How jazz has made its mark on America’s fight for human rights

From women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement to the Cold War and beyond, jazz was often right there on the front line in the fight for human rights — and to this day, artists are still carrying on that tradition.

Canadian journalist and radio producer Tom Jokinen took an in-depth look at the role of jazz in those struggles in the award-winning JAZZ.FM91 documentary series The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights. It’s a look at how the music — and the men and women who made the music — laid claim to human rights around the world.

It’s narrated by Toronto actor and singer Alana Bridgewater, who guides listeners through four episodes, each with its own focus: jazz’s role in the fight for civil rights, in economic rights and in women’s rights, and the music’s deployment around the world as a cultural weapon.

Funding for The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights series was provided by Maytree, which is committed to advancing systemic solutions to poverty and strengthening civic communities by taking a human rights approach.

Jokinen travelled throughout the U.S. to speak with artists like Sonny Rollins and Darius Brubeck, along with a number of jazz historians, to distill decades of history and music into this illuminating documentary.

Jokinen spoke to JAZZ.FM91 about how the project came together, what listeners can learn from it — and why it’s so important to acknowledge the struggles of the past as the root causes persist to this day.

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Mary Lou Williams
Credit: William P. Gottlieb

What made you take an interest in this project and want to do a deep dive into the subject?

The idea really appealed to me. I’m not an expert on jazz; I’m a radio producer and journalist. I don’t know about jazz in the way that JAZZ.FM91 listeners do, with that sort of deep knowledge. But I was always interested in the politics of jazz, especially around the time of the civil rights movement in the United States, because being steeped in popular culture and the music of that time, rock ‘n’ roll was not really engaged with what was going on politically in a really complicated, difficult and explosive time. Rock ‘n’ roll was about cars and girls, and popular crooner music was about romance. But jazz was, in a mostly instrumental way, engaging with what was happening on the ground. You had a school shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling to desegregate and allow black children to go to school in Little Rock, Ark. There was a big battle. These nine students showed up and they weren’t allowed to go to school. And this turned into a huge political battle between the governor and the President of the United States over whether a school in Arkansas should be told by Washington to allow black students to go to a white school. This just exploded. And then you had artists like Sonny Rollins, who released an album called Freedom Suite, in which he directly engaged with this crisis — that it’s time to allow people of colour to have the same rights as others. It sounds really basic now, but at the time, for a musician to take this issue on was unheard of. And only in jazz was this happening.

And you spoke with Sonny Rollins for the first episode of this series. What was that like?

This subject caught his attention because it matters to him. He was really interesting on growing up and having his grandmother take him to street protests in New York and hearing the words of W. E. B. Du Bois and getting active and understanding that there was inequality in the United States and that black people needed to have their voices heard. It was steeped in his understanding of the world. When he became active in the arts as a musician, it informed his writing at a time in the late ’50s when jazz was really experimenting with a different kind of musical storytelling, with bebop and hard bop and so on. It just made sense, he said, for people to understand that this was a black art form. He knew that people around the world listened to jazz to listen to what was going on in the United States, and he said people in the early part of the 20th century in Europe thought that the U.S. national anthem was the Saint Louis Blues, because jazz and America were so tied together. So it only made sense for black American voices to be heard through jazz.

Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington
Credit: Rowland Scherman

So can you walk through your approach to gathering all this history of human-rights battles and the music that was swept up in it, and distilling that into these four episodes?

There were some pieces that were obvious. Freedom Suite was one. John Coltrane wrote the song Alabama about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church … That was an anthem of the civil rights movement. Dave Brubeck had toured the Soviet Bloc in the ’50s, part of a State Department tour to promote American ideals around the world and human rights. And then it was fanning out from there and talking to people who have studied the history of jazz. There’s an amazing array of people all throughout the United States who studied the history of jazz and its direct connection to politics. I decided that it would make sense to travel to meet these people and talk to them.

John Coltrane
Credit: Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo

Is there anything from your research for this documentary that really stood out to you as being the most powerful, or interesting, or otherwise notable moments?

I’m a white guy. Jazz touches me in a way that it doesn’t for people for whom jazz was written, which is the African-American. I talked to a guy named Cuthbert O. Simpkins. He is a physician in Shreveport, La., and he grew up hearing jazz, and his parents and grandparents were also civil rights activists in the South at a time when Jim Crow laws meant that blacks kept to themselves and whites made sure that that was the case. So his family had to deal with burning crosses on their lawn. When it came to the ’70s and he was a medical student, he started listening to the music of John Coltrane — the late music that some people find really complicated and even inaccessible — and he became obsessed, because what he was hearing was a black artist colouring outside the lines, and saying things through music, and finding a form of freedom beyond what was allowed for African-Americans at the time. He decided, even though he wasn’t a writer, that he was going to write a biography of John Coltrane. He self-funded trips around the country to talk to people who knew Coltrane about his music, and he wrote this amazing biography. Simpkins is just the most thoughtful man. He could be exceedingly angry — and is, to a certain extent — about how he and his family were treated, but he’s just really thoughtful and optimistic about how if you talk about human rights and civil rights, and you make music about it, then as a society we grow and we get better.

Terence Blanchard
Credit: Nathalie Raffet

Knowing our history is important in understanding where we’ve come from in terms of past and ongoing struggles for equality. Did you see parallels between what you’ve been covering in this documentary series and what’s happening now in the present day?

I talked to Terence Blanchard. A couple years ago he recorded an album called Breathless, which was inspired by the death of Eric Garner, the black man who was killed by New York police and whose last words were, “I can’t breathe,” because he was in a choke hold. There you have a specific case of absolute connection to current events. Blanchard and other musicians — especially women in jazz like Esparanza Spalding and Matana Roberts — talk about relying on the struggles that their predecessors went through. Terence Blanchard says, “We stand on really broad shoulders.” The men and women of jazz in the ’50s and ’60s — and earlier, of course, like in the ’20s when black musicians weren’t even allowed to record — they opened the doors to where people are now.

Memorial for Eric Garner at Grand Central Station in New York
Credit: Tina Leggio
A Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York
Credit: Paul Silva

Certainly one of the things that comes up throughout the documentary is that you’d like to be able to say that history has advanced us to a place beyond those struggles — it hasn’t. Racism is rife, not just in the United States, but in Canada, too. There’s the Black Lives Matter movement which is important and necessary because of that racism that hasn’t gone away and under Trump is exacerbated. The flames are fanned and in many ways, it’s even more omnipresent because of how hatred is communicated so quickly over social media. Everyone has access to some really horrible thoughts and ideas, and in a way it’s even more widespread. So there are artists like Blanchard who are addressing it, but the root problem of racism and the denial of human rights because of where they come from, where they live, who they are, is still with us in a big way. And that’s crushing.