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New Jazz and The Civil Rights Movement

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In the middle of the 20th century, in the face of moral travesties like lynching, segregation, and a lack of Black power, Black jazz musicians began to create something that truly proved their undeniable technical skill, depth of artistic knowledge, and overall passion for an art form that they developed: Bebop. In the 1950’s, the bebop style of jazz was the most popular and innovative music happening – one of the first moments in American history where Black artists (such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington) were at the center of artistic attention. Soon the crowds of happy bebop fans would watch as a completely different form of expression began to emerge, one that matched a complex new era. In the 1960s, politicians and social unrest were causing Black Americans to completely rethink their position in society, and the way that they should be able to integrate within it.

Much of the social development of Blacks from the late 1950’s through the 1960’s focused on respecting Black personhood. Appropriately, jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman started to rethink the time, harmony, and space of bebop, creating a new introspective sound that was less about what they played and more about what they had to say. They were transforming from “performing artists” to “artists,” entitled to the same respect as great painters or writers. As Black political leaders started to make progress in breaking the shackles of oppression, Black jazz musicians started to use jazz as more than music; their work became a presentation to Whites that they were going to express themselves freely and radically beyond the template of bebop. This “New Jazz” or “Free Jazz,” unlike bebop, integrated dissonant non-harmonic tones, greatly unconventional rhythms, and a far clearer reflection of the players’ souls and emotions beyond merely their fundamental skills. This emerging music served as an alarm clock that signified the end of African American appeasement and their insistence on expressing their humanity, mirroring the same era’s political revolution. A new age of freedom was coming with this music. 

During the bebop era, Black Americans and jazz musicians believed that their music had been co-opted by Whites, and that they weren’t making any money, because the White record label owners were keeping all the proceeds from record sales. The situation was summarized by saxophonist Archie Shepp – “you own the music and we make it.” Black musicians argued that they were blazing the trail of innovation and creativity and working very hard to do so. Meanwhile, White-owned record labels collected and kept all the money. Frank Kofsky, Trotskyist, historian, and jazz writer explained:

“The artistry of the jazz musician operates primarily to enrich not its possessor, but those white executives who own and/or manage the means of production and distribution within the political economy of jazz; and the decisions of such owners and managers, particularly the ones involved in the recording industry, are absolutely crucial in determining both the total amount of employment for black musicians and which specific musicians will be granted access to it.”

This experience was personally described by Ornette Coleman as, “Here I am being used as a Negro who can play jazz, and all the people I recorded for and worked for act as if they own me and my product. They have been guilty of making me believe I shouldn’t have the profits from my product simply because they won the channels of production.” The language Coleman uses is highly political with words like channels of production. It even seems to give off a Marxist vibe, which isn’t likely an accident due to the point he is trying to make. This notion is further expanded by Kofsky who, in 1970, stated that Whites owned the “major economic institutions of the jazz world – the booking agencies, recording companies, nightclubs, festivals, magazines, radio stations, etc. Blacks own nothing but their own talent.” The White executives of the bebop era had an easy time ripping off these amazing musicians, due to the fact that there were young, skilled musicians in mass numbers waiting to fill any open space on a recording or gig. But when jazz shifted from prepackaged bands to individual artists with something completely genuine and authentic to say, the power began to even out – unlike firing a difficult but faceless member of a band, firing a star artist was impossible for executives without major financial consequences. 

The disparity between the financial success of White jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and his Black jazz contemporaries has been a point of controversy among jazz musicians and critics. In 1954, Time magazine ran a cover photo of Dave Brubeck and a story on a “new kind of jazz age” that omitted the contributions of Black musicians and suggested that Brubeck and other White musicians were an improvement over the earlier Black, immoral jazz musicians. The Time article also reported that in 1954, Brubeck would earn $100,000 while equally accomplished, talented Black jazz musicians could barely pay the rent. This is reminiscent, in some ways, of slavery: with Whites profiting hugely in the economically fertile waters of their slaves’ blood, sweat, and tears. But instead of slaves harvesting cotton, jazz musicians reaped new zeniths of creativity and spilled their souls on a canvas of harmonies and rhythms and gave it to the Whites without demanding a fair monetary reward. 

