Noted American jazz performers used music to support African Americans’ struggle for civil rights during the mid-20th century.
In 1958, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded “The Freedom Suite” with drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford. The song’s theme was groundbreaking, and its length — nearly 20 minutes — was unusual. John Hasse, curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, cites the suite as one of the earliest jazz pieces to make an explicit statement about civil rights. The trio recorded the song near the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States and four years after a landmark Supreme Court’s decision declared public school segregation unconstitutional.
“It’s just a singular piece full of invention and surprises,” Hasse said. “There’s nothing like it.”
Jazz pianist Billy Taylor recorded “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in 1963 with drummer Grady Tate and bassist Ben Tucker. Taylor had written the song for his daughter as an instrumental, But lyricist Dick Dallas later collaborated with him on lyrics.
Singer and pianist Nina Simone took the song to the next level when she covered it a few years later on her album Silk and Soul and made it popular as a catchy civil rights anthem.
“It’s got just such a wonderful gospel feel,” Hasse said.
In 1965, Simone covered the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” — made famous by singer Billie Holiday — for her album Pastel Blues.
When Holiday recorded the mournful song, which laments the horrors of racist lynching, she made a mark, says Hasse. But Simone introduced the song to a new generation. Hasse calls Simone’s rendition “stark, stinging and chill inducing.”
In the late 1960s, Simone said that singing the song and spreading its commentary on racial violence was a “duty.”
“At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you could help but be involved,” she said.
Jazz-inspired activism joined other political and civic efforts to push the U.S. Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin illegal; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed many discriminatory voting practices; and the Fair Housing Act (also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which bars discrimination in the housing industry.