Jazz and the FBI: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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Max Roach

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The two FBI agents came to Max Roach’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with a lot of questions. They wanted to know how well the drummer knew certain people, if he was leading his band in concerts to benefit civil rights groups, what Roach thought about integration, and the kind of mail he got from black activists.

The agents would not have needed to do much digging to get some idea about the drummer’s politics. He had progressed relentlessly, first as a dominant bebop musician, then to his fruitful, tragically curtailed partnership with trumpeter Clifford Brown. By the time of the mild summer Monday in 1965, when the FBI agents came to his door, his career was well established as an outspoken leader of his own group.

A trip to a record store would have shown his work in the past few years included the seminal We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, complete with a grainy black-and-white news photograph adorning its cover, showing African-American students at a lunch counter sit-in, protesting segregation. If they shuffled further in the record bins they might have also come across Speak, Brother, Speak! Roach was unambiguous in his politics and proclaimed them with exclamation marks.

But the FBI agents wanted details. The bureau had been keeping close tabs on the civil rights movement, accumulating massive files on leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI, under the long arc of director J. Edgar Hoover, also spent countless hours investigating thousands of celebrities, entertainers, writers and other prominent individuals during the Cold War. The official story was that the effort rooted out communists and others who wanted to overthrow the government. The reality is that countless citizens who had not committed wrongdoing found their lives under the bureau’s lens of hyper-acuity.

Jazz musicians like Roach did not escape the FBI’s heightened scrutiny, newly disclosed documents reveal. The documents were obtained through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI, and offer a view into the expansive ways it monitored prominent Americans.

The dossier on Roach reveals that the drummer showed no signs of hesitating to answer their questions. But he did ask one thing: that the agents did not disturb his wife, the singer and actress Abbey Lincoln. She had just returned from a hectic tour of the South, promoting her new motion picture, Nothing But a Man, a searing look at race relations. She was asleep, “very tired and needed her rest badly,” the agents noted later in their report. Besides, he said, she could not add to anything he would tell them.

They honored his request.

And, on that July 19, they dug for details.

It was an era when questions about integration dominated headlines. The day the agents walked to Roach’s apartment door, courts granted the federal government broader authority to enforce school desegregation. Federal prosecutors were taking legal action against a Louisiana police chief for fomenting racial violence. And Greensboro, N.C., a town a few hours from where Roach was born, was pressured to drop a literacy test designed to turn away black voters.

The agents would type up their notes documenting their interview with Roach. He told them he was “very active” in the civil rights movement. Yes, he had led his band in benefit concerts for key groups in the movement like SNCC and CORE. He believed in the philosophy espoused by Martin Luther King: that integration was best promoted through nonviolence. No, he told them, he did not agree with any group that would want to take over the U.S. government by force.

The agents bore into what appeared to be the real purpose of their visit: What did Roach know about the Revolutionary Action Movement, a small group the FBI viewed as a violent organization? The bureau ranked it as a precursor to the Black Panthers, favoring violence and socialism and financially supporting a felon who had fled prosecution for Cuba.

Did he ever meet certain members of the Revolutionary Action Movement? Well, yes, he recalled an incident several years earlier in Cleveland. Did he ever get mailings from them? Yes, but nothing he sought to have sent to him. Did he learn anything else about its activities? Only what he had seen in newspapers.

Roach said if they had any more questions, he was always available and gave them his telephone numbers.

The agents did not take Roach’s word that he had no real involvement with the Revolutionary Action Movement; they also checked with two informants. Both confirmed his account that he was not a member or supporter of the organization.

It would not be the end of their interest in Roach, and he was not the only jazz musician scrutinized by the FBI. The files on dozens of jazz musicians reveal that the nation’s top law enforcement agency’s obsessions included the role they played in the civil rights movement.

The files also offer a glimpse into the broad range of investigative techniques they used to shadow the musicians. They talked with neighbors and people they knew. In some cases, like with Roach, agents interviewed them. They tracked their movements. They clipped newspaper stories about their activities and pronouncements.

