Celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, culminating in International Jazz Day April 30. To celebrate and educate, we’ll look at how jazz artists have engaged with social change and social justice over the past 70 years.

Each week we’ll highlight a particular period in history along with a couple representative artists and their music. These musicians have all been moved by events of the times.

1950’s: Little Rock & school desegregation. Louis Armstrong & Charles Mingus








Louis Armstrong did not normally voice strong political opinions but felt deeply the racial injustice of his time. So in 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus attempted to block school desegregation he had had enough and threatened to cancel his international tour for the State Department unless the Federal Government took action. Whether or how much this influenced President Eisenhower’s decision to send in Federal troops is unclear, but the President must have at least been aware.

Charles Mingus made no secret of his opinions, and infuriated by  the Arkansas governor’s actions he wrote “Fables of Faubus,” now one of Mingus’s most noted and performed songs. The original song was complete with angry lyrics.

The Civil Rights Movement

The 1960’s saw advances in Civil Rights but also political violence against Black people including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that killed four young girls, and the assassination of Medgar Evers in that same year. Jazz artists were moved to speak out through their music. Notable examples are John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and much of Nina Simone’s work during this period. She spoke to the killing of Evers through her song “Mississipi Goddam” and to the spirit of the times through her recording of Dr. Billy Taylor’s composition “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”.




International: Response to Apartheid in South Africa. Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba

Known as the Father of African Jazz, South African musician Hugh Masekela wrote and performed upbeat, pop-inflected jazz. He also wrote music opposing apartheid and was a victim of the South African government’s suppression of artistic freedom, leaving the country in 1960.

Internationally acclaimed vocalist Miriam Makeba was influenced by Masekela and was married to him briefly in the the 1960’s. Her early recordings reflected both jazz and pop influences. Her most famous recording, “Pata Pata,” refers to a style of dance that originated in illicit dance clubs in Johannesburg. As her career progressed, she became an activist against apartheid, as reflected in “Soweto Blues” (1977) written by Masekela.