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King led the march on Washington and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of over 200,000. Eighteen days later, a bomb exploded in a church in Birmingham and four young Black girls were killed. Americans watched the police in Birmingham, Alabama blast Black children with high-powered water hoses. Television screens brought White racist acts of violence and statements of hate into Americans living rooms and made Americans face the harsh reality of the discrimination faced by Black Americans. In February of 1965, Malcom X, the most influential spokesman for Black Power, pride in the Black race, and Black independence though separation from Whites, was assassinated. In August of 1965, the Los Angeles riots in Watts broke out. There was looting and firebombing of shops, thirty -four people were killed and thousands arrested. Blacks were expressing the hypocrisy in the U.S. government’s focus on the anti-colonialism struggles of Vietnam, while ignoring the struggles of the freedom movement at home. Kofsky points out, “could there be anything more transparently absurd that the contention that the government of the United States is fighting for the freedom and democratic rights of the non-white population in Vietnam, when it permits those identical rights to be violated with impunity by any KKK redneck who takes it into his head to raise his status among his peers by ‘getting him a nigger’?”.

Inescapably, the frustration of Black Americans was coming to the forefront. The volatility of the times, whether consciously or unconsciously, infiltrated into the music of the New Jazz pioneers, Coltrane, Coleman and Taylor, musicians who broke from the predictable barriers of bebop, and its imitative hard bop, that jazz musicians had accepted, and connected their music to the energy initiated by the Civil Rights Movement. As noted by jazz historian A.B. Spellman, Coltrane, Taylor and Coleman were working on separate, but interrelated, principals. In a May 7, 2000 interview with Shipton, drummer Rashied Ali explained how this period was viewed from within Coltrane’s group of associates: “Those were the trying times of the 60s. We had the civil rights thing going on, we had King, we had Malcolm, we had the Panthers. There was so much diversity happening. People were screaming for their rights and wanting to be equal, free. And naturally, the music reflects that whole period . . . that whole time definitely influenced the way we played. I think that’s where that really free form came into it. Everybody wanting to get from the rigid thing, away from what was happening before; they wanted to relate to what was happening now, and I’m sure that music came out of that whole thing.”

Coleman’s main contribution to jazz may be said to be rhythmic, even though there has been considerable discussion of his tonality. Coltrane’s is harmonic, setting, as he does, his wildest explorations against definite chordal patterns. Taylor is involved with the construction and the organization of sound. The unique production of musical brilliance being created by these musicians was astonishing. They were constantly embellishing upon each other’s innovations by creating an extremely alive and improving organism.

Of all the Free Jazz artists, it was John Coltrane and his music that initially guided and had the most profound and lasting effect on the movement and his fellow New Jazz musicians. “Where the music of John Coltrane is concerned there is never any argument. He was, simply, a giant.” Jazz historians have debated and made assumptions regarding the conscious social or political intentions Coltrane was trying to communicate with his music. His album, A Love Supreme, which is regarded by many as the greatest jazz recording, presents a message of universal love and was released in 1965 when the Vietnam War was beginning to escalate. When asked about the Vietnam War, he said, “I am opposed to war; therefore I am opposed to the Vietnam war. I think all wars should be stopped.” Coltrane’s works after A Love Supreme, particularly Ascension, were perceived as more closely related to the racial unrest of the times and the Black political movement. Ascension conveyed a political statement to jazz critics and Black activists because the music sounded so different and because of the musicians on the album, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown. Coltrane, unlike many of the more vocal Free Jazz musicians did not publicly share his political opinions and beliefs. In a 1966 interview with Coltrane, Kofsky asks if there is a relationship between the Black community, Malcolm X’s ideas and the “new music.” Wilmer quotes saxophonist Albert Ayler, “John was like a visitor to this planet. He came in peace and he left in peace; but during his time here, he kept trying to reach new levels of awareness, of peace, of spirituality. That’s why I regard the music he played as spiritual music – John’s way of getting closer and closer to the Creator” and Archie Shepp, “I believe John’s death has drawn us, as musicians, closer together, has brought us closer to a kind of unity. This is the way we must assess a great man. Well, I think it’s up to the individual musician, call it what you may, for any reason you may. Myself, I recognize the artist. I recognize an individual when I see his contribution; and when I know a man’s sound, well, to me that’s him, that’s this man. That’s the way I look at it. Labels, I don’t bother with.’ Instead of political speech, Coltrane used his saxophone to respond to the political times.

When new forms of more free, intense and rule breaking jazz started to rise, Black musicians including Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk started to use politically intentional music to address important issues including racism, segregation, the Vietnam War and the mobilization efforts of the Black community under the signs of “Black Power.”

