Semper Miles – The Unsung Jazz Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement


My song is called “Semper Miles” as a tribute to jazz legend Miles Davis. This song is a contra-fact of a famous song from Davis’ bestselling album, “Kind Of Blue”, named “Blue in Green”. A contra-fact is a song that borrows its chords from a song that came before it. I chose to write a contra-fact because I wanted to bring to focus the jazz legends of yesteryear that were respected artists and sonic pioneers at a time where the color of their skin qualified them as second-class citizens. I wanted my song to tell the all-to-often forgotten story of how these artists fought for equal rights across the board through artistic expression and exploration. These extraordinary individuals were not only models of courage and artistic integrity, they were heroes.


Throughout the complex history of African Americans, music has been an empowering theme. From the spirituals of slavery to the rap music of today, song has proved itself a powerful tool for both escaping oppressive poverty and lack of social mobility, and for spreading social messages. For Example, Duke Ellington, who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, helped lay the foundations of integration by popularizing black artists and raising them to national prominence. Also, influential artists of the 1960’s like Nina Simone, promoted the important message of change during a time of violence and protest. Music throughout the 20th century served as a platform for African Americans to reach prominent, influential social hights, which allowed them to promote racial equality through their music and newly acquired voice.

The development of uniquely African American music genres and their growing success around the world helped elevate the status of black artists in society, and provided the influence needed to spread the message of equality. The Avant-Garde Jazz movement in the early 1960’s is a perfect example of this, as it gained a tremendous white audience base despite the racial hostilities of the era. The musicians who wrote and performed jazz in the early 60’s became household names across the country. The popularity and commercial success of this artistic movement helped “politicize blackness for white listeners of jazz who were marginally attentive to the social changes of the moment”. White Americans could not justify racial segregation when the music they listened to emphasized the individual voices of African American musicians. Another movement in black American music that helped socially re-define the African American identity, and facilitated the betterment of their communities was the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, a proliferation of black artists producing world-renowned works  transformed the idea of black art. The Washington Post in 1929 called these artists the “Praying Deacons of Harlem” and “An organization of versatile negroes whose influence is nation-wide- troupers, musicians, composers, playwrights, and newspaper men with fine record of achievement”. As the artists of the Harlem Renaissance gained social prominence, they used their new influence to improve the situations of fellow African Americans. For example, the iconic jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington, after becoming a major figure in entertainment, performed at a “Benefit for Negro Actors”, a concert that raised funds to promote the arts in African American communities.

The rise of non-jazz genres also helped African Americans achieve new social heights and spread a social message. Black rock and roll artists made significant contributions to the genre in early years, opening the door to a legacy of tolerance and integration within it. In a 1977 New York Times article, music journalist Robert Palmer retrospectively remarks on the impact black musicians had on early rock music. He writes that this influential period of early black rock is “the most rhythmically sophisticated American popular music.” and also credits African Americans rock musicians such as Fats Domino with “the first authentic rock-and-roll records during the early 1950’s.” Rock’s African American traditions facilitated racially integrated bands such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience in the mid-60’s, establishing rock music not only as a culturally diverse and accepting form of pop-culture, but also as an effective, progressive force for social change. Another uniquely African American genre that had an impact in almost every facet of 20th century music is Rhythm and Blues (R&B). R&B, often considered a precursor to Rock-and-Roll, was popularized after World War II and “played a pivotal role in moving African American culture into mainstream American culture”. Coupled with the popularization of the radio, the success of R&B in the late 1940’s gave artists the ability to spread a message farther and more effectively than before, and through their music they “channeled black aspirations for integration.” They used their art as a platform to focus attention on the issues that faced the African American community, and convey the humanity of fight for equal rights.

Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was simultaneously a microcosm of Jim Crow era racism, and symbolic of America’s slow shift towards supporting racial equality. Marian Anderson, a black contralto opera singer, was scheduled to perform in Constitution Hall (A prominent Washington D.C. venue) for a concert of the Daughters of the American Revolution, when she was declined only days prior on account of her race. This event encapsulates the racist attitudes of Americans at the time and the dehumanizing effects of segregation. Surprisingly, Government backlash was significant, to the point where Representative McGranery said,

“The time has come when the Daughters of the American Revolution should be made to realize that if they want to enjoy the privileges and honors of this democracy they should measure those with whom they deal in the same manner as they would be measured”.

