By the mid-1960’s, John Coltrane was at the height of his career and already established as the guiding light of a new form of avant garde jazz that was upending traditional ideas of just what was jazz music. At the same time, huge cultural and political shifts were underway in the form of the civil rights movement, which sought to break down the existing social order. Evolving in parallel and informed by similar cultural and historical touchstones, the civil rights and avant garde jazz movements both informed and influenced each other.
Here’s the story of how John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and some jazz pioneers made their voices heard during the heat of the civil rights movement
1. Coltrane’s Alabama
In our recent episode, John Coltrane talked to interviewer Frank Kofsky about the power of music and how it could be used to interpret what was happening in the wider world. The two are talking in 1966, at the height of the civil rights era.
Coltrane had recently attended a speech by Malcolm X, and Kofsky asked him about the relationship between the thoughts espoused by the civil rights leader and Coltrane’s own music, to which Coltrane replied, “Well, I think music, being an expression of the human heart, of the human being, itself, does express just what is happening.”
Coltrane was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and shared many of Malcolm X’s views on black consciousness and Pan-Africanism which he incorporated into his music, but his most overt nod to the movement came in the song Alabama, written in response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four little girls.
2. Mingus responds to the Little Rock Nine
Charles Mingus’ 1959 album, Mingus Ah Um, contains a song meant as a damning rebuke of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’ treatment of the Little Rock Nine. The governor had called in the National Guard to try to prevent nine African-American students from entering a newly desegregated high school in Arkansas’ capitol city. Mingus’ record label, Columbia, felt the lyrics were too incendiary, so he released the full version of the song on a record for another label.
3. Norman Granz defies segregation laws
Active slightly earlier than the others on this list, Granz was not a musician but a concert promoter and record producer. In the 1950’s, Granz organized a popular touring show called “Jazz at the Philharmonic” that featured all-star performers like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Aiming specifically to target venues with segregated seating, Granz required promoters to guarantee that there would be no “colored” and “white” seating. He would even go around and take the signs down himself.
4. CORE shows at the Five Spot Cafe
In 1963, CORE – Congress of Racial Equality – organized two benefit shows at the Five Spot Cafe, a jazz venue in New York City. The gigs featured a host of prominent musicians and music journalists.
In the wake of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington and with the church bombing in Birmingham that killed 4 little girls only the month before, the benefit attracted a host of musicians like Ben Webster, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims in support of the organization, which, along with the NAACP and SNCC, was one of the leading civil rights groups at the time.
5. Nina Simone sings Mississippi Goddam at Carnagie Hall
In 1964 – Nina Simone got up in front of a lily white audience at Carnagie Hall and sings “Mississippi Goddam” – which starts off as a jaunty musical tune that the audience laughs along to, before it evolves into an documentation of racial inequality in the South. In the recording below, you can actually hear the atmosphere in the concert hall change as they realize the true intentions of the song.