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Esoterica

As the war continued to drag on overseas, it had a powerful if unanticipated impact upon Black culture in cities back home - and particularly in music. Big band jazz and swing music’s enormous popularity amoung white middle-class Americans during the war years had brought it from the margins of entertainment to wide prominence in mainstream popular culture. Around 1943, however, there was a precipitous drop in popularity for swing bands and their showmanship. It was a consequence of both practical concerns and aesthetic ones. Many big bands lost their best musicians to the armed forces. Gasoline was rationed, making it difficult for thirty-piece orchestras to travel. Then in 1942, the Musicians Union initiated a strike because its members did not receive royalty payments when their records were played on the radio. In solidarity, union members boycotted record production until September 1943, and the lack of new big band singles sapped the genre’s popularity. But the production strike gave artists the space for experimentation and innovation. It was the younger Black musicians, the hepcats, who broke most sharlply from swing, developing a Black-oriented sound at the margins of musical taste and commercialism. A new sound developed in dark Manhattan, in smoky late-night sessions. Musicians no longer attempted to present themselves as entertainers. They limited the time of songs by stripping down the melodic form, emphasizing improvisation as well as complex chord changes and complicated beats. When this music, which came to be called bebop, was reporduced on records after the strike, the sound seemed bizarre, almost alien to some jazz enthuiasts. But the new movement’s key artists, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, were constructing an experiemental form in a radicallly different environment from the Depression-era thirties that had fostered swing. Bebop reflected the anger of the zoot-suiters and the enterprise of Black artists who opposed mainstream white culture. These musicians sought to create a protest sound that could not be so easily exploited and commodified. Many who favored the radical new jazz coming from Harlem nightclubs described the 1943 insurrection as another ‘zoot suit riot.’ The term had become a common metaphor for Black activities that seemed subversive to white order. One zoot-suiter who had taken part in the Harlem riot linked Black resistance to the U.S. war effort with urban unrest: ‘I’m not a spy or a sabateur, but I don’t like goin’ over there fightin’ for the white man - so be it.’ Even African-American social psychologist Kenneth Clarke characterized the new militancy he had observed in Harlem as ‘the Zoot Effect.’ As the critic Frank Kofsky observed of the bebop movement, ‘Jazz inevitably functioned not solely as music, but aslo as a vehicle for the expression of outraged protest.’ Malcolm was thoroughly immersed in this world, and well aware of the new sound and its implications - the frisson of outsiders shaking up mainstream culture. Like the zoot-suiter, beboppers implicitly rejected assimilation into standards established by whites and were contemptuous of the police and the power of the U.S. government over Black people’s lives. Both sought to carve out identities that Blacks could claim for themselves. Jazz artists recognized the parallels and, not surprisingly, later became Malcolm’s avid supporters in the 1960s. His version of militant Black nationalism appealed to their spirit of rebellion and artistic nonconformity.

Manning Marable - Chapter 2, The Legend of Detroit Red, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (via poemsofthedead)

(via poemsofthedead-deactivated20120)