However, the dossiers released to the public do not reveal the full scope of their efforts. The bureau, for instance, whited-out the names of its agents who visited Roach. The bureau often cites national security or privacy as reasons for other redactions. The attention lavished by the bureau is, in an odd way, a reminder that these were not just musicians boxed in a genre appreciated by only parts of society, but artists who attained a place among the most popular entertainers of the day.

Among the earliest entries are those for Duke Ellington, reaching back to the 1930s. FBI agents in various offices around the country paid special attention to Ellington’s performances at benefits and endorsements of causes. All had a pedigree the bureau found questionable.

Agents compiled a dossier that runs as a counterpoint during his life, hitting notes that have little to do with his musical achievements. The first entry is from 1938. Jazz historians mark this as the year Ellington first met Billy Strayhorn. For the FBI, it was when he performed for the All-Harlem Youth Conference in May, a progressive gathering that included well wishes sent by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Another entry related to the civil rights struggle dates from 1943. It was just after the brief, famous formation of the Ben Webster-Jimmy Blanton edition of his band. Not for the FBI. Instead, to the bureau, it was the year he appeared at a “Tribute to Negro Servicemen” concert, an event supported by two suspect groups.

The next year marked the release of a recording of Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. The FBI makes no note of that piece, let alone its racial overtones. Instead, agents noted that he performed at a benefit to ban poll taxes, an onerous surcharge many local communities used to deter African-American voting.

There are entries involving other causes, for example when Ellington supported those who fought against Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, opposed fascism and aided refugees. Each involved a group that the FBI considered as tied to communist efforts to undermine the United States.

The year 1966, one prior to the death of Strayhorn and one following Ellington’s first sacred music concert, was of no musical interest to the FBI. But the bureau documented that he appeared on a Texas campus with James Foreman, leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a prominent civil rights organization.

Ellington, quoted by critic Stanley Dance, expressed frustration when asked in the 1960s about why he had not done more for civil rights. The bandleader responded, “If you knew what you were talking about, you wouldn’t ask a question like that.” He walked away to cool off. Then he came back and said, “We have been working on the Negro situation and his condition in the South since the ’30s … we had done shows, musical works, benefits …”

The questioner may not have been keeping track. But the FBI paid attention.

Shortly after agents began tracking Ellington, they also opened a dossier on another big-band leader, Cab Calloway. In fact, their files overlap in two instances involving their opposition to segregation.

The FBI began examining Calloway in the early 1940s, when he was still popular, but after peaks that included hits like “Minnie the Moocher,” a long-running gig at Harlem’s Cotton Club, and touring with a band featuring young talents like Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Webster.

The earliest entry involves supporting New York City Council candidate Benjamin Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate who joined the Communist Party. The party enjoyed some pockets of popular support at the time, and attracted voters in part because of its vocal opposition to segregation. Calloway was not his only celebrity endorser. Ellington’s FBI file shows that he, too, backed Davis. So did other stars like Lena Horne.

Davis would go on to win the seat in 1943 to represent the Harlem council district. The FBI dutifully clipped out a newspaper photograph showing Calloway and Horne smiling with Davis. The councilman would go on to win reelection two more times before being jailed in 1949 on charges of conspiring against the government.

A year after that picture was cut out for his file, the FBI compiled a report on an organization that called for the United States to support the rights of blacks in Africa. That included ending South Africa’s pass laws, a cornerstone to that nation’s apartheid system. An informant tipped off the FBI that both Calloway and Ellington were among performers who backed a 1944 benefit for the group, celebrating Paul Robeson’s birthday.

Two years later, a meat packer’s strike in Chicago caught the FBI’s attention. The bitter labor dispute encompassed more than just worker rights. It expanded to protests against businesses like restaurants, bars and a roller-skating rink that barred blacks. It condemned real-estate restrictions that prevented African-Americans from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. The NAACP, CORE, churches and civil rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph joined politicians and other community leaders in public appearances supporting the effort. And Calloway, the FBI noted, was among them.