This unprecedented support for equal treatment for a black singer culminated in the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt arranging for Miss Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, dually symbolic as a memorial to the president who emancipated the slaves 76 years earlier, and as the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the march on Washington almost 25 years later. The significance of this event was not lost on the African American community, as the the Journal of Negro Education said “It indicated that there is still a sizeable portion of our American population that are willing to fight racial intolerance and religious bigotry.” Despite the fact that substantial reform and the end of segregation did not come until decades after Marian Anderson’s triumph, it showed the public that there was support for equality and it encouraged activists that a strong, organized movement could bring about significant change. Marian Anderson’s story is a shining example of how music helped bring the issues of racism and intolerance into the spotlight, and served as a catalyst for social change.

Separate from symbolic significance, musicians of the African American liberation movement utilized their elevated status to create music which contained explicit messages of freedom and asserted their independence. Jazz musicians of the early 60’s employed tactics of social influence, which included taking advantage of their already prominent roles as symbols of the Civil Rights Movement, and creating works that audibly represented oppression with titles and lyrics that clearly stated their individual nuanced views on the subject of civil rights. Max Roach’s historic 1960 album We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite exemplifies the straightforward approach of spreading the social activist message adopted by influential black artists. Robert McMichael, a renowned jazz historian, discusses this album, saying “the avant-garde recordings explain things about race that black people had been clearly aware of for centuries in the United States.” Songs like “Driva Man” evoque the imagery of slavery, slave drivers, harsh conditions, and explains the stigma of blackness in the U.S. while “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” conveys the message of nonviolent protest as means to achieve the ultimate goal of equality. The album cover (Appendix Image 1) features a photograph of a sit-in protest at a lunch counter. Max Roach, through the imagery of peaceful protest, the striking album title, and the explicit lyrics, presents his take on the Civil Rights movement. Unlike Max Roach, whose ideas closely resembled  Martin Luther King’s school of thought, musicians like Archie Schepp expressed more militant ideas on social reform, drawing inspiration from Malcolm X’s Black Nationalist movement. Archie Shepp’s 1965 album Fire Music is one of the most notable examples of Afrocentricity and Black Nationalism in music during the Civil Rights Era. Not only was the title of the album “adapted from African musical practices”, but it was also symbolic of the tense, fever-pitch attitudes of the Black Nationalist movement, which came across in the dissonant, clashing, and strained aesthetic of the music. An extremely notable aspect of Fire Music is that “the album featured an elegy written to honor activist Malcolm X called ‘Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm.’” The direct allusion to the activist shows how music allowed for artists to directly engage in the social developments of their era. Even though Schepp and Roach had differing opinions on the Civil Rights movement, they both utilized music to spread the message of freedom, each one tailoring the medium to express their own interpretations of it.

Some of the most memorable and iconic compositions with explicit social messages were written and performed by black women. Billie Holiday, a prominent black singer of the 1930’s, continuously “challenged the rigid racial segregation [of the era]…and mocked the fobies of the upper class.” Holiday’s independent style led her to record her greatest work of social commentary, her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit”, a song that vividly depicts the gruesome details of lynching in Southern states. The song reads,

“Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

This extreme imagery combined with the eerie, unsettling music was a tremendously effective tool for revealing to a wide audience the brutality of racial violence and the appalling degree to which the dehumanization of African Americans under Jim Crow was occurring. Holiday’s influence over the art community was significant, and the legacy of her poignant song can be clearly seen in another black singer who would emulate Holiday’s strong social message 25 years after its recording. Perhaps the most prolific composer of protest music during the Civil Rights Era, Nina Simone was an extremely effective and socially active artist that represented the sentiments of the African American community. A brilliant piece of both political satire and musicianship, “Mississippi Goddamn” was written in 1964 as a sarcastic showtune, comparing the unraveling narrative of the Civil Rights movement, to an unfinished musical. Having been written in the wake of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, “the song became one of Simone’s most explicit articulations of the anger steeping within the movement and the black community by this time.” The clashing tones of the serious subject matter and the lighthearted, carefree style of a showtune throws audiences off at first, but by the end of the song, it proves a spectacularly effective device for revealing the ridiculousness of racism and the bizarre scenes of resistance to desegregation. Because of its lasting imagery, targeted social message and clever use of the medium, “Mississippi Goddamn” has remained among Simone’s most recognizable works, and it is another example of music containing specific social messages and spreading artist’s points of view.

