May 18, 2024

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Jazz greats on what it was really like to tour during Jim Crow: Photos, Videos

Though the Oscar-nominated film focuses on its white savior, for black jazz artists in the 1950s and early ’60s, the road was filled with rejection and humiliation. Ask just about any musician and they’ll tell you that touring is one of the hardest parts of the job. For black musicians working before 1964’s Civil Rights Act, though, it was nearly impossible, due to both Jim Crow laws and less codified discrimination.

Not only were the vast majority of theaters and clubs across the country segregated, but the challenge of finding a place to stay or a restaurant to eat in added a layer of complexity that white musicians simply didn’t have to deal with.

The recent film Green Book attempts to depict this reality. The Best Picture nominee purports to tell the true story of jazz pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and how the titular guidebook, filled with destinations that would welcome black travelers, helped him tour the South in 1962 alongside his white chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).

Co-written by Vallelonga’s son, the movie has proven controversial in a number of troubling ways. Shirley’s living relatives condemned the film as inaccurate, and said that when the pianist was approached about Green Book by Vallelonga while he was still alive, he didn’t want it to be made. The praise the movie has received from Hollywood’s biggest institutions, including a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy last month, has been tempered by substantial backlash that positions it in a long line of cliched “white savior” films.

Watching Green Book is not likely to persuade skeptics, but there is value in its portrayal of life on the road for black musicians—the vast majority of whom didn’t have charmingly folksy, eventually less-racist white bodyguards. It’s a story that gets taken for granted: Black artists were as vital to the American entertainment industry then as they are now, yet the travel that their jobs required was often life-threatening. Even when they could avoid violent confrontations, being hassled by police, or explicit segregation, tacit prejudice was next to impossible to escape.

Albert “Tootie” Heath (photo by Jazz Services/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

When you ask black artists who were active in the 1950s and early ’60s about the kinds of discrimination they encountered, their answers are matter of fact. “It was the normal stuff,” says Albert “Tootie” Heath, an 83-year-old drummer who played with John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Herbie Hancock. “The same things you’d expect,” echoes Norman Simmons, 89, a pianist renowned for his skill at accompanying vocalists including Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Anita O’Day.

For them, it’s difficult to recall all the times they confronted racism in their lives as touring musicians, since such experiences were all too common. But the details of what they had to endure to make not just a living, but a lasting impact on American culture are even more upsetting without the swelling strings and soft lights of Hollywood.

One of the central struggles for black touring musicians pre-Civil Rights Act was just finding a place to stay. In the movie, Shirley and Vallelonga are able to stay in the same hotel while traveling in the North, and once they get to the South, Shirley is confined to much shoddier accommodations. According to the five legendary jazz players I spoke with, the problem was much more widespread—and it couldn’t be solved by a Green Book, shorthand for The Negro Motorist Green Book, a real series of guidebooks published until 1966 for black travelers. “You just knew where to go,” recalls Tootie’s older brother Jimmy, 92, a bandleader and former sideman to Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard.

“We weren’t able to stay in a lot of the big hotels [anywhere] because they’d tell us they didn’t have any rooms,” says Tootie, who mostly toured in the North and Midwest during that period. “We’d call up and make a reservation, then when we showed up and they saw us, they’d say they were sorry, that they were filled up, that somebody made a mistake. Which of course wasn’t true.”

“You weren’t allowed to stay in hotels on the way to California,” recalls prolific 88-year-old bassist Richard Davis, who’s worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Eric Dolphy as well as Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. “You just kept driving. It was hard. I remember telling a guy, ‘I might get sleepy and have an accident.’”

Louis Hayes (image courtesy of artist)

Drummer Louis Hayes, now 81, was playing with Cannonball Adderley in the late ’50s, and Adderley brought the band to the South to perform at historically black colleges. Hayes, who was based in New York at the time, doesn’t recall any specific discrimination—but he does say they never stopped anywhere overnight outside of the universities. “It was five of us in two cars,” he says. “We just changed drivers and kept going.”

Going further west didn’t exactly change the situation. Simmons’ trio got a three-month contract at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1956. At the time, the city was so segregated it was known as “the Mississippi of the West.” Like most black performers on the Strip, Simmons was not permitted to stay at the hotel where he was working. Instead the band was to find housing in a majority-black area, which Simmons says had no paved roads and was “on the other side of the tracks.” While on the job, he and his trio weren’t permitted to talk to customers at the venue; they were relegated to a table in the corner when they weren’t playing.

Once, Simmons says, a few women started talking to him and his band after their set. He told them to meet the group at a club in the neighborhood where he was staying, where black musicians would go to jam after hours. But the women never showed up. Years later, he learned that the women had been unable to get a taxi that would take them to there. “I found out that none of the waitresses and hostesses working on the Strip were allowed to go over there,” Simmons says.

