Jazz and Activism


Jazz music and activism are synonymous, and have been for almost 100 years, since the dawn of the Jazz Age in the 1920’s.

Initially, jazz triggered a renaissance in post-World War I America, a renaissance which spread to the rest of the world. It stood for hope, life and beauty after the terrible destruction wrought by WWI. Swing music and dance was initially orchestral with large ensembles for dancing. It was the ‘pop’ or ‘popular’ music of its time.

Over the 20th Century, jazz evolved and splintered into different forms that expressed different sub-cultures of American and European society. After George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess in 1935, it brought attention to the racism faced by black Americans, and to the after-effects of slavery and segregation on the black community. Civil rights became a strong theme in jazz music.

Many other jazz musicians have stood up for human rights through the decades. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane all had aspects of civil rights in their compositions and lives. The activism wasn’t limited to America. In Nigeria, jazz musician Fela Kuti was also a human rights activist, for example.

The basic question is: why? The answer is manifold. It’s something to do with an artist’s sensitivity to freedom of expression – a significant human right. Something to do with the open exchange of ideas and creativity between jazz musicians from different cultures. And something to do with the idea of quality of life, of enjoying life and the right to life.

Most of all, it’s to do with freedom. The freedom to improvise, to be yourself, and to break free from constraints and conditioning to make that sound that only you can make.

Another strong theme, of course, is peace and harmony. In Cyprus during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Jazz Futures programme sponsored by the US Embassy helped to build bridges between the Greek-and-Turkish Cypriot musicians. They set a good example of cooperation and tolerance among musicians, and the programme still has positive ripples even today.