Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

13 Comments Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

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  2. domeshotsfatlaces@gmail.com'Hamza Umar (Hamza 21)

    Although I have been a Muslim for nearly 18 years this is really the first piece I’ve read about Islam and Jazz musicians. Most works usually have a passing mention that certain musicians became Muslims. This is indeed fascinating. Although this is a short piece I would loved if you included how did Islam came to be known jazz musicians and was there a conscious effort to spread Islam by jazz musicians?

  3. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    @Hamza,
    Salaams. The link or interplay between jazz musicians and Islam is nothing new. There are many famous jazz musicians that became interested in Islam: Abdullah Ibrahim [from South Africa], Sahib Shihab [who later became an ex-pat living in Europe], Yusef Lateef, Ali Rashied, Idris Muhammad [ditto], and Pharoah Sanders, just to name a few [Sanders, for instance had several albums that were in indirect/direct reference to his Muslimness – Tauhid {yes, the name of the album}, Deaf Dumb Blind, and The Creator Has A Master Plan, as a few samples].

    As for how Islam came to them is still being researched. Certainly, many came to know Islam through some of the proto-Islamic groups that were about in the black urban centers of the North [Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple, etc.], but there were also other groups such as the Ahmadiyyahs [through which the afrementioned Yusef Lateef is believed to have converted through]. It would seem that the experiences in conversion are as varied as the individuals themselves. As for prostylitizing, I have not seen any conclusive evidence that there have been any missionary efforts on the parts of Muslim jazz musicians. I will follow up more info on this topic in the future, in sha’Allah.

  4. sar293@nyu.edu'Samira

    Assalaamualaikum:

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been reading a lot of literature on passing from both the mid to late 19th c. (Clotel, The Bondwomen’s Narrative, Iola Leroy) and other novels from around the Harlem Renaissance (Passing, Diary of an Ex-Coloured Man). This explains why I was drawn to the moments in your paper where you discuss a type of “passing” that does not rely on a physical whiteness-but rather on a type of world sense born from Islam that defies the logic of Jim Crow.

    Also there is something about the ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’ that I love. As naming oneself post-escape was so important in many slave narratives as a means of necessity (to allude re-capture) and self-fashioning-this moment of naming can be read across a number of historical registers.

    Great post.

  5. abuusama@gmail.com'Abu Usamah al-Aswad

    @Marc

    I’ve been waiting for you to elaborate more on the connection between bebop/jazz/Blackamerican Music and Islam. I will add some comments below (iA) but first I must mention a few things, one the photo of Ustaz Abdul-Hakim Jackson, Ustaz Amir Al-Islam and Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Quick is iconic on more than one level, NICE WORK, and two I take quite an exception to the statment

    unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion:

    which in my mind creates a false dichotomy for those unfamiliar with the context. Also, I find it odd with the similarities between bebop and hip-hop both originally being “youthful expressions” which each attempted to break the “mold” both socially and aestheticaly, yet you seem to legitimize one for adults but not the other, this kind of smacks of elitism to me (I’ll table these for now)

    Having said my piece on the above, now what I really want to elaborate on is that you wrote:

    It would seem that the experiences in conversion are as varied as the individuals themselves. As for prostylitizing, I have not seen any conclusive evidence that there have been any missionary efforts on the parts of Muslim jazz musicians.

    Since the earliest times Muslim musicians (including actor/playwrite/author Shaykh Duse Ali) have given dawah in America.

    Early Muslim da’ees such Shaykh Daoud Faisal, Al-hajj Talib Ahmad Dawud (Alfonso “Barrymore” Rainey), Idrees Sulieman (Leonard Graham), Al-Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad (Lynn Hope), Abdullah Ibn Buhaina (Arthur “Art” Blakey) and Daud Salahuddin all had been jazz musicians at one point.

    A number of Islamic organizations were founded by these da’ees in their efforts to prostylitize, Shaykh Daoud founded the Islamic Propagation Center of America/Islamic Mission to America and the Muslim Village Madinah al-Salaam, Al-Hajj Talib founded the Muslim Brotherhood, USA, al-Hajj Abdullah became a teacher at the Philadelphia unit of the Addeynu Allahu Universal Arabic Association (AAUAA) and Abdullah Ibn Buhaina’s New York apartment was used as an Islamic mission when he formed the all Muslim jazz band, the Messengers (later renamed The Jazz Messengers).

    So ubiquteous were Muslim be-bop jazz musicians in the 1940’s and 1950’s that in 1957 Langston Hughes wrote the short poem “Be-Bop Boys” Imploring Mecca / to acheive / six discs / With Decca, as an ode to Muslim jazz musicians praying for success with their record companies.

    Later in the 1960’s musicians who would become Muslim da’ees include Imam al-Hajj Koli Ahmad Tawfiq who founded the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood, Imam Yusuf Muzaffarudin Hamid who formed the Islamic Party of North America and Imam Dawoud Abdus Sabur Adeyola (David Lewis) who became Imam of Muslim Village Jabul Arabiyya the orginally the West Valley unit of the AAUAA.

