How bebop influenced the civil rights movement

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore columns by local residents about their lives.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington always said that there are only “two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.” 

Jazz, the specific kind of music Ellington was known for performing and composing (note: Ellington did not like the term “jazz” to describe his music, but that is a story for another column), has long been a part of the fabric of our nation’s history. As a matter of fact, without jazz and its parental artforms — blues and ragtime — no other popular music would exist in this country. 

That’s a bold statement — one that you might question — and I wouldn’t blame you. However, the fact of the matter is that jazz, the blues, African American spirituals, and gospel music are foundational styles of music from which other musicians (see also: Elvis Presley) have stolen and profited. 

The fact remains, the music we know as jazz is Black American music, and its very soul is tied to the Black resistance to injustice that has been perpetrated against them since their forced arrival in this country on slave ships. 

As the entire tradition of Black American Music is tied to Black resistance to systemic racism, I spend an entire semester detailing this in my jazz history course. Today, I will focus on what we consider to be the civil rights movement of the 20th century and the music we call bebop. 

How it came to be

To understand bebop’s role in the tradition of Black American Music, one must understand the circumstances that brought about its inception. African American musicians were unable to realize the commercial successes of the Swing era and Big Band craze like their white counterparts were. Jim Crow laws forbade them from securing lucrative work performing in white-only ballrooms in New York City or playing with radio orchestras. 

African American bands were subject to all sorts of discriminatory practices, which made the swing era gig economy unsustainable. All of these factors led the frustrated musicians to one thing: the jam session at Minton’s Playhouse in Manhattan. 

Bebop is a style that was known for challenging the status quo. With its fast-moving chord changes and tempos that rendered swing-era performance practice on the bass and drums obsolete, bop gave voice to musicians who could no longer be called inferior. Bop was high art and it demanded that the listener pay attention. It couldn’t be ignored by carefree dancers like the swing music that preceded it. 

Role in civil rights

Though many purists assert that the bebop era ended in approximately 1949, it laid the groundwork for the music of the civil rights movement. Though the Civil Rights Act would not be passed until 1964, bebop was the voice that demanded change. 
Fast forward to 2020. With protests following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, we live in a society where the work of civil rights is not yet complete.

According to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, African American men are more likely to be killed by police than any other ethnic group. 

When I present to my classes how important Black American Music is to me, I am often met with quizzical looks and judgment. 

My students have asked why I take something as “trivial” as music so seriously. It is because our society was built upon inequity. 

I see myself

In the Constitution of the United States, slavery was legal — an ill that would not even come close to being rectified until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. As a matter of fact, the Declaration of Independence did not include women, the LGBTQIA+ community, or BIPOC in its assertion of the truth that “All men are created equal.” 


Here is a short clip of one of my new compositions called "Justice for the Unarmed (BLM)." The murderers of so many...

Posted by Jordan VanHemert on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

I take this music seriously and teach it the way I do because every time I see a death by police brutality or the unequal care of our medical system, I see a friend. I see a mentor. I see a colleague. I see myself. 

People of color, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community in this country are not yet equal citizens, but the hour of reckoning has come. And, in the distance, one can hear the strains of Black American music as a poignant reminder that we — as a country, a city, a community — still have work to do. 

Jazz in the civil rights — suggested listening: 

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

Charles Mingus, Original Faubus Fables (the version with the lyrics, not the one censored by Columbia Records.)
Herbie Hancock, The Prisoner

Duke Ellington, Black, Brown, and Beige 

Louis Armstrong, Black and Blue

Max Roach, We Insist: Freedom Now Suite 

Max Roach, Speak, Brother, Speak

Max Roach, Lift Every Voice and Sing

John Coltrane, Alabama

Cannonball Adderley, Work Song 

Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam

Hope College Professor Jordan VanHemert holds degrees from the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan, and Central Michigan University. He teaches music at Hope College. 

Related: Hope professor taking Lakeshore jazz to the next level with new orchestra


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