Beyond the bounds of their music, many musicians used their fame and influence to actively and openly oppose racial discrimination. Nina Simone, who had already become famous for her powerful protest music, said “Anyone who has power only has it at the expense of someone else, and to take that power away from them you have to use force because they’ll never give it up from choice.” Simone’s elevated status as a celebrity musician gave her the voice to express perspectives such as this one, and allowed her to reach a large audience and expand the influence of her social message. Another example of artists taking a stand outside of their music came when Hugh Hefner invited prominent jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to perform a song on his live television show. During the broadcast, in the lead up to the song Hefner makes a distasteful remark about how jazz artists don’t earn a lot of money. This offends Gillespie, and he responds by lecturing Hefner saying, “’Jazz musicians don’t have no money, so they can’t pay off stations to play it. [Jazz] is the only thing we have to offer the world.’” and even directly accusing Hefner saying “You have been embellishing our art form”. “Here Gillespie, a popular…, crowd-pleasing performer, is asserting himself as a human being in a situation where his host clearly expects the traditional deferential black entertainer.” Gillespie is standing up for his dignity and asserting his individuality, and using his position of influence, in this case, a televised performance, to send a message. In these ways, music gave artists a greater capacity for making impactful social statements.

20th century music played a substantial role in promoting the African American liberation movement not only through the power, wealth, and influence that came with it, but also through the messages artists told and the freedom with which they could tell it. Ripple effects of this phenomenon can be seen in the modern music trends of today as popular musicians become an increasingly integral part of social and political developments. From Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the avant-garde artists of the sixties, to Nina Simone, and to Fats Domino, the legacies of these pioneering artists who stood up against the injustices of racial discrimination will be forever remembered and intertwined within the history of the United States.



Image 1



“Benefit For Negro Actors” New York Times, Dec 9, 1929, accessed November 11, 2016


“Congress Gets Anderson Concert Row,” The Washington Post, Mar 30, 1939, accessed November 11, 2016  


Holiday, Billie. Strange Fruit. By Abel Meeropol. Commodore Records, LP. Recorded April 20, 1939.


Kaliss, Gregory. “Rhythm and Blues.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2010. Accessed May 14, 2017.


Kernodle, Tammy L. “Civil Rights Movement Music.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2010.Accessed May 14, 2017.


Lawson, E.H. “Praying Deacons of Harlem,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1929, accessed November 11, 2016  


McMichael, Robert K. “”We Insist-Freedom Now!”: Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness.” American Music 16, no. 4 (1998): 375-416.


“Nina Simone: Quote on Power.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2010. Accessed May 14, 2017.


Palmer, Robert “The Heart and Soul of New Orleans Rock,” New York Times, July 10, 1977, accessed November 11, 2016


“Special: Marian Anderson Sings to 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial.” The Journal of Negro Education 8, no. 2 (1939): 260.


Stone, Chris. “Blood at the Root: “Strange Fruit” as Historical Document and Pedagogical Tool.” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 2 (2004): 54-56.


We Insist! Album Cover. Photograph. Wikipedia. Accessed May 18, 2017.


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  1. April 27, 2018 by brendan.gill

    Hi Alex! Great in-depth writing and research here. I am a fan of Nina Simone and Billie Holliday, so it’s great to read how they fit into this piece. The contra-fact you shared is beautiful. Hope you’re well!

  2. April 27, 2018 by Ian Covel

    Awesome presentation! In looking at your composition, the bass tones are very crisp and cut through the mix really well; nice job! Did you use a bass synthesizer in a digital audio workstation, or record the instruments yourself?

    Your research is very thorough, and your topic is wonderfully chosen–this presentation stands out from the crowd from the beginning, and continues when supported by superior content.

  3. April 29, 2018 by John King

    Hi Alex,

    I enjoyed listening to your composition; it offers a very different perspective of you as a musician that your performances on the saxophone with the RE Combo! Pretty cool.

    I also agree that you have some good research here. I like that you see complexities and variations in the way that the musicians you discuss chose to express their ideas and aspirations. If you do more with this topic, I recommend looking at John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” composed and performed after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and though not as directly related to jazz as most of the musciains you discuss, the work of Ray Charles to syncretize elements of black and white music (and for that matter, his refusal to performe in an auditorium in Augusta, Georgia when he learned the audience would be segregated by floor).

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