An excerpt from To Be or Not to Bop, Beboppers… The Cult [pp. 291-3]
Number seven: that “beboppers” expressed a preference for religions other than Christianity may be considered only a half-truth, because most black musicians, including those from the bebop era, received their initial exposure and influence in music through the black church. And it remained with them throughout their lives. For social and religious reasons, a large number of modern jazz musicians did begin to turn toward Islam during the forties, a movement completely in line with the idea of freedom of religion.
Rudy Powell, from Edgar Hayes’s band, became one of the first jazz musicians I knew to accept Islam; he became an Ahmidyah Muslim. Other musicians followