulful lyrics began the development of the Blues, a type of music which was the most impressive reminder for these people of slavery and of their less cultivated brothers (Jones 59). At the time, shouts, chants, or even hollers receiving the same treatment as if it were considered blues music. Instrumental blues, otherwise known as Jazz music has been hard to originate due to the fact it could not have existed without blues as the blues has become a way of playing Jazz although the times or origins were fairly spread apart.

Jazz is a type of music originated by African Americans in the late 19th century. Jazz has been symbolically linked to the Civil Rights Movement helping African Americans speak through it. It was a classical way for African Americans to perform in front of the white audience and explain what they are going through. For example, in What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue? lyrics from a popular musical, include My only sin/ Is in my skin/ What did I do/ To be so Black and Blue. by Louis Armstrong. The lyrics, out of the context of the show and sung by a black performer in that period, were a risky and weighty commentary (Verity), because it brought the violence of racism to the forefront of society. This is significant because it shows the ideas of implementing various injustices, in the songs and lyrics to help inspire other artists. Explaining through the music to the white listeners the racial issues that were occurring during that time. Through Jazz it was a way that the performers were judged on their performance not on the color of their skin. Many of the African American Jazz performers were outspoken activist and they could speak through their music, not only directly to other African Americans but to the white community as well. Jazz to an African American listener is much more meaningful than Jazz to a white listener. When the musicians would perform about equality and injustice the African American listeners were living through the same issues.

Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement had a very similar upbringing. Although both the civil rights and Jazz were happening for a while they both hit their peak around the 1950s. The birth of the civil rights began with the death of slavery, while the birth of Jazz becoming as popular as it was being an effect of the civil rights. The pre-civil rights movement lead to the full-fledged Civil Rights Movement, whereas pre-jazz lead to the development of the Jazz genre. Because most of the musical influences on early Jazz age are old Negro spirituals and plantation folk song and dance music, the fact that the pre-jazz and early Jazz age coincided with the pre-civil rights movement becomes increasingly more sufficient. (Tyle). This was significant because it started the progression of African American art and presence in society. While both pre-jazz and pre-civil rights were created into full movements, the civil rights came to an end. The Civil Rights Movement came to an end with the end of segregation. Jazz never came to an end and is still commonly listened to and performed. The meanings from the performers during the Civil Rights Movement have much more value than the Jazz that is played today.

There were many performers of Jazz during the Civil Rights Movement. As mentioned above many were outspoken activists, but the known activists that were Jazz performers touched many more people. The Coltrane’s were well known activists during the Civil Rights Movement and being musically inclined helped them touch a much wider range of people. John Coltrane was a very spiritual man, and he believed that his music was a way to message a much higher power. As Alice Coltrane said Of course John Coltrane is the one who inspires everybody, if you were fortunate enough to be in his presence in those days. He would always encourage you to fully express what you had (Berkmen 43). He not only was an inspiration to civil rights activist but also to other musicians. He was a strong believer in fighting for what you believe in. A well-known song that John Coltrane wrote in 1963 was Alabama this was his greatest contribution to the civil rights movement. The lyrics were inspired by Martin Luther King’s funeral speech and left a lasting impression on Coltrane. He used this inspiration to highlight the racial issues and segregation through the words of his song. This is important because it shows how Jazz was used as a tool to create a greater understanding of temporary issues through music. Louis Armstrong, another African American Jazz musician, was the Uncle Tom of Jazz meaning his audience were mostly white folks. His lyrics were related to the Jim Crow Laws and how he was against them and the white would listen. African Americans were not the only people performing Jazz, white people began to perform too.