Another problem that followed musicians around the country was finding places to eat. Outside of major cities in the North, musicians usually operated under the assumption that they’d have to get their food to go. Being refused a table was so common they often didn’t even ask for one, and would eat takeout in their cars or occasionally in the cheap hotels where they were permitted to stay.

Richard Davis (image courtesy of artist)

“They wouldn’t serve you,” Davis, a Chicago native, remembers. “That happened also in the North. In some instances, if a band had musicians who looked white, they’d send in one of those guys to get the food, and he’d bring it out.” Davis was pragmatic about how he coped with the challenge of eating on the road: “Well, I always carried a sandwich.”

“After the ’60s, it got much better because it was illegal for them to discriminate—they had to let you in,” says Jimmy. “But restaurants were always negligent to people of color. They’d fix the food but you couldn’t sit there.”

Simmons remembers going through the South with jazz vocalist Dakota Staton on the way to California, “driving all day trying to find a place where you could stop and get something to eat.” The place they found wouldn’t let them walk in the front door, sending them around to the back patio. “They had black cooks back there though, and they really fed us,” recalls Simmons, laughing.

If discrimination was a national problem, there’s no question that it was more direct once musicians hit the deep South. Especially for musicians who had grown up in the North, the overtness of Jim Crow remains unbelievable to this day.

“Coming up in Detroit, I wasn’t aware of all of the racism that was going on,” says Hayes, who began playing drums around the city when he was a teenager. “It was all over the place, but it didn’t affect me because I didn’t have enough sense for it to affect me. You didn’t have to go into back doors or use different drinking fountains or go to a different school.” A trip to perform in Birmingham in his late teens, though, proved eye-opening. “I was in a pharmacy, and I went over and opened up a magazine,” Hayes starts. “This lady looked at me and said, ‘You’re not from down here, are you?’ That was a very uncomfortable job, I’ll leave it at that.”

The day-to-day struggles of sleeping and eating were monotonous compared to the battles within the venues themselves. By the early ’50s, theaters and clubs had become some of the most visible fronts for artists and activists to fight for civil rights. Producer Norman Granz made headlines by refusing to take his all-star show “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” featuring Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and countless others, to segregated venues. In 1951, the NAACP organized a boycott of a segregated Virginia theater where Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan were scheduled for performances, to pressure the venue to drop the policy. (A parallel lawsuit by the NAACP was dismissed by a Virginia court later that year, and segregation remained.) In 1956—a year or so after Hayes’ trip to Birmingham— Nat King Cole was attacked there by white supremacists while performing for a segregated audience. Starting in 1958, white bandleader Dave Brubeck was pressured by Southern universities to find a substitute for his black bassist, Eugene Wright; Brubeck canceled shows rather than comply.

Jimmy Heath (photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Even in the Midwest we’d have to play separate dances,” Jimmy says of his time with Nat Towles’ band in the mid-1940s. “We’d play one day for the white people, and one day for black people.”

“We worked mainly in the North,” recalls Hayes of his stint with Cannonball Adderley, whom he joined in the late ’50s. “But I remember an incident in Baltimore where we played the first set, and Cannonball went outside the club and saw all these young people of color who wanted to come in but had been told they couldn’t.” Baltimore’s liquor licenses, according to a 1955 piece in the Afro-American, were divided by race: You either had a license to serve black customers or a license to serve white ones. “So Cannon went back up on stage and made a little speech, and we packed up and left. That was the end of that.”

“We always spoke about it, but we just had to roll with the punches,” Jimmy adds. “We had to play wherever we were wanted, and accept the conditions although they were harsh. It wasn’t easy, no. But there were certain areas where the people of color had their own facilities, and that was good because we didn’t have to go through the indignities of being black.”

Many musicians lived in New York, where there were at least more integrated spaces—even if discrimination was still rampant. Europe, still a popular touring destination for jazz artists, also seemed like a refuge from the inescapable racism stateside. “When I went to Paris for the first time in 1948, it was a revelation to be respected,” Jimmy recalls. “A lot of musicians stayed there because of that.” Hayes experienced the flip side, though: “I was in Italy teaching, and this little Italian fellow—he was so funny—walked up and showed me a picture of an African with a bone through his nose and said, ‘That’s your ancestor,’” he says.

The experiences of these musicians might not be as dramatic or violent as the ones portrayed in Green Book, which shows Shirley in multiple brutal confrontations with police. Instead they speak to the draining struggle to work, move, and simply exist that shaped the lives of black artists for decades. They pushed back to the extent that they could, but they had no choice but to bear the inevitable oppression—if they wanted to continue making music. That music remains as a testament to both their remarkable skill and what they endured to share it.

“I lived through it, but a lot of my friends did not,” Jimmy Heath concludes. “They suffered the whole of their lives, and then passed. America was supposed to be this great country where everybody’s free… it was bullshit, really.”

Davis, the bassist who’s worked with some of jazz and pop’s most important names, puts it succinctly: “It’s nothing new, it happens today.”

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