Perhaps the best-known instance of the FBI keeping tabs on jazz musicians centers on Louis Armstrong, when he was at a crest in his worldwide popularity, and was often paid by the U.S. State Department to tour other nations as a cultural ambassador.

On Sept. 18, 1957, Armstrong was in his hotel room, preparing for a concert in Grand Forks, N.D. The headlines that day reported on how Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, an avowed segregationist, used the state’s National Guard to help block nine black students from integrating Little Rock’s Central High School.

Tensions escalated. This action was taking place despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling in favor of school desegregation nationwide. President Eisenhower took tepid measures at first. He negotiated with the governor. Days passed. Violence ensued from protesters when the students attempted again to enroll. The Little Rock mayor beseeched Eisenhower to step in.

Armstrong, not known for strong political pronouncements, told a reporter in the midst of the crisis, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He criticized Eisenhower for being “two-faced” and having “no guts.”

Even more, Armstrong announced he would back up his words with action: He would not tour the Soviet Union as a government-sponsored cultural ambassador. He said, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

The local story was picked up and became national news. FBI agents took careful notes and monitored press accounts of the pronouncement and fallout. Some citizens sent copies of the story to make sure the FBI did not miss it. One anonymous letter to the bureau challenged Armstrong’s patriotism.

A few days later, on Sept. 24, Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and brought in paratroopers, forcing integration.

Armstrong wired Eisenhower: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy.” He proclaimed, “This is the greatest country,” and would reconsider touring Russia.

The FBI noted the continuing fallout. A University of Arkansas concert was canceled soon afterward because of Armstrong’s remarks.

Armstrong resumed touring other nations as a cultural ambassador, though he never went to the Soviet Union.

What is seldom noticed is that, even before Armstrong’s remarks about the Little Rock crisis, the FBI had been keeping tabs on Armstrong for nearly a decade. The entries range from the mundane—a person they were tracking in 1948 had Armstrong’s phone number—to the dangerous. It noted that in February 1957, in Knoxville, Tenn., someone exploded dynamite near a stage where Armstrong was performing. But the dossier reveals no notations that the nation’s top law enforcement agency then investigated the blast, or that the case was ever solved.

It is not the only time the FBI files documented violence against jazz musicians. In 1956, four white segregationists in Birmingham, Ala., attacked Nat “King” Cole while he was performing onstage with an integrated band. They were arrested by local police and later convicted.

The FBI kept a long-running file on Cole, examining time and again whether he sympathized with communists while he became one of jazz’s biggest stars in the 1950s. His file includes a two-page 1957 report written directly to Hoover, documenting concerns in Las Vegas.

The agent had lunch with an unidentified informant. The agent reported that person’s biggest concern: “His most pressing problem at the moment is Nat King Cole, who is presently the featured attraction at the Sands Hotel.”

The reason this was so pressing? Hotels on the strip had long been segregated when it came to lodgings. “Recently, however, top flight colored entertainers have been allowed to stay at the hotel where they were performing. These performers include Cole … ” The Sands and two other hotels were allowing black guests, while all others continued to bar them.

The agent promised Hoover that FBI agents would step up efforts to monitor events in Las Vegas. There are no other entries about the tensions in the gambling capital.

While the FBI has redacted the names of many of the agents who filed these reports, in this case, it did not. The agent who wrote about Cole in Las Vegas was Mark Felt, who would go on to become Deep Throat, providing key information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon.

Rooting out communism, and wary that it was entwined with the civil rights movement, runs through the files. Rarely do agents actually expose evidence that someone really was a communist. One exception: leading concert promoter Norman Granz, perhaps best known for his Jazz at the Philharmonic series.

