DCiJ - Black Jazz Artists and Historic Battle Against Racial Oppression

Jun 6, 2020

For today’s show, we’re going to be exploring the role jazz musicians have played in battling systemic racial oppression throughout the years. This episode is dedicated to the Abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, and to our current Black Lives Matter movement.


Duke Ellington
Credit npr.org

Welcome to “Don’t Call it Jazz”, KISU’s very own listening hang from a jazz musician’s perspective. I’m your host, Jonathan Armstrong, I’m a professor of music at ISU and a professional jazz musician and composer. I am recording this episode a week after the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, and while in the midst of significant and powerful civilian demonstrations and unrest. There’s a significant dichotomy at play here: on one hand, there is near universal outrage and heart-breaking despair over such a senseless and evil murder, and on the other, we are witnessing a significant show of solidarity around the country and the world, and a great awakening as our country takes one step towards a more just society with more racial equity and a deeper awareness of our persistent racial inequalities, and one small step away from our mortal sins of chattel slavery, segregation, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. 

For today’s show, we’re going to be exploring the role jazz musicians have played in battling systemic racial oppression throughout the years. This episode is dedicated to the Abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, and to our current Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important to note that all of these movements were wildly unpopular in their times, with moderates being upset at how they were pushing too much, asking for equality too loudly, and causing too much disruption in the status quo. Yet brave activists spoke out with passion for what they knew was right, and we are a better and more just country for their bravery.

Jazz music is a black art. We often say that it is a uniquely american art form, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s an African-American art form. As a professional jazz musician and educator, it’s important for me to fully understand that my livelihood is steeped in this black art, and I must not remove the humanity of the musicians from the music. I love this music, and I’ve dedicated my life to it, but that dedication must honor the story of the people who make it. With tonight’s show, I aim to tell a story of protest, anger, and resilience from jazz recordings made by black jazz artists throughout history. And the story of black people in this country is one of slavery, tragedy, disenfranchisemnt, segregation, police brutality, and oppression, but it’s also one of resilience, joy, beauty, and courage.  

The recordings that I will play this hour are testimony of the black experience in this country from the artist’s perspective. Sometimes the artist needs to shout, sometimes they need to cry, sometimes they need to play the blues, sometimes they turn to their faith, and sometimes they need to mourn. And we need to listen.