Wilton ‘Scholarly Series’ continues with jazz and civil rights

WILTON — Long before social media outlets, even before television and radio, jazz music gave a voice to the voiceless and powerless of 60, 80, even 100 years ago.

That’s the path Gil Harel, Ph.D., will take when he speaks on “Jazz, Civil Rights and Social Justice” as part of the Scholarly Series collaboration between Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society — “Jazzed Up — The History of Jazz in America.” His talk will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the library at 137 Old Ridgefield Road. Those wishing to get on the waiting list for a seat may sign up at www.wiltonlibrary.org or by calling 203-762-6334. The Bulletin is the media sponsor for the series.

Jazz is associated with civil rights and social justice in a number of ways: by the integration of some ensembles, the outspokenness of some of the musicians and by the music itself. Harel told The Bulletin he would touch on a number of issues from different eras.

On the integration of ensembles he said, “some musicians were hesitant to include blacks, not because of racism but because it would limit opportunities.” Some venues would not sign integrated bands.

Some bucked that trend, including Benny Goodman, who was an avid proponent of integration. The reverse was also true, with Miles Davis hiring white musicians.

“But some were criticized for inaction, like Duke Ellington,” he said. There were some who felt musicians of his stature “could have used their success as a soapbox.”

“A way to appreciate the scope of the disparity is to look at the lives of musicians,” Harel said. “Jazz musicians traveled all over the place, so what would happen is you’d have integrated groups that had to stay in different hotels and eat at different restaurants and then play at the same venue.”

“More often, it would be black performers playing for white audiences,” he continued, using Harlem’s Cotton Club as an example where in the 1930s the audience was predominantly white.

“It was a notorious hangout for Hollywood types, mobsters, they were powerful men who all were white, listening to performers such as Ellington, who was black.”

Harel related a story in which Ellington asked an employer what kind of music he wanted him to play and the man replied “jungle music,” meaning jazz. “He was saying ‘we want black music,’” Harel said.

There was no equity in pay, Harel said, as black musicians struggled with record companies, even though they were at the forefront of jazz. That did not begin to change until the 1950s when Miles Davis signed with Columbia Records.

Harel will illustrate his talk with selections of music from the 1930s to the present. One of the pieces he will play is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, about lynchings in the South.

One of Harel’s favorite composers is Charles Mingus, who responded to Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus’ efforts to bar the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957 with his piece, “Fables of Faubus.” Columbia Records refused to release the original version of the lyrics on Mingus’ 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um,” and it wasn’t until the following year when it was included on the album “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” recorded under a different label.

When four young girls were killed in a church bombing in Alabama in 1963, John Coltrane responded with his work, Alabama, which Harel will also present.

The fourth work he will play for his audience is a tune from the film “Selma.” “It’s not jazz, but it hearkens back to that era and features the integration of jazz with more recent trends of hip-hop and rap,” he said.

“Before rock, jazz was the American musical idiom,” he said. Before streaming services like Spotify and Sirius, that make all kinds of music more accessible, “60 to 70 years ago jazz was the musical identity of this country.”

Even the term jazz is controversial. Duke Ellington, Harel said, “used the term American music. Quincy Jones called it black classical music.

“Jazz should absolutely be classified a classical music and I will explain why in my talk,” Harel said.

The remaining lectures in the Scholarly Series are:

 Sunday, Feb. 9 — Chris Coulter will present “Seriously Satchmo: The Importance of Louis Armstrong, The Early Years” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Wilton Library.

 Sunday, March 8 — Reggie Quinerly will present “The Harlem Renaissance: Connections and Creativity” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Wilton Historical Society, 224 Danbury Road.

 Sunday, April 5 — Brenda Earle Stokes will discuss “Women in Jazz: Past, Present, Future” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Wilton Historical Society.