Jazz and the Civil Rights Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Surrounded by the same anti-African-American culture, both civil rights warriors and jazz pioneers faced criticism because of their association with African-Americans. Similarly, both of the movements were founded out of a desire to legitimate, or at least include, African-American contributions into American culture, to popularize the importance of African-Americans in Western, especially American, society. Finally, after their pre and early stages, both the civil rights and jazz movements blossomed into full-fledged societal revolutions of the 1940s and 1950s with significant implications for the sociological, cultural, and music worlds. The Civil Rights movement produced leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King who not only advocated the importance of African-American contributions to society, but who also suggested the importance of the unification of all races across national boundaries. In much the same way, the jazz movement produced emotional music that blended African-American and traditional American music styles, producing a genre of music that has won the acclaim of those from varied ethnic backgrounds and is now viewed with sophistication as one of the most popular music genres of today. Similarly, the early connection between jazz and the civil rights movement made it possible for jazz to bloom during the 1950s. it's sense of unification and civil rights implications made it the perfect type of music for weary soldiers to dance to during WWII, as Japanese internment camps and the treatment of African-Americans had many questioning American society. Producing superstars like Miles Davis, who is still considered one of the greatest American pop and jazz stars of all times, the combination of jazz and civil rights suggested the similarity among all types of people -- African-American, Japanese, and American. Thus, through the pre, early, and mature stages of the civil rights and jazz movements, the issue of race relations, equality, and unity were explored in a romantic way that seemed to follow the emotive rises and fall of the music itself -- leading significant and bloomed movements of the 1940s and 1950s.

Famous Jazz Musicians

While characteristics of the jazz movement resembled characteristics of the civil rights movement, connecting the two in their drive for artistic and societal equality, jazz also allowed for young, African-American men and women to embrace the opportunities that the civil rights movement would bring almost half a century earlier. The case of Miles Davis, one of the most popular jazz stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has already been explored. But like the connection between the movements, it is the early jazz musicians that set the stage for the superstars of the 1940s and 1950s and the opportunities they enjoyed.

The recipients of higher education and training in a variety of fields, even the most intelligent of professional African-Americans were often overlooked for prestigious positions within their field in the early to mid 1900s -- a situation made tangible by Ernest J. Gains description of the young teacher in his powerful novel a Lesson Before Dying. The advent of jazz, however, created a new opportunity for these men. Jazz enabled young, African-American artists to not only excel in a field in which they were praised, but also to become heroes and celebrities in both the African-American and mainstream media communities. While jazz made it possible for many African-American men and women to attain success and make contributions to society, two early jazz musicians -- Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong -- are excellent examples of this point.

Although Charlie Parker's story certainly does not sound like a paradigm of success and opportunity, the short-lived fame that the jazz horn player experienced allowed for the inspiration of many. In fact, Kansas City, Missouri, an area that was historically hostile to African-Americans now boasts a large statue of the singer, and the jazz legacy considers the "Yardbird" to be one of the most monumental musicians in its history and the father of bebop. The son of an alcoholic father who received his training from the high school band, Parker's means and circumstances were no different than those of most African-Americans in his position. This can be further seen by his shortcomings after beginning his early career. He left his wife and eventually died of drug and alcohol abuse. Regardless of the complications that came with struggling as an African-American during the 1930s, however, Parker is still remembered today as a pinnacle of the jazz genre, a father of bebop, and a worthy musician who was not well recognized in his career. Thus, while jazz did not prevent Parker from facing the same struggles as other young, African-Americans during his lifetime, it gave his life purpose and meaning, allowing him to be recognized on stage, and eventually allowing for his status as an African-American legend and master of music in the United States ("Charlie Parker").

One of Parker's musical inspirations, Louis Armstrong, made a similar connection between the jazz movement and the civil rights movement. Like many African-Americans during the turn of the century, Armstrong, born in 1901, was impoverished. Like Parker, Armstrong had his share of problems -- he was sent to reform school after using a gun at the age of twelve. From the age of fourteen to sixteen he worked a series of menial jobs, keeping up his spirits by listening to popular music and dreaming of someday making music. The young man even went so far as to make friends with the jazz musicians that he saw on stage at the clubs he enjoyed frequenting. One of them even served as his mentor, giving him the coronet that allowed him to play in a series of bands as a teenager and young adult. Eventually, he grew to such popularity that be began to record records with bands named after him -- Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Louis Armstrong and his Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra are just a few. During his lifetime, Armstrong was considered a hero among the African-American people, although he faced persecution from white members of the industry. Facing personal problems as well -- he was married and divorced several times -- Armstrong gave inspiration to many African-American jazz lovers both in the United States and abroad. His fame was monumental from an African-American man during the early 1900s, and his lifestyle and embodiment of what the civil rights movement would bring to all African-Americans after years of struggle ("Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong").

As just two examples of famous jazz musicians during the early 1900s, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong were not immune from the troubles endured by their fellow African-Americans during this tumultuous period of time. Both grew up in less than ideal circumstances, faced the frustration of poverty and crime, and were persecuted because of their color, but both were also able to attain fame and make a contribution in the world of jazz. Thus, jazz enabled young African-American men and women to understand the power of the civil rights movement before it was even in full swing.


With its swinging rhythms, soulful melodies, and inspiration based on African-American folk songs and dances, jazz's sound might certainly stand as a symbol for freedom from oppression. In addition to the style of jazz, however, the music had an impact on the civil rights movement in a much more tangible way. For instance, during the pre and early stages of the civil rights and jazz movements, both faced similar experiences as they made attempts to not only legitimize but also popularize African-American culture in the European-dominated United States. In the midst of lynching, harassment, and persecution, African-Americans and their supporters in both movements rallied and fought for the group's rights and art forms. Similarly, jazz allowed African-Americans, who saw the heroic jazz musicians, to experience the civil rights movement before it blossomed. Thus, while the full-fledged civil rights and jazz movements of the 1940s and 1950s certainly contributed to musical and social world, a connection between the events in their early years suggest that their motives complimented each other.

Works Cited

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Williams, Rachel. "Professor researches jazz and Civil Rights." The Arkansas Traveler. 1

January 2005: News.

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