Saffron Restaurants reservation Black musicians and athletes helped the US accept desegregation

Black musicians and athletes helped the US accept desegregation

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Musicians and athletes like Duke Ellington and Roy Campanella paved the way for the country’s eventual acceptance of Brown v. Board of Education.

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The 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, reminds us this week that the route to social change is never a straight line.

In this case, which originated in Topeka, Kansas, the way was paved by the all-Black Pullman sleeping car carriers, Negro League ballplayers like Satchel Paige and, more than anyone else, by three revolutionary American maestros named Edward Kennedy’ Duke’ Ellington, Louis. ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and William ‘Count’ Basie, whose music captured the soul of the 20th century.

This trio of African American music makers opened the ears and souls of white America to the grace of their music and their personalities, demonstrating the virtues of black artistry and black humanity. White men who wouldn’t let a black person through their front door tried to woo their lovers with tunes from the Count, the Duke, and the gravel-throated Satchmo. White women dodging African Americans on the sidewalk happily tapped their high heels in the isolation of their living rooms. Even the most die-hard rednecks turned on their radios to hear “One O’Clock Jump” as they drove their trucks through the rolling hills of the backcountry. Race fell away for once as America listened raptly.

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MLK: ‘Jazz speaks for life’

“Jazz speaks for life,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964 to the organizers of the Berlin Jazz Festival. Three years later, the civil rights icon told the Negro National Association of Radio Announcers, “You have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white. Integration at school is much easier now that they share a common music, a common language and enjoy the same dances. … You have taken the power that old (Uncle) Sam had buried deep in his soul, and through our astonishing technology, carried out a cultural conquest that surpasses even Alexander the Great and the culture of classical Greece.

That wasn’t just an exaggeration. Schooled in the history of social change, King knew that among African Americans, only the Pullman porters saw more of the nation than the Jazzmen, and even the porters simply rolled through places like Fargo, North Dakota. But Duke Ellington stayed on one winter evening in 1940 for a concert at the Crystal Ballroom that drew some 700 fans who, for the price of $1.30, heard the orchestra firing on all cylinders. The entire population of North Dakota at the time was only 0.03% black, and in Fargo it was only 30. Racism certainly existed there, but it was not as pervasive as in other parts of the country. The local population’s attention was more focused on dust storms and farm bankruptcies. There was no television to distract people from the raging war, little money for the movies, and not much else to do in a city that celebrated its political and cultural isolation. That left jazz.

Elllington’s concerts that winter in Fargo, along with those in nearby East Grand Forks and Duluth, showed to the heart of America that black musicians could play in front of large white audiences without the sky collapsing, fans rioting or artistic norms being compromised. And these kinds of performances proved to white entrepreneurs that musicians like Duke, the Count and Satchmo could put money in their pockets.

Frank Sinatra’s boost in Las Vegas

Getting to know each other was a two-way street. Their time in the heartland exposed the bandleaders to a raw and uninhibited America that was unknown to people who had grown up in Washington, DC, Red Bank, New Jersey and New Orleans. They watched as farmers, lubricated with beer, fought to get closer to their bandstand, sometimes with guns drawn. They met Frank Sinatra, who took the Basie band to mafia-run Las Vegas and told his bodyguards, “If anyone even looks funny at any member of this band, break both their legs.” Their close-up of another icon of the era, Cary Grant, proved less flattering: Armstrong performed at the heartthrob’s 38th birthday party in Hollywood, where guests, including Grant, arrived in blackface.

Such interactions, which were both venal and congenial, encouraged the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 to strike down the laws segregating America’s public schools, and paved the way for the country’s eventual adoption of the groundbreaking Brown verdict.

Roy Campanella, a standout Negro League catcher who was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line, witnessed that kind of table setting himself: “Without the Brooklyn Dodgers you don’t have Brown v . Board of Education,” he said. “All I know is we were the first on the trains, we were the first in the south not to go behind the restaurant, the first in the hotels. We were the teachers of the whole integration thing.”

Larry Tye’s ninth book, published this month by HarperCollins, is “The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie Transformed America.” Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter, lives on Cape Cod and runs a training program in Boston for health journalists.