In a period when protest music wasn't common, Billie Holiday does a live performance of « Strange Fruit » in a theater or nightclub. Although we cannot see the public in the footage, we can guess that the audience was probably not an exclusive black one. In a 1939 America where racial equality is almost nonexistent, Billie Holiday sings a heartbreaking ballad and we can feel the grief she sings it with. She sings her story, the suffering of her people. She wouldn't have believed that 16 years later, jazz was going to become America's music.
Penny Von Eschen's excerpt of the book SatchmoBlows up the World : Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War describes the irony of what seems to be two opposed worlds : an intrinsically unequal America and the jazz being the music chosen to show artistic expression to the world. During Eisenhower's Administration, in 1956 Dizzy Gillespie tours the world as the goodwill ambassador of the US.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac, father of the Beat Movement so immensely inspired by jazz music. Kerouac's prose is characterized by a style submerged in the stream of consciousness, words spoken out in bursts, in onomatopoeia, sparsely punctuated as if by reading we were playing a trumpet or a saxophone, taking fast breaths in order to carry on reading. The excerpt describes the hectic atmosphere of a jazz club.
Throughout this comment I'll hint at how the same music can be used as a protest, as propaganda and to « let it all out ».
« Strange Fruit » is a cry against the atrocities of racism. When Billie Holiday sings we get goosebumps because we feel her pain. She sings this song wholeheartedly and almost as gospel. We barely hear the piano play on the back, all we feel is the extreme sadness that releases from this almost a Capella ballad. The poem describes a very explicit scene of lynching « Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze ». The strange fruit is the one who's different, is the rotten fruit that nobody wants to pick, left « for the crows to pluck ». It's the « strange and bitter crop » that had to be killed in order to avoid spoiling the field.
Lynching is a particular kind of felony, instead of killing the person on the spot and getting rid of the body, leaving the corpse hanging from the tree is a lesson -if that word could ever be used to describe that kind of cruelty-, it's left there for the others to see, it's not a crime but the opposite, it's justice. Its purpose is to maintain the order, the supremacy of the white, to spread terror.
By singing « Strange Fruit » Billie Holiday not only denounces the system but she also break all barriers and codes by performing live.
We can feel the sweat of the mad crowd yelling and dancing in Kerouac's jazzclub scene. Music brings races together and in this nightclub « everybody was rocking and roaring ». People were « tripping and riffing » if I may use the slang of that time. They dance in an altered state of consciousness, they are high on hope, on life, on music.
There is no past, only this present moment where « The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea ». No resentment, the musicians play for all. The euphoric crowd is in a trance state « a six-foot skinny negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell ». It's a religious-like experience, it's exhilarating, it's relieving. « A big fat man was jumping on the platform, making it sag and creak ». Dean « was rubbing his chest, his belly, the sweat splashed from his face ». But it's not only redemptive for the crowds but for the musicians as well : « The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around ».
The musician is expressing what the crowds are feeling, the sound of their instruments put into music what cannot be expressed with words. « they were all urging that ternoman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes », the sound of the trumpet, like that of Satchmo's, is the repressed cry of resistance of an entire people.
Gillespie's world tour carried the voice of African Americans : « blackness and race operating culturally to project an image of American nationhood ». Jazz is inclusive was the message : « I'm black, I'm American and this is our music ».
President Eisenhower wanted to expose American culture abroad for the purpose of demonstrating the benefits of freedom -and capitalism for that matter- on artistic expression. Dizzy Gillespie was probably the first official jazz ambassador but many names followed « In the high profile tours by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington » and also Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and many more.
Worldwide audiences felt in this modern jazz -or Bebop as it was also known when it contained a high degree of improvisation- something rebel and indescribable that spoke for them. It wasn't only music; it became an attitude towards life.
But that leads me to question why was this music chosen? How did such a revolutionary rhythm came to be representative of a country whose roots were puritan and deeply repressive?
The Glaring contradiction
« Why did American policymakers feel for the first time in history that the country should be represented by jazz ? » asks Von Eschen. Why would Eisenhower's Republican administration take an international stand against racism while indoors the situation was far from ideal ?.