    During 1959 Al-Hajj Talib Ahmad Dawud formed a jamaat in Detroit under the aupices of the Muslim Brotherhood, USA and by 1961 he had 125 members. Also in Detroit as jazz moved to post be-bop avant-garde, Muslim jazz musicians would take leading roles as da’ees. Philadelphia native Shaykh Ahmad Mubarak Abdullah Mutakalim (Shaykh Mubarak) founded Masjid Kalimaat in the late 1960’s, then in 1971 Shaykh Mubarak joined with Detroit natives Imam Abdul Jalil (Muhammud Bey Abdul Jalil) and his wazir Furuq Z Bey (members of the avant-grade jazz group Griot Galaxy and the “Bey tribe” community that formed around them) to form the Masjid (Mosque) As-Salaam Orthodox Islamic Movement.

    So from the above, which is hardly exhaustive I would say there is considerable evidense that there has been missionary efforts on the parts of Muslim jazz musicians.

  6. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    @Abu Usamah,
    wa ‘alaykum salaam. I have been occupied with numerous other projects and have not had the opportunity hitherto for a reply.

    in my mind creates a false dichotomy for those unfamiliar with the context. unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion.

    What false dichotomy? I don’t really understand your statement. I believe my point was very clear – bebop musicians as a whole were not calling for hard resistance versus being a sort of social critique, if you will. Does this apply to all bebop musicians? No. Certainly not, yet those who were critical of “the system” did so through thoughtful expression in their music.

    I find it odd with the similarities between bebop and hip-hop both originally being “youthful expressions” which each attempted to break the “mold” both socially and aestheticaly, yet you seem to legitimize one for adults but not the other, this kind of smacks of elitism to me

    Bebop and hip-hop do share some similar qualities and yet they also have important distinctions. For one, jazz came out of the swing era, which did involve young people and yet there were older musicians that also helped lead the way. Duke Ellington would be such an example. He hired young people to work in his band and yet he was an older, more mature person. It was also a career that no one would look askance at if you were 45-years-old or even 70-years-old and still choosing to play and perform because be bop as a whole, was not a youth phenomenon in the way that hip-hop is. If you’re 45 and still trying to look and act and even perform like a 16-year-old B-Boy, you’re going to look silly. That’s not my opinion but rather popular sentiment. If you’re labeling me because I have critiqued the validity of hip-hop as a grown, adult activity, you can certainly do so but I think you’ll have a hard time making your case. Disagreement does not equate elitism nor have I demonstrated any such characteristics. Please find a way to engage my arguments without casting aspersions.

    Since the earliest times Muslim musicians (including actor/playwrite/author Shaykh Duse Ali) have given dawah in America.

    What I am talking about here are da’i’s who have been systematic, not willy-nilly. I too know of several jazz musicians who have “spread the word” but they are not themselves a da’i in a professional sense of the word. As you pointed out, many of those musicians were jazz musicians, meaning that they no longer practiced music as an active form. I am not talking about spreading Islam through casual contact.

    The piece that you mention regarding Langston Hughes is what I spoke about in the article is this: Islam held a certain place or spot of imagination for these black musicians – both Muslim and otherwise. I believe this to be no different in what we see in the Hughes piece. But would this be conscious da’wah on the part of Hughes and these other musicians? I’d say that case would be hard to make.

    So from the above, which is hardly exhaustive I would say there is considerable evidence [sic] that there has been missionary efforts on the parts of Muslim jazz musicians.

    Your list is admirable and I welcome the feedback but again, none of these gentlemen are/were continuing jazz musicians. Most if not all gave up the music as a practice, thus they were not proselytizing jazz musicians, if you see my point.

  7. oh.so.much.jazz@gmail.com'Idris Muhammad Dawud

    Talib Ahmad Dawud (Al Barrymore), my father, was a proselytizing, imam, missionary, even as a jazz musician, having started the Messenger Band, then later the 17 Messengers with Blakey, et al. and acting as spiritual leader of many of the musicians. By the way I recount that he related he coined the name ‘Messengers’ in honor of The Prophet (POH). There was certainly more than a decade and a half of overlap with his two pursuits. Being born in 1959 I personally attest to this. Further I have no recollection about him running a Mosque in Detroit – rather we had a mosque/congregation in Philadelphia late ’50’s early 60’s.

    He – along with Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, and others at some point were part of the Ahmadiyyah Movement in Islam, and for as long as I’ve know Yusef he continued so. Talib also continued during at some point in the mid-80’s. So having started in the AMII – a missionary organization – he would automatically be considered “missionary” from the outset – by default, while a active musician. The same goes for Yusef Lateef and for a much longer period.

    Salaams.

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