Black Freemasonry: Jazzmen and Black Artists

Armstrong
Armstrong WikiMedia
Louis Armstrong, 29 October 1955

The visitors to the jazz museum* occupying a small hall on the top floor of a building on a small street in Harlem receive a warm welcome because they are rare. If, in addition, they are knowledgeable enough to ask a few questions about Freemasonry, they will stupefy their hosts, as it is still not common knowledge that Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and many others were lodge members. The jazz museum is currently undergoing renovation and will soon set up shop in premises much worthier of the cultural influence it seeks to have in the heart of Harlem.

*I visited it in July 2012.

The histories written about jazz do not mention the Masonic membership of many musicians, although there may be some exceptions. The same is true for the biographical sketches, although they are generally well informed, posted by American National Biography Online.1 We are in Raphaël Imbert’s debt for the first materials on jazz and Freemasonry.2 Not only did he attempt to take a census of Freemason jazzmen, but he also deeply analyzed the spiritual dimension of jazz, which has heavily influenced American society since its golden age in the 1920s and throughout the twentieth century.3 This does not mean, he says, “that there is some kind of Masonic jazz. Or rather, there are no musical Masonic rituals that can be identified as jazz.”4

The word jazz appeared for the first time in written form in 1913.

Imbert breaks down the spiritual dimension of jazz into three tendencies: “religious, mystical, and metaphysical.”5 He rightly demonstrates that the religious dimension is an abiding presence for these musicians, much more than it is for most European musicians. The attitude of the American churches, which in most cases supported the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement, just like the lodges of Prince Hall, explains the attachment of many black Masons to the religious tradition, as I have tried to show in the preceding chapters.

I am not going to focus so much on the “spiritual” dimension of the bond between jazz and Freemasonry as on the social aspects. In fact the so-called royal art and the art of music have coupled harmoniously to accompany the social rise from poverty of a large number of artists who also had to confront a society that was still strongly gripped by racial discrimination.

The Racist Context and Social Ascent of Jazzmen

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, 29 October 1955

Several of these musicians were born in dire poverty. In his autobiography, Satchmo,* Louis Armstrong describes the wretched conditions in which his family lived in New Orleans during the years 1910–1920, in a neighborhood where violence and prostitution got on well with each other. As a teenager he was sent to a juvenile home for firing a shot in the air to defend himself against a criminal threatening him, and he was also a small-time pimp for a while until he was able to make a living from his concerts.

*It is not certain that Armstrong was a Mason, and some have claimed he was not the author of this autobiography, but this takes nothing away from the validity of the observations about society at that time.

Armstrong’s father, a worker in a turpentine factory, abandoned him at an early age, and he rarely saw him. It so happened that his father was a member of the Odd Fellows, the mutual-aid society that often included the same members as the Prince Hall Lodges. Armstrong recounts with some pride how his father took part every year in the great parade as a grand marshal.6 He later explains that all the clubs paraded in New Orleans: “the Odd fellows, the Masons, the Knights of Pythias (my lodge).”7 It is likely that, like his father, Armstrong joined fraternal societies and that “my lodge” refers to the Knights of Pythias and not the Freemasons. He says he was also a member of the Tammany Soul and Pleasure Club.8

It is certain that these societies or clubs played a very similar role to that of the Masonic lodges by affording their members social recognition that was all the more valuable as they were often of humble extraction and the victims of racial discrimination. At the end of the First World War, while playing concerts in New Orleans, Armstrong was still obliged to deliver carts of coal in order to make a living.

Membership in Freemasonry conferred a guarantee of respectability and good morality. This was of such import that Dizzy Gillespie wrote in his autobiography that he was not initiated because he was living with a woman out of wedlock and had neglected to mention it to the lodge members, who learned of it on their own.

Chicago attracted many jazz musicians, and Nat King Cole took advantage of the fact that his family had decided to move there in 1923, when he was just four years old. The city, all the same, was not a haven from racist behavior, including that of “colored” people who wanted to assimilate completely into white society, as shown by the following incident that Cole experienced a short time later.

Once in Chicago, I sat down on a bus next to this light-skinned black lady, and she turned to me and said: “You are black and you stink and you can never wash it off.”10

These remarks, which were all the more hurtful coming from a black woman, left an indelible impression on Cole. Later, when the musician had successfully broken into an artistic milieu that was largely white, he had to confront many forms of discrimination, or at least some unpleasant incidents. When he tried to buy what was a veritable ­palace—a fourteen-room home—in one of the most bourgeois neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Hancock Park, a homeowners’ association, tried to oppose it by suing the seller. A year later the B’nai Brith,* a Masonic-like Jewish organization, published a report denouncing the organizations guilty of discrimination against blacks. Among them they cited the homeowners’ association that had harassed Cole and his wife: the Hancock Park Property Owners Association.11

When Cole neglected, it must be said, to pay his taxes, his Cadillac and house were confiscated, and the musician barely managed to hold on to his property by negotiating a repayment plan for his fiscal debts. Finally, during a concert tour in the South, he was physically attacked by four people in the middle of a concert in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. His assailants were arrested and convicted thanks to the support of the mayor of Birmingham and the determination of the judges, who were outraged by this openly racist assault.12

Notes

1.American National Biography Online, www.anb.org (accessed May 22, 2015). 

2.Imbert, “Jazz en vies”; Imbert, Jazz suprême. 

3.Tirro, Jazz, A History, 91.

4.Imbert, “Jazz en vies,” 145–46; Imbert, Jazz suprême, 72.

5.Ibid.

6.Armstrong, Satchmo, 29.

7.Ibid., 225.

8.Ibid., 163.

9.Quoted in Imbert, Jazz suprême, 138.

10.Nat King Cole, quoted in Haskins and Benson, Nat King Cole, 18.

11.Haskins and Benson, Nat King Cole, 82.

12.Ibid., 138–39.

Excerpted from Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz by Cécile Révauger with permission from the publisher, Inner Traditions. Available now at Amazon and other good booksellers.
Cécile Révauger is a respected historian of Freemasonry and a professor at the University of Bordeaux. The author of several books on Freemasonry in French, she lives in the Bordeaux region of Southern France.

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