How jazz/blues unified African Americans and fought oppression

  • Why was jazz so effective as an influential tool in civil rights movements?
  • How did the genre ultimately unify African Americans?
  • How did jazz get involved in civil rights issues?
  • What direct effects did jazz have on the civil rights movements?
  • How has jazz influenced modern day civil rights activists in music?
  • How were jazz musicians treated both in the business and in society?
Jazz came to life in the mid-late 1800's and since then its been symbolically and directly related to civil rights through the likes of famous artists such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane.

Jazz is unlike any other genre of music by nature and has motifs built on the feelings of the artist. This led to many artists fueling music with their hatred for the treatment of blacks in America. Possibly the greatest example of this use of aesthetics in music is Miles Davis's instrumental album Kind of Blue which incorporated many sad, depressing chords into the music which people interpreted civil rights issues.

Jazz was effective in its fight against discrimination due to the large majority of jazz musicians being African American. This led to many calling jazz "black music", a term used by people of any race.

With the genre being defined by many as "black music", Africans had something that was truly theirs and many jazz musicians embraced the fact. Artists like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus refused to play with white musicians as part of their protests. This black dominance in the genre helped to unify African Americans in America and even worldwide.

The genre slowly began to tackle the many problems that african americans faced in society through the lyrics in the music, where the music is played, and even through who was playing the music.

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday is one of the greatest examples of how themes of oppression and slavery/lynching was brought into music.

The lyrics read:

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

Nina Simone described the song as the first of its kind and helped generations after to come out and produce music in protest to lynchings and oppression. The song is still relevant today, with modern artists Kanye West sampling Simone's own version of the song.

Music tackling political issues exploded after "strange fruit" and many black jazz artists songs were inspired by racism which led to much of the music industry and much of society shunning these artists for their music. One large issue for jazz artists was that most clubs were anti-union which meant that the musicians were essentially on their own. Another issue with the lack of a union was that musicians were easy victim to predatory businessmen who could quite easily defraud the artists.

In society however, African American artists were acceptapted on a much larger scale, with almost every jazz listener enjoying the music, minus the many racists. Even people who were not avid fans of jazz would listen in support of their cause.

This widespread support for the genre brought it all the way to the steps of national monuments, where side by side with the worlds greatest civil rights activists musicians would perform. John Coltrane was famous for going to these events and soloing for hours on end in protest of racism throughout the country.

Overall jazz had a huge effect on civil rights both indirectly by popularizing ideas in their music and directly by protesting themselves in who they play with and where.

Created by Matthew Wiltshire on Feb. 22, 2017

American studies advanced block 2 gold


Inspirations for project:

'Kind of blue' -Miles Davis

'A love supreme' 'My favorite things' -John Coltrane

'Moanin'' -Charles Mingus

Created By
Matthew Wiltshire


Created with images by RuiBritto - "Miles Davis in Rio" • jokoPix - "miles davis musician trumpet" • exquisitur - "cdcovers/john coltrane/impressions.jpg" • WikiImages - "jazz musician trumpet" • cdrummbks - "slavery" • phenominam - "jazz" • vorsprung - "jazz steel upcycled"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.