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A Closer Look at Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement in Honor of MLK Day

Updated: Mar 6


Dear Friends,

For this week’s dose of inspiration, we want to pay tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the important role that music played in the Civil Rights Movement. Keep reading for some insights into Dr. King’s thoughts on the role of jazz in the struggle for liberation.  


Of the genres of music that were closely tied to the movement, Jazz was one of the most central and powerful. In his essay, written for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, King wrote “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from [jazz] music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” 

In the 1960s and ’70s, jazz musicians including Sun Ra, seen here performing at South Street Seaport - Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

Jazz, born from the work songs of enslaved Black people, became and remains to this day, a key means of expression for many, especially in response to governments and individuals attempting to silence Black political voices. In the late 1950s, jazz musicians became outspoken activists and started creating the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. 


Past and current scholars, musicians, and writers often note the powerful link between the Civil Rights Movement and Jazz Music. Rutha Mae Harris, a musician who was part of The Freedom Singers, a quartet that held fundraising concerts to support Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the emerging civil rights movement, once said that "Without the songs of the movement, [...] there wouldn't have been a movement”. 


Modern day music scholar Ingrid Monsoon once stated that Jazz was the perfect artform for the struggle, as just the act of performing, of seeing these powerful Black men and women commanding stages and demanding to be seen as artists was itself a rebellious political act.” 

"Jazz speaks for life," King said. "The blues tell the story of life's difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music." 


In celebration of Dr. King, we encourage you to spend some time in the coming days listening to the music that played such a strong role in shaping the movement that he dedicated his life to. 


Below you will find links three pieces that speak directly to this struggle and fight for freedom. 


'Fables Of Faubus'

Charles Mingus

'Music Is My Sanctuary'

Gary Bartz

'Four Women'

Nina Simone


At Church Street School, we deeply appreciate the power and historical importance of Jazz music. This genre is woven into the bedrock of our school from the many talented Jazz musicians on our faculty, to the newly formed Tribeca Jazz Institute.

Formed in partnership with renowned-saxophonist Grant Stewart, the Tribeca Jazz Institute is an affordable and accessible pre-professional Jazz program that aims to create a space for exceptional young musicians to take their playing to the next level.

"Jazz education is vital to the preservation and evolution of the art form." said Gant Stewart when asked about the importance of Jazz pedagogy "By fostering the next generation of professional jazz musicians, we ensure that the genre remains vibrant and relevant for years to come. [The Tribeca Jazz Institute] is dedicated to providing the highest quality instruction and opportunities for our students to develop their skills and passion for jazz."

The first session of the Tribeca Jazz Institute begins on January 17th and is sold out! If you are interested in applying for the next session or simply want to learn more about this exciting program, please click the button below.

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