In the context of the Cold War and particularly at this very ideological stage, propaganda against Soviet Communism was major. America needed to show the world the benefits of the « free world and the free market ». Nevertheless the racial issue was brought up as a main concern in global forums. Convinced that cultural influence is irrevocably linked to political and economic power, the Eisenhower administration sponsored America’s leading jazz musicians’ tours abroad as part of its cultural foreign policy agenda, while a young Martin Luther King led the boycott to the bus company. « The prominence of African American jazz artists was critical to the music's potential as a Cold War weapon ». But as Von Escher puts it, this double irony does not end there, « with the stroke of a pen, this hitherto disreputable music- routinely associated in the mass media with drugs and crime- suddenly became America's music ».
Billie Holiday sings a protest song, a call for justice for black people in this theatre where the audience is probably not black. The public had bought their tickets to listen to this beautiful black woman sing the sorrows of her people. This is a live performance, an almost a capella one, and we hear no sound in the room whatsoever. The song generates discomfort among the audience that does not clap at the end. In the final seconds we see a very fragile Billie Holiday standing in front of a mute audience. A public who payed this black woman to tell them what they don't want to hear. What could have possibly go through her head during those seconds? Was she scared that this could put an end to her musical career? How much courage does it take to sing to a white audience a song about crimes perpetrated by... white people, their fellow countrymen? And what does an applause mean, does it celebrate the talent, does it support the cause?
In any case the stake was immense and she won. Almost 80 years later, this song continues to deplore racial discrimination.
The protagonists of On The Road are at a nightclub and it seems its a mainly black people one. We can almost hear the music and see the frenetic public « Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. » This two young men find their peers at this place, among the African Americans. Their cry for freedom is a different one but it perfectly resonates with that of this black crowd and the black musicians. This rundown jazz club echoes their need for non-conformity. Kerouac describes the scene from inside instead of choosing an omniscient voice and by doing so he takes the reader along and we all merge with the crowd. There is no segregation, no classes, no differences, we all let go of our identities, of our ethnicity, there's only music... and humans.
The essential role of African Americans in U.S. national culture
As Von Eschen puts it, the Brown decision, the Gillespie tour and the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King « inaugurated a new phase of the black freedom movement ensuring that jazz tours and the modern civil rights movement would forever be joined ». Though of course the strategy was not intended as a promotion of democracy led by black artists, this unique Cold War strategy unintentionally demonstrated the essential role of African Americans in U.S. national culture.
The Eisenhower Administration, ironically enough, made the claim that jazz was the most unique form of American culture. So not only does this show that Gillespie's tour was designed to counter Soviet propaganda but it also proves that by exporting jazz to the world, the US wanted to reveal racial equality in action. « US officials pursued a self-conscious campaign against worldwide criticism of US racism ».
By dehumanizing the black race, slavery in America managed to delete fundamental traits of African culture but the remains blended in with the local one. This led out to (if I may say so) a 3rd culture, the African American one. American-born black people, several generations along the line, feel as American as the European immigrants. It is only natural that black people were so deeply involved with the civil rights movement. They are as American as everyone else on the territory. They expressed their solidarity with all the struggles for racial equality around the globe.
Billie Holiday sings in a theatre and describes « a pastoral scene of the gallant south » not quite as the audience would picture it. She carries the voice of those silenced Americans to the ears of the other America that, taken with her talent, wishes to listen.
And so is the case of Gillespie and the many other jazzmen that followed : their talent opened doors and they became ambassadors of a cause as well as of their own country. They sold «the universal, race-transcending quality of jazz while depending on the blackness of musicians to legitimize America's global agendas ».
Ever since, all over the world, America is associated with jazz, African American culture, the land of freedom, opportunity and egalitarianism. That is the image they project and the black population played a major role in defining this picture.
And is not surprising that Kerouac's protagonists go to this «sawdust saloon », a negro jazzclub to find this urge for freedom they are after. A place where everybody screams their hearts out, literally « he drew breath and raised the horn and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air ». The 2 young white men know that the black cause calls their name, is appealing to them -in a different way- but it speaks the same rebel language.
The blackness and the American-ness cannot be dissociated.
Jazz music has been playing on the background throughout this text as we I had been shedding light on the crusade of the African American population for equality and recognition. All things duly considered it is still equally impressive that such a music can be used in so many different ways but at the same time congregate different causes under the same rhythm. Jazz music is unquestionably black, it wouldn't exist without its African roots but neither without its American branches. But it's a music that plays to everybody. Jazz sells a dream. And America knew how to use it in its favour.