Chris Nineham reflects on the history of jazz music and the anti-war movement ahead of Stop the War's event with Shabaka Hutchings marking the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
"I dislike war, period. So therefore, as far as I am concerned, it should stop". John Coltrane
In July 1966, the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane embarked on a tour of Japan with his wife Alice Coltrane and the rest of his band. When they arrived at Tokyo airport Coltrane was shocked by the hundreds of fans who welcomed them. Apparently, he thought there must have been a top-ranking politician on the plane.
When the group arrived by train on July 16th for the concert Coltrane had insisted on in Nagasaki, his hosts found him playing the flute in the express train. He said he was searching for an appropriate sound and asked if he could go immediately to the site where the atomic bomb had fallen on the city 21 years before. They took him there before he went to his hotel. He stayed for some time in silence and laid a wreath of flowers.
The politics of music
Coltrane and some other US jazz musicians had a massive following in both Japan and Germany at the time. Paradoxically, the popularity of jazz in these countries was a legacy of the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in both after the second world war. In both countries it had become inflected with politics.
During the sixties, partly in response to the growing civil rights and black power movement, John Coltrane had become progressively more political and his music more experimental. His 1964 ballad “Alabama” served as a requiem for four young girls killed by racists in an arson attack in Birmingham. It was based on the cadences of Martin Luther King's speech in response to the murders. In the years that followed, as the movement grew and radicalised he attended meetings of Malcolm X’s Organization of African American Unity and performed a series of political fundraisers.
Coltrane saw his music as a search for human harmony, but he knew harmony had to be struggled for:
"Music is an expression of higher ideals … brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty … there would be no war … I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force, the force which is truly for good.”
As Coltrane became more political his style became freer and less conventional and his popularity waned in the US. But in Japan and in Germany it grew. Partly this was because Coltrane's music was taken up by the new left seeking a culture opposed to their national pasts but critical too of the cold war superpowers.
On that night of July 16th at Nagasaski, John Coltrane and his band performed a new song, Peace on Earth, an elegy for the dead in the US nuclear attack on Nagasaki and a condemnation of war in general. One of the many complexities of the moment was that his search for musical universality had led him to attempt to fuse western and eastern elements in his music, something obvious in the song. This had a particular charge in the context of both the cold war and the escalating US war in Vietnam. The performance was received rapturously.
In taking this clear, musical anti-war stance as in so much else, John Coltrane was groundbreaking. Post-war Jazz music had a shifting and complicated relationship with politics. At all times it was a play on the pain, paradoxes, and resistance of black life in the US, but it reached way beyond that. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie suggested the complexities of jazz artist's attitudes in the bebop years during and straight after the war:
"We never wished to be restricted to just an American context for we were creators in an artform which has universal roots and which had proved it had universal appeal. Damn right! We refused to accept racism, poverty or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative, humdrum lives merely for the sake of economic survival."
Defiance and subversion were at the heart of bebop's headlong virtuosity and experimentation. In the forties and fifties the FBI were monitoring the activities of a range of leading jazz musicians, suspecting them of anti-segregationist and pro-communist attitudes which they regarded as pretty much the same thing. At the same time, with breathtaking cynicism, they were inviting some of the same musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to act as cultural cold war ambassadors to the USSR and other countries. All in an attempt to counter the US's growing international reputation for racism!
The movement and the moment
John Coltrane's radicalisation during the sixties echoed that of a diverse group of jazz artists including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins who linked musical experiment with more and more explicit political positions inspired not just by civil rights and black power, but also anti-colonial struggle.
In 1958, Sonny Rollins made the 19-minute Freedom Suite, jazz music’s first explicitly acknowledged instrumental protest piece. It was followed in 1960 with Roach's breakthrough album We Insist: Freedom Now which he made with his wife Abbey Lincoln and included the outstanding Freedom Day.
Coltrane's pioneering anti-war song was amongst the last pieces of music he made. He died tragically young at 40 in July 1967. But the great ghetto uprisings, anti-colonialism, the racism of the draft and the growing movement against the Vietnam War were starting to generate a militancy that linked the struggle against racism and poverty with the struggle against an imperial system. Just three months before Coltrane died, in a famous speech at Riverside Church in New York in April 1967 Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War. Almost all his advisors begged him not to take this stand, arguing it would cause a storm of controversy and that it would alienate President Johnson who had signed the Civil Rights Act. But King did not waver, as he said in the speech, '"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
For many activists, Coltrane's music was the most authentic soundtrack to the great struggles of the 1960s. But in the next few tumultuous years a whole range of jazz musicians responded. Grant Green made a bossa inspired guitar groove called 'Cease the Bombing', at the other end of jazz's spectrum in 1970 Charlie Haden worked with Carla Bley and Ornette Coleman on an album of anti-war and anti-imperialist songs under the heading Liberation Music Orchestra. All helped pave the way for the explosion in radical black music of the 1970s.
Before you go...we need your help
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Aukus: ratcheting up Western confrontation with China - video
- The tragedy after the tragedy: 9/11 and the war on Afghanistan
- Back to the future: revolutionary art on the Mersey
- Unite election: The right defeated, the left must seize the moment
- Afghanistan: why Biden is still bombing
- Is the party over? Starmer and the deep problems of social democracy
- Anti-capitalism reborn – why Genoa still matters