LeRoi Jones explains that the whites started picking up Jazz and how The Negro had created a music that offered such a profound reflection of America that it could attract white Americans to want to play it or listen to it. (Jones 149). White Americans began picking up Jazz and performing as well and were often referred to as White Jazz. This created a common cultural ground between the black and the white communities performing different styles of divergent cultures. Many white musicians from Chicago started performing Jazz in their own way calling it Chicago Jazz. According to Jones the entrance of the white man into Jazz at this level of sincerity and emotional legitimacy did at least bring him, by implication, much closer to the Negro. The musical debt to Negro music had to be understood (Jones 151), meaning that through playing Jazz it brought whites closer to blacks. Although the Jazz played by white people was not the same as the Jazz played by African Americans, white Jazz musicians did have the same cultural circumstances, making Jazz a learned art. The Blues had very little weight on white American culture which shows in the difference of Jazz performed between the whites and blacks. Being an important part of Jazz, they must have the attitude from the blues, which is consistent in the making of Jazz. The trumpets of Bix Beiderbecke, a white Jazz musician, and Louis Armstrong were very different. The white middle-class boy from Iowa was the product of a culture which could place Louis Armstrong but could never understand him (Jones 154). This means Bix could play Louis’ songs in a different way because he was never able to understand the underlying rhythm of the Blues within the Jazz songs. Even though the Jazz of a white man and a black man were similar they were never the same. Black Jazz greatly impacted the society of many African American lives whereas whites just played it for fun.

During the Civil Rights Movement Jazz helped the African American society in many positive ways. Music is essential to the African American experience in the United States because that is their cultural background. Facing racial discrimination, racism, and segregation they always felt comfort in their music even when African Americans first arrived to America. The passion to change society came from many forms of anger and grief all being transformed into positive motivation for change. Most of the songs represented the struggles the African Americans faced and listening to the songs created a bond between the community. The music was an uplifting encouragement to the African Americans fight for freedom like, Alabama by John Coltrane. Many black Jazz musicians perform an improvisation of their music speaking straight from the soul, which was a unique style of African American Jazz. The history of Jazz proves that African Americans were the creators of Jazz which is a major accomplishment for blacks. According to Wheaten, being an inventor is a job not to entertain, but rather, to make the listener aware and to force the audience to confront often disturbing realities and hidden truths about themselves, their society and their world (Wheaten 143). Jazz created a sense of integration between blacks and whites within the industry. While discrimination and everything was still happening in the outside world within the Jazz community, musicians were considered as equal. Even though they created Jazz, commercial success of Jazz was only maintained by whites. Yet most white musicians did not have the ability to improvise Jazz and put their whole heart into it as the blacks did. Jazz and music in general was very important to the African Americans because it was a chance to escape from reality. Music brought families and friends together to have a goodtime during what was such an awful time.

Many people do not think of Jazz when talking about the Civil Rights Movement. Yet Jazz played such an important role in the lives of many African Americans. They had a huge musical background in Africa and this developed into their culture in America. while finding new ways to sing and dance after being banned, to creating an entire genre of music. Jazz was a way of fighting back through the lyrics, speaking out, and explaining what they were going through. The Blues were also an important part of the creation of Jazz, considering that is where Jazz originated. Many African American Jazz performers are influenced by the Blues. With Jazz becoming so popular, artist such as John Coltrane, began using famous speeches as inspiration. Many activists would listen to the music and be inspired to keep fighting for their freedom. This was the goal of many of the songs: to speak out and talk about what was happening. Some Jazz musicians performed primarily for white audience and spoke of racial inequality in their lyrics. White people then began picking up on Jazz and started to perform as well, even though their Jazz did not compare to black Jazz. Black Jazz performer spoke through their music, whereas it was just a learned talent for whites. Jazz helped many blacks in society in positive ways. Where they performed their music, they were judged on their musical talent and not their skin color. Even though the Civil Rights Movement is over, Jazz continues to be played every day and is now considered as a classic music genre around the world.

Works Cited

  1. Berkmen, Franya J. American Studies. Appropriating Universality: The Coltranes and 1960s Spirituality Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring 2007), Pages 41-62.
  2. Gerard, C. (1998). Jazz in black and white: Race, culture, and identity in the jazz community.
  3. Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: William Morrow, 1963.
  4. Tyle, Chris. Jazz History: The Standards (1930s), www.jazzstandards.com/history/
  5. Verity, Michael. How Jazz Helped Fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Thoughtco., Thoughtco, www.thoughtco.com/jazz-and-the-civil-rights-movement-2039542.
  6. Wheaton, J. (1994). All that jazz! New York: Ardsley House
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Importance of Jazz. (2019, Jul 30). Retrieved January 29, 2022 , from
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