Everyone in the smoky New York City nightclubs of the 1930s knew when Billie Holiday was about to sing her last song of the evening.
The stage would go black as the house lights switched off, and a single soft spotlight would illuminate her face. The happy chatter around the round tables and the sounds of clinking glass would fall into silence.
Then the jazz singer’s voice would labor to squeeze the somber juice from “Strange Fruit,” a song written about the lynching of African-American men in the South.
Since its birth, jazz music has been a means of expressing African-American life experiences – some as exhilarating and playful as a budding romance, and others as degrading and deadly as an encounter with racism.
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“Stepping Stones to Freedom: Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement,” a multimedia program performed by the UNC Charlotte Jazz Ensemble, will explore much of the latter.
The program, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 22 in Robinson Hall on the UNCC campus, will cast images on screen that reflect the African-American struggle for equality. The music of past jazz musicians, bold enough to share their feelings in rhyme back then, provide the soundtrack.
“Because jazz originated as an African-American musical form, the questions of race and identity and justice and civil rights have been integral to the expression of jazz from the very beginning,” said Meg Whalen, director of communications and external relations for the university’s College of Arts + Architecture. She’s also the university’s liaison for the Ulysses Festival: Charlotte’s Festival of the Arts.
Focus on brotherhood
“Stepping Stones to Freedom” is part of the three-year-old festival, a springtime celebration of arts in the community that includes concerts, dance performances, lectures, exhibits and operas sponsored by 12 area institutions, including UNCC.
Each year, the festival centers on one theme. Past focuses have been Russian arts and culture, and the influence of technology on the arts.
This year’s theme, “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood,” pays homage to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Will Campbell, director of jazz studies at UNCC, struggled to narrow down the program’s repertoire to just 10 songs.
“I started to think of musicians who were outspoken and involved in the civil rights movement,” said Campbell. “It’s hard to imagine not including Charles Mingus.”
Mingus composed the music and wrote the lyrics for “Fables of Faubus,” a song that depicted Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’ attempt to block the integration of nine African-American high-schoolers into a segregated all-white school.
Campbell added such mainstream musicians as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong as well.
“When those guys got involved and made statements, because they were so popular with a cross-section of America, it made an impact,” said Campbell. “I think people listened a little bit more because they were such a part of our popular society.”
Song of the Century
While their music plays, images of both the musicians and the instances in history they captured through their work will remind audience members, or maybe teach them for the first time, of the struggles and triumphs of the last century.
For “Strange Fruit,” the song made famous by Holiday, images from the 1930s of lifeless bodies strung by creaking ropes from poplar trees, will show an ugly chapter in America’s past.
It’s rumored that Holiday initially feared retaliation for recording the song, but did so anyway. Her gamble paid off. Not only did it become her best-selling recording, it also earned a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame and was named Song of the Century by TIME in 1999.
“The arts help us tell stories. They help us express our feelings. They help us establish cultural identity,” said Whalen. “And the arts can and do play a role in the political theatre.”