They would do 3 x 45 minute sets each night and I would DJ 45 minute sets in between their sets (of mostly soul and a little pop). At the time I was in my mid-20s and, during the six months I worked at the club, the visiting musicians gave me a fast-track on the history of jazz. I was able to go for lunch and dinner with them every day and I often sat there in complete awe as I listened to their amazing stories. Many had worked with the who's who of jazz (and also other genres): Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and many many more.
All That Jazz
One particular day I was chatting with Sammy Price, a pianist/singer who celebrated his 80th birthday the same week he performed at Jaylins. The rest of the musicians that week were all 60 and above, and they were reminiscing about some of the gigs they'd done and people they'd worked with. Sammy told me that in the ‘50s when the music scene exploded the session musicians for most of those hits were black jazz musicians, even for the rock n roll songs, and it was the same for the live shows. He said that mostly they got ripped off, paid peanuts and treated not so great, but that there was one exception. One star always insisted that any musicians working for him in the studio or live had to be paid well and treated right or he wouldn't perform.
Sammy asked me to guess who it might've been? I threw out names such as Elvis, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and he kept saying no… Eventually, when I couldn’t guess, he told me that it was Frank Sinatra. Naturally this resulted in all the musicians having enormous respect for Sinatra and it also completely changed my own opinion of him. Up until that point I thought Sinatra was OK, but hearing this story it dawned on me that he had really taken a stand for black musicians at a time when it was not the done thing. He even risked his own career, because he turned down some work when the promoter wouldn’t agree to these terms. I had never realised that Sinatra was so willing to fight for the cause of others and to do what he felt was right, when almost every other major star just turned a blind eye to what was going on and the exploitation of these extremely talented black musicians.
Although performing for Sinatra was an exceptional experience, most of their work was nowhere near as pleasant. In the USA at that time there was segregation between blacks and whites and they were treated with little respect both in terms of humanity and the money they received for their musical talent. They weren’t allowed to eat with white people, and the accommodation they were provided was often filthy.
In the last few years I’ve read the autobiographies and biographies of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones and some other musicians, all of whom tell horrific stories of the treatment they received. Some of these were quite distressing to read and it constantly made my mind boggle at how humans could treat other humans with such contempt, all because of the amount of pigment they had in their skin.
Just as I was about to submit this article to Eddie (sorry for being late Ed!), I listened to a podcast episode from Sam Harris discussing the issues that have been in the media spotlight recently to do with race, policing, crime and the Black Lives Matter movement. He makes some interesting points, some which have changed my views on a few of these issues. You might not agree with the whole episode (it is almost two hours long) but, if you listen to all of it, it will certainly get you to think about some of the issues and may change your perspective, regardless of what your stance is right now! Just go on to a podcast player and search for ‘Sam Harris - #207 — Can We Pull Back From The Brink?’.
On the issue of racism, he asks the listener to imagine that throughout human history instead of dividing people based on the colour of their skin, we’d instead done it based on the colour of their hair? Imagine disliking other people because their hair colour was different to yours, or even if their eye colour. The fact that this sounds wholly absurd is very much the point.
Evelyne Heyer is a professor at the National Museum of Natural History of France. She has studied the scientific evidence around the notion of race, which has resulted in practices ranging from discrimination to extermination of ‘the other’ throughout history. In Heyer’s findings, the role of education at all social levels, but particularly for the young, is shown to be our best hope of stopping the proliferation of racism and to foster intercultural exchanges.
“Races do not exist in the sense we thought in the 19th century, but even if the word ‘race’ is removed, racism will continue to exist. The term ‘race’ has a history, so we need to use this concept, if only to deconstruct it,” Heyer said at a UNESCO round table.
According to the professor, the DNA of all human beings is 99.9% identical. We all are of African origin, dating back 100,000 years. The 0.1% of differences in the genomes of people from across the world suggests that the notion of race is simply not justifiable.
“Racism is not just about skin colour, but about discrimination against individuals who are physically, culturally, or morally different,” Heyer added. “Our genetic diversity is merely the result of adaptations to environments and our geographical origins”.
In the book by Bill Bryson called ‘The Body - A Guide for Occupants’ he recalls, “One of the most memorably unexpected events I experienced in the course of doing this book came in a dissection room at the University of Nottingham Medical School when a professor and surgeon named Ben Ollivere gently incised and peeled back a sliver of skin about a millimetre thick from the arm of a cadaver. It was so thin as to be translucent. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is where all your skin colour is. That’s all that race is – a sliver of epidermis.’”
Biologically, skin colour is just “a reaction to sunlight,” Bryson quotes the anthropologist Nina Jablonski as saying. She adds: “And yet look how many people have been enslaved or hated or lynched or deprived of fundamental rights through history because of the colour of their skin.”
Music has been a fundamental part of humanity since we evolved into homo sapiens, and music takes many forms, including chants. Social injustice has been around for many millennia and so using chanting as a form of protest has also been around for that long.
For example, were you aware that Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (based on the Friedrich Schiller poem ‘Ode to Freedom’) addresses the subject of universal brotherhood and opposition to the slavery that existed in many parts of the world at the time it was written?
In the days of colonisation and slavery, many slaves created protest songs and these evolved in the 20th century into recorded music. Folk and blues artists started to raise their voice to shed a light on social injustices. Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching tune ‘Strange Fruit’ is widely regarded as an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Folk music has always been closely tied to social issues including artists like the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The ‘60s are often seen as the golden age of protest music and it has evolved ever since. In the ‘70s soul and punk were often the voice of disenfranchised youth and in recent years we’ve seen a slew of socially-conscious rap music.
So here they are, 10 of the top protest songs from the last 80 years:
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 102, Pages 50-56.