An example is Charlie Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” originally recorded for the 1959 album Mingus Ah Um, which ridiculed Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus for attempting to prevent desegregation Little Rock public schools. The “Fables of Faubus” lyrics, which refer to the Governor as a Klu Klux Klan Nazi fascist, were considered too controversial and censored by Columbia records. It was not until the 1960 album, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, that the recording with lyrics was released. The mocking and searing lyrics end with a school-yard chant, similar to the chants used by segregationalists in their political culture. According to Scott Saul, “Fables of Faubus” attacks the segregationalists: “not by blinding them with virtuosity (the solution of bebop), but by stumping them with a professionalism so solid that it knew the virtues of an amateur.” This was a very moving and compelling case of a jazz musician using his music to speak out and protest racism and segregation. 

Drummer Max Roach was another free jazz musician who used music to address political and racial issues. Inspired by the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth store (as depicted on the album cover) and the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, Roach accelerated recording an album he was working on with singers-songwriters Oscar Brown and Abbey Lincoln, for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, released in 1960, includes five selections including the heavy and spiritual song, ”Driva’man,” on the theme of the urgency of the struggle of Blacks to achieve equality in America. Abbey Lincoln’s screaming vocals on the song, Protest evoke the emotions felt from the slave fields to the police brutality exerted on King’s non-violent protestors as viewed by Americans in black and white on their modern television sets. Both Mingus and Roach name Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as their inspiration for their protest songs. Mingus said, “that’s when I changed my idea of a song telling a story. That music is here to tell the white world the wrongs they done in race.”

In addition to the radically free jazz and politically inspired lyrics, liner notes to the free jazz albums and essays presented the opportunity to articulate the influences, beliefs and opinions held by the artists. For example, the liner notes to Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland, written by LeRoi Jones, eloquently offer a connection between Coltrane’s tune, “Alabama” and the racist struggles endured by southern Blacks. Coltrane wrote “Alabama” as a eulogy for the young girls that were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. The liner notes to We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, written by jazz critic Nat Hentoff, emphasize the connection between the music and the civil rights movement. 

“If you have heard Slow Dance or After The Rain, then you might be prepared for the kind of feeling that Alabama carries. I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly. And that’s what Trane does. Bob Thiele asked Trane if the title “had any significance to today’s problems.” I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” Which is to say, Listen. And what we’re given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin, rising in the background like something out of nature … a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, in these musicians’ feelings. If that “real” Alabama was the catalyst, more power to it, and may it be this beautiful, even in its destruction. 

As this chain reaction among civil rights, Black Power leaders and jazz musicians continued to take off, Free Jazz musicians were more vocal in their connection of their music to racial inequality. In a December 16, 1965 essay for Down Beat magazine, entitled, “An Artist Speaks Bluntly,” Archie Shepp asked, “Don’t you ever wonder just what my collective rage will – as it surely must – be like, when it is – as it inevitably will be – unleashed? Our vindication will be black as the color of suffering is black, as Fidel is black, as Ho Chi Minh is black.” Shepp’s 1965 album, Fire Music, includes “Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm” which combined poetry and music in a eulogy for Malcolm X. However, while many historians have linked the “uncompromising and aggressive nature” of free jazz as reflecting “the fury and anger rumbling in the ghetto,” it is not true to say that every free jazz innovator was especially politicized. The separatist statements of Malcom X, the Black Nationalist philosophies and the progression from non-violent protests to violent urban riots alarmed Whites and may have resulted in their loss of willingness to check out or appreciate Free Jazz music. In a 1965 interview with LeRoi Jones, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, who would continue to speak out on racial injustice, said, “The Negro musician is a reflection of the Negro people as a social and cultural phenomenon. His purpose ought to be to liberate America aesthetically and socially from its inhumanity. The inhumanity of the white American to the black American as well as the inhumanity of the white American to the white American is not basic to America and can be exorcised, gotten out. I think the Negro people through the force of their struggles are the only hope of saving America, the political or the cultural America.” 

Undoubtedly, the motive of jazz musicians changed dramatically from making a living by showing your skills compared to other musicians during the bebop era, to showing who you were and what you had to say during the New Jazz era. Every musician during this prolific era of New Jazz brought his or her own, extremely personal style and musical identification to the table. These musicians had one thing in common, they were not afraid to say what they had to say, and professed their thirst for freedom as freely as they desired. They were part of a artist and activists who saw problems with the world they lived in, and didn’t just call out the problems, but dedicated their lives, and applied their skill sets to try and fix them.

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