March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women to jazz. As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate women who used music as a platform for social change.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-known.
Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not as well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers. On October 7, 1955, the “First Lady of Song” performed with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Houston. The concert tour was produced by her manager Norman Granz, an ally in the fight for racial justice. The Music Hall had “Negro” and “White” labels on the bathroom doors. Shortly before the show, Granz removed the labels.
Houston’s segregationists were angry about Granz’s attempt to integrate the show by refusing to pre-sell tickets. Some whites asked for a refund rather than sit next to an African American. After the first show, the police stormed Fitzgerald’s dressing room and arrested her, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and other musicians on trumped-up charges.
With the intervention of her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald was the first African American to perform at the legendary Mocambo nightclub.
Nina Simone’s outrage over the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church emboldened civil rights activists.
Simone’s celebration of black excellence inspired a new generation of civil rights activists, including the writer.