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Strange Fruit: Jazz and Race in America

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.

–"Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol first recorded/performed by Billie Holliday 1937

The Beginnings of Jazz

Jazz is considered the first truly American art form, one that was first created and popularized in the United States because it was developed first in the African American community in the late 19th and early 20th century. Jazz has its roots in traditional African music and evolved by fusing with other forms of music and cultures that these founders were forced to interact with. From the combination of African musical rhythms, to John Philip Sousa-style march music, to ragtime to traditional Western African music, to melding with Sicilian in New Orleans to create “Dixieland,” Jazz is founded on the interactions between Blacks and whites in America. The uncomfortable nature of this interaction is at times at the heart of what made Jazz and propelled it forward.

Dixieland Jazz started in New Orleans and was different from other early Jazz forms in America because of the unique elements of the African American experience in New Orleans. Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans had been under Spanish and then later French rule. The Spanish and French placed fewer restrictions on the enslaved people’s cultural and musical practices. The enslaved people were also permitted to gather once a week in Congo Park to sing and dance. This contrasted with the rest of America where traditional African music and traditions were violently repressed and large gatherings of enslaved people were a source of fear from the slave owners. 

Over time, as the United States took control of the Louisiana Purchase, the relaxed approach faded. The last gathering of dancing slaves in Congo Square was reported to be some 10 years or so before the Civil War. But the legacy lived on. Drumming was still a strong part of the music of newly-liberated people as they returned to Congo Square to perform music in the years after the Civil War, but it was absent from the rebirth of African American culture in other parts of the US because, drumming, a large element of traditional African music, had been banned.

The City of New Orleans

Another element that effected the interactions that the freed slaves had with white culture was the fact that New Orleans was a port city, not just for trading, but immigration as well. While not as famous as Boston and New York for its arrival point for European immigrants, New Orleans still served as the landing point for people of all cultures. Among them were the Sicilians who brought their own musical traditions.

Finally, came Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. Established in 1897, Storyville was part of a movement in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century to push vice into tolerance zones or vice districts. Usually, these districts would then subdivide by vice (opium in this area, prostitution in this one, etc.). This practice was known as “segregation” (a term modern audiences now associate with Jim Crow and separate-but-equal laws that were also prevalent in this period). Often, the laws never changed and ample graft was simply paid to officials for their tolerance. Widely popular and to some degree accepted, moral crusaders would occasionally be able to pressure some token raids and pushes to enforce the laws on the books. It wasn’t until the progressive movement of the early 20th century and their push to remove the corruption that these vice districts began to disappear. But while they lasted districts and the brothels, they housed were also a live music center.

Brothels required music to set the tone and ambiance, but in the era before records and radio, this meant live music. Many times, it was just a piano player, called a professor, playing anything from the works of Chopin and Schubert to the latest ragtime. But others also used full bands, it was one of the few places where black musicians could be playing music for white audiences. One of the early ways that Jazz spread (and specifically the New Orleans style) was through musicians joining Vaudeville troupes, touring the country, and playing for audiences who had never heard that style of music before.

The Rise and Segregation of Jazz

As radio and records became part of the cultural landscape in the first half of the 20th century, Jazz became the most popular form of music. From early acts like Scott Joplin and King Oliver to Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Even acts like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby primarily performed Jazz songs. It was not until the emergence of Rock ‘n Roll (and later hip hop), that Jazz’s hold on the pop culture landscape began to fade. But during it’s time at the top, Jazz and race were always intermixed in complex, complicated ways.

Jazz started as an African American form of music, as it rose in popularity it began to be adopted and co-opted by white musicians and audiences. Some of this was by people who simply loved Jazz and would have happily and as time went by did play with African-American musicians, but others saw themselves as taking this new primitive musical genre from the hands of savages and raising it up into a true musical art form. They mainly did this by increasing European musical influences and decreasing the African and Caribbean ones. While many African American artists did rise to fame, they unfortunately never achieved the level of financial success of many of their white counterparts.

While Jazz was created during the segregation of vice, it rose to prominence as the practice was fading away. But while one form of segregation (vice) was ending another (racial segregation) was going strong throughout the United States. Make no mistake--racial segregation was a part of America, not just the South, but all of it. Even in a city like New York City, known as a cosmopolitan mixing pot of progressive ideals, segregation was practiced. White clubs would allow Black performers to play, but they were not permitted attend shows or even eat in the kitchen. While white clubs could feature both white and Black performers for their all white audiences, Black clubs, on the other hand, could only feature Black performers. 

