Race, Jazz & Police Brutality

CR, Béal Feirste

On the 17 August 1959 Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz record of all time, and, many would argue, the best jazz album of all time. Over sixty years later it sells an average of five thousand copies a week.

Just over a week later, Miles was having a smoke outside the Birdland Jazz Club, Midtown Manhattan, during a break. An NYPD officer approached him and told him, ‘You can’t stand there. Move on.’ Miles responded ‘Move on? For what? I’m working downstairs.’ Gesturing to the door, he continued, ‘that’s my name up there – Miles Davis.’ The officer replied, ‘I don’t care where you’re working, I said move on!’ and began attacking Miles. Another officer came up behind Miles and struck him on the head with a baton, leaving him bloodied and bruised.

To quote Dr. Cornel West, ‘Black music was the Black response to being terrorised and traumatised’. The concept of being brutalised by police after creating one of the most important works in music history is entirely surreal for white people. Imagine if the Beatles had been beaten up just after releasing Abbey Road. But for black musicians this is a constant concern and reality. Miles Davis recovered from this attack and went on to have an illustrious career, pioneering genres such as Jazz Fusion, Modal Jazz, and releasing albums which blew everything else out of the water. However another black jazz musician was not so lucky. Bud Powell, a jazz pianist, was brutally beaten by a police officer at the age of twenty. After the incident Bud was entirely incoherent and in great pain. Days passed but his condition didn’t improve, and he was institutionalised for several months. Never fully recovering he suffered from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental breakdowns over the twenty-one final years of his life. To quote Roy Haynes, a famous jazz drummer, had Powell lived longer and been better treated, “there’s no telling what he would have developed into”.

The Real Book

Jazz music was and still is often taught quite differently to other types of music, such as rock and pop. Look up on YouTube how to play any rock song on any instrument and you’ll find it without a problem – the same however can’t be said for jazz. You may find a crude overview, but you won’t find anything in-depth. The history of this can be traced back to segregation. Jazz music was often learned in the form of a master – pupil style, as black musicians wanted to protect their creations. Not from a white kid sitting in his bedroom playing Autumn Leaves or Take the A Train, but to protect it from white musicians who took their work and making a lot of money off it – of which they’d never see a penny.

The Real Book is a collection of sheet music ‘approximations’ for jazz standards – many songs are in the wrong key, contain the wrong chords, etc. though many beginners buy this book as a way to get started. But upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that the songs which are most incorrect are the songs written by black musicians, as almost all of them refused to give out their music to anyone except a close-knit group. Often times it wouldn’t even get outside of a quartet or quintet. Take for example Led Zeppelin, a group of white musicians who (it’s no secret) stole most of their music from black musicians, paid them little to no money and gave them no recognition. For example, one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular songs ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was a blatant rip-off of Muddy Waters’ song ‘You Need Love’. This is exactly what the jazz musicians were so fearful of and worked to prevent from happening.

Is Jazz Political?

Some may believe that because the vast majority of jazz is instrumental – especially some of the most popular records of the swing, bebop and hardbop eras – that jazz couldn’t possibly be political. How could it be if there are no words?

On 15 September 1963 the KKK bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls and injured twenty-two people. A few months later John Coltrane, arguably the best saxophone player of all time, wrote a song called ‘Alabama’. This haunting piece directly channels the feelings he had felt when he read about the attack. The song is slow and tense and, though there are no words, there is a visceral feeling of despair. Insofar as jazz is a powerful means of expression for oppressed people it is inherently political.

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