Informants tipped the FBI that Granz, before becoming a noted impresario, had been a member of the Communist Party in the mid-1940s. In 1956, agents interviewed Granz. He confirmed the allegation. His major reason for joining was the party’s strong stance for civil rights. The FBI agent reported that Granz said that a Los Angeles bookstore owner recommended he join the party, “inasmuch as this was one organization which sought to improve the lot of various minority groups.” After attending about 10 meetings, Granz quit the party in 1946 and thereafter opposed communism.

The FBI and U.S. State Department decided the dalliance was not enough to pull his passport, crucial to his extensive touring with such stars as Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. In 1956, Granz dodged having to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee because he was in Europe, and a subpoena could not be served. Still, news of his party affiliation was leaked to at least one newspaper.

The FBI did not stop tracking Granz. In the late 1960s, he was quoted in a London newspaper supporting civil rights. Agents examined whether that extended to aiding more strident elements, including supporting the controversial black activist Stokely Carmichael. It could not document that connection.

When it came to the civil rights movement, the FBI kept tabs on other jazz artists. The heavily redacted file on Charles Mingus, for instance, showed that it tracked press accounts and used informants to monitor him, in part for “racial matters.” His politics would have been easy to discern by visiting book and records shops. His autobiography Beneath the Underdog made his views plain, and the FBI had noted a newspaper review of the book.

This February, at New York’s Jazz Standard, the Mingus Big Band was showcasing his music from 1959, a year that included such recordings as “Fables of Faubus,” a song mocking the Arkansas governor. During a break between sets, his widow, Sue Mingus, was shown the FBI file for the first time. “This is frightening,” she said. Particularly upsetting is that the files cast a cloud over the person investigated, even though there are no criminal charges. “That’s the most insidious.”

She said the FBI didn’t need to go to such lengths. His politics were not hidden, and, though “he was not a joiner,” he had long supported civil rights efforts and anti-war campaigns. “There was nothing secretive or covert about Mingus. He was an open book about everything,” she said. And anyone attending his concerts would have seen that. “He used the bandstand as his soapbox.”

Mingus’ FBI file includes documenting a 1971 gathering in New York by a group that opposed the Vietnam War and racism. Along with Mingus, the list of notable personalities at the event included author Norman Mailer, actor Ossie Davis and JazzTimes columnist Nat Hentoff.

Hentoff said he could not recall details about the event—it was one of countless rallies he attended—but that the FBI’s tactics were too sweeping. He cautioned that the dossiers kept on noted jazz musicians should not be seen just as something from the past, but as cautionary tales about something that could happen today, as federal agents since 9/11 have been granted expanded authority to conduct investigations. Those policies, he said, continue under the new administration.

While FBI agents devoted countless hours compiling all these reports, sometimes circulating these documents among Hoover and the bureau’s other top officials, it found nothing that led to any prosecutions. Indeed, when President Johnson’s staff asked for a background check on Armstrong and Ellington, a routine procedure when someone may visit the White House, the FBI reported back that its files, in both cases, contained nothing that would be “pertinent.”

Still, the bureau kept tabs. For Max Roach, that continued into the 1970s.

In 1972, he toured the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where a local newspaper identified him as a member of the Black Panthers. The FBI got hold of the story. It checked with sources and was convinced that the statement was untrue.

On May 2, 1973, members of the Black Liberation Army, wanted for bank robberies, engaged in a shootout with New Jersey state troopers. The outcome was bloody. One trooper died. A BLA member was killed. At the scene, police found that one of the BLA members had a notebook. Among the names inside was that of Roach. Agents checked with sources. They could find no information that linked the drummer as a support, and decided against interviewing him again. A week later agents recommended closing that chapter of the file.

Still, a year later, the FBI continued checking whether Roach was involved with the BLA. He was teaching at the University of Massachusetts. An agent in New York checked with a source, but came up empty. The FBI in Boston considered arranging another interview with Roach. There is no notation that he ever spoke with them again.

Originally published in April 2009

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