Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa

Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa

Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa

Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa

Synopsis

An insightful examination of the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and African Independence on jazz in the 1950s and 60s, Freedom Sounds traces the complex relationships among music, politics, aesthetics, and activism through the lens of the hot button racial and economic issues of the time. Ingrid Monson illustrates how the contentious and soul-searching debates in the Civil Rights, African Independence, and Black Power movements shaped aesthetic debates and exerted a moral pressure on musicians to take action. Throughout, her arguments show how jazz musicians' quest for self-determination as artists and human beings also led to fascinating and far reaching musical explorations and a lasting ethos of social critique and transcendence. Across a broad body of issues of cultural and political relevance, Freedom Sounds considers the discursive, structural, and practical aspects of life in the jazz world in the 1950s and 1960s. In domestic politics, Monson explores the desegregation of the American Federation of Musicians, the politics of playing to segregated performance venues in the 1950s, the participation of jazz musicians in benefit concerts, and strategies of economic empowerment. Issues of transatlantic importance such as the effects of anti-colonialism and African nationalism on the politics and aesthetics of the music are also examined, from Paul Robeson's interest in Africa, to the State Department jazz tours, to the interaction of jazz musicians such Art Blakey and Randy Weston with African and African diasporic aesthetics. Monson deftly explores musicians' aesthetic agency in synthesizing influential forms of musical expression from a multiplicity of stylistic and cultural influences--African American music, popular song, classical music, African diasporic aesthetics, and other world musics--through examples from cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and the avant-garde. By considering the differences between aesthetic and socio-economic mobility, she presents a fresh interpretation of debates over cultural ownership, racism, reverse racism, and authenticity. Freedom Sounds will be avidly read by students and academics in musicology, ethnomusicology, anthropology, popular music, African American Studies, and African diasporic studies, as well as fans of jazz, hip hop, and African American music.

Excerpt

Outraged by the television images of white mobs and Arkansas National Guardsmen blocking the enrollment of nine African American students in Little Rock's Central High School in September 1957, Louis Armstrong called a reporter while on tour in Grand Forks, North Dakota, then sounded off on racial injustice: “My people—the Negroes— are not looking for anything—we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting and cursing at a little colored girl—I think I have a right to get sore—and say something about it.” Armstrong criticized President Eisenhower for his foot-dragging during the crisis, described Governor Orval Faubus as an “uneducated plowboy,” and withdrew in protest from a planned State Department tour of the Soviet Union. “The people over there ask me what's wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say? The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

Armstrong was widely praised for his outspokenness by several fellow performers and public figures including Jackie Robinson, Eartha Kitt, and Pearl Bailey. In jazz circles, however, many musicians were surprised because Armstrong was not known for his political militancy, but rather for his tendency toward an accommodating onstage persona. This political outspokenness, which was something new for Armstrong, occurred a few months after he had been publicly criticized in the African American press—along with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole—for continuing to accept engagements at segregated theaters. Armstrong probably realized that he did not need the State Department to be an ambassador for jazz, since in May 1956 he had made a wildly successful visit to the Gold Coast . . .

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