Racism and criminality – the underside of jazz music

Jazz and justice: racism and the political economy of music
by Gerald Horne
Monthly press review, 2019
456 pages, $29

Jazz is the quintessential American music. It can rightly be said to have been born out of the sweat and blood of African Americans as they fused the traditions they brought from their home country with the musical styles they encountered.

Its history contains within it all the contradictions of American society.

Perhaps the word “contradictions” is too soft a word. What Gerald Horne exposes here is a poignant story of racism and criminal violence that spans the origins of jazz to the present day.

This book is based on oral history. Horne draws heavily on an astonishing number of musician biographies and newspaper interviews for his sources.

The musicians tell their own stories and, like a steady repeating drumbeat, the story is one of racism and injustice.

Jazz first appeared in New Orleans around the time of the Spanish-American War. Demobilized US Army musicians hung up their military cornets and trumpets that black musicians bought cheaply, adapting them to their own needs.

What was the social position of blacks in the South at the time? The experience of jazz bassist Milt Hinton, born in Mississippi in 1910, sums it up pretty well.

Horne quotes him recalling a lynching he witnessed as a child: “There was a bonfire and fifty or sixty men were drinking from jugs of whiskey, dancing, swearing and staring at a tree above. above their heads. And in that tree I saw a figure in the shape of a person hanging from a long wire rope attached to a branch… it was covered in blood… a couple of men [were] drag a can of gasoline and place it under the suspended body. Then someone threw a torch at the can and the place lit up like it was daytime… I will never forget that fire and seeing that body shrivel up like a piece of bacon while the crowd applauded.

Not only did black musicians face violent racism, but those who were beginning to succeed professionally came up against what is a recurring theme in this book – the criminal-industrial complex that is the entertainment industry in the United States. -United. Simply put, gangsters are at the heart of it all.

Singer Lena Horne, referring to one of the most famous jazz cabarets in history, said: “Nobody had the right to quit a job at the Cotton Club.” Gangsters beat her father when he tried to negotiate a higher salary for her.

Essentially, black musicians were treated like plantation workers. Like their slave ancestors, they had to work very hard to survive.

When alcohol prohibition ended in the United States, crowds turned to the heroin trade, which proved an effective means of enslaving musicians.

It should be noted that the now common expression “gig work” originated in the world of jazz. The almost endless list of black jazz musicians who died prematurely testifies to the overwork imposed on them by the concert economy.

Heroin was a convenient and lucrative means offered by gangsters to cope with endless gigs and rehearsals. There were record companies that paid musicians in heroin.

At almost every turn, musicians have been robbed by unscrupulous club owners, managers or record companies. Many white record producers put their names on tracks written by black musicians, reaping the publishing rights.

Record companies have “prepared the accounts” of record sales to defraud musicians.

Unions were of little use. They were segregated, and white musicians’ unions maintained a strict color bar in some clubs. In addition, many unions were run by gangsters.

Horne’s book is an eye-opener on the utter depravity of America’s entertainment industry and raises questions about the extent to which crime pervades American capitalism.

Ada J. Kenney