Jazz and Baseball: The Desegregation Connection

March 28th, 2014

 

“I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball. They’re the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced.”

—Gerald Early, cultural critic

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Spring is upon us, and so is the start of the baseball season. As Gerald Early points out, there are great connections between jazz and baseball, prominent of which is the role that desegregation of each institution played in creating the political climate essential to the civil rights movement.

There are interesting similarities among two of the leading African American figures of the era who helped integrate their professions, not the least of which was the quality of their character.  To Branch Rickey, after thoroughly investigating the college-educated Jackie Robinson, he felt he was the right fit for baseball’s “noble [integration] experiment” because, according to Robinson, Rickey thought that he was a “great ballplayer and a fine gentleman” with “guts enough not to fight back.”  And to producer/talent scout John Hammond – who in 1935 urged a reluctant Benny Goodman to make the pianist Teddy Wilson part of his trio – Wilson was “the first young black musician I had come across who was the child of intellectuals” who “had the bearing, demeanor, and attitude toward life which would enable him to survive in a white society.”

Of course, character was important, but so was competence. In Robinson, Rickey found a baseball player who was also the country’s most versatile athlete – its best football player, a basketball shooting guard, a track star, and a golfer who, according to Robinson biographer Scott Simon, “could have potentially even been an inter-collegiate champion if so many courses hadn’t been segregated at that point.” In Wilson, Hammond “saw the only piano player I could conceive of with the same technical facility Benny had – and who thought and was cool in the same way.”

A year after Wilson joined Goodman, Lionel Hampton was added, and the integration of jazz on the bandstand was well on its way, just as years later, Robinson’s success led to the likes of Larry Doby, Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige joining him in the major leagues. While it is Robinson’s biography that people are most familiar with, it is important to remember that, along with World War II,  it was the integration of the bandstand — and eventually the entertainment culture — that helped set the stage for Rickey and  Robinson.  Let’s keep that in mind when the first pitch of the baseball season is thrown this weekend.

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Teddy Wilson Trio, with Jo Jones play “Honeysuckle Rose”

Read our interview with Jackie Robinson biographer Scott Simon

Read our interview with John Hammond biographer Dunstan Prial

 

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