The Cabaret Card System

But this was also the era of prohibition and illegal speakeasy clubs flourished. Inside these clubs, the old social norms were often relaxed. They became a place where black and white audiences could intermingle and enjoy white and black performers on stage. While speakeasies flourished throughout the 1920s (Prohibition in the United States ran 1920 to 1933), they eventually saw a pushback from those horrified at the rejection of traditional values. In New York City, this led to the introduction of the Cabaret Card system in 1926 and its later expansion in 1940.

The Cabaret Card system required anyone who performed entertainment inside a venue where alcohol was served to be licensed by the police. This involved submitting to numerous interviews, background checks, fingerprinting, and being photographed. And it had to be renewed every two years, repeating much of the process. Cards were often used to target performers, especially those who made their living off the New York club scene. Losing a card could become a death blow. This happened in the case of the comedian Lord Buckley, who died shortly after the revocation of his Cabaret Card. This led to reform and the eventual end of the Card system.

Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”

One of the most famous cases of Cabaret Card revocations occurred to Billie Holiday. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was one the biggest and most popular performers in America. But she was also controversial for shining a light on the nation’s racial divisions, especially with one of her signature songs, 1939’s “Strange Fruit.” 

“Strange Fruit” started as a poem written by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol in 1937. Inspired by a photo of a 1930 lynching in Indiana, Meeropol first published the poem, at the time called “Bitter Fruit,” in the New York Teacher. He then later set it to music. Billie Holiday first began performing the song, now “Strange Fruit,” at the Café Society in 1939. Café Society was the first integrated (meaning, not racially-segregated club) in the United States and was located in Greenwich Village in New York City. 

Holiday was nervous performing the song fearing retribution for the song’s frank depictions of violence against African Americans. Despite the misgivings, she persisted, and the song became a staple of her repertoire. Later in 1939 (and again in 1944), she would record the song, which would go on to become her bestselling record. But this success, and more importantly a success inexorably linked to the racial injustice that African Americans faced daily, made her a target. In May 1947, Holiday was arrested on narcotics charges.

It has never been proven that Holiday’s arrest was the direct result of her highlighting racial injustice, but it has long been suspected to be a leading factor. This is further supported by the way Lenny Bruce was targeted nearly 15 years later for speech that those in power felt challenged the system. The arrest also fit a more general pattern of police targeting African American Jazz musicians. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were also arrested and had their Cabaret Cards pulled, at least for a time. There was a moral panic around Jazz and African American musicians that lasted for decades. That panic led directly to the creation of the Card system and the periodic arrests and revocations were to remind performers of their place.

Holiday eventually made a comeback, but due to the loss of her Cabaret Card, she was forced to perform in venues without liquor licenses, such as her memorable performance at Carnegie Hall in March of 1948. Holiday was only able to make a living this way because of the advanced level of fame she had achieved before the loss of her card. Other performers were not as lucky, as seen in a letter that Charlie Parker sent several years after the loss of his card, begging to have it reinstated so he could provide for his family. 

As the years moved forward, and the Civil Rights movement began, Jazz was there, with “Strange Fruit” often serving as a painful, wrenching anthem for change. It has also been argued that Jazz itself helped steer society to be able to accept African Americans as equal citizens. Jazz was one of the first African American art forms to spread through American culture. It also emerged along new technology (records, radio, movies) that made it impossible to hide the blackness of the creators. 


Jazz became one of the leaders in demonstrating desegregation on a national level. Benny Goodman, a white bandleader who was one of the top performers of the big band era, was the first to integrate his band, hiring African American piano player Teddy Wilson in 1935. For context, the most famous act of integration at such level that is still celebrated today was Jackie Robinson crossing the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but that didn’t occur until April 1947. 

At the forefront of putting African American culture, African American performers, their voices, their faces, their personalities into the homes and lives of everyday Americans was Jazz. This gave citizens, especially white ones who had little exposure to African Americans, a chance to view them as something more than the strange other people to be fearful of. Jazz was one of the first times African Americans were able to carve out a place for themselves in white society, pushing to be acknowledged and accepted.

As we have seen recently, race relations and true racial justice in America still have a long way to go, but Jazz music shows us a bit of how we got here and just how far we have come. 

Writer: Adam Savage | Editor: Colleen Walker



Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007) ISBN 9781400065301

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century. Crown Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-39522-1.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

Book by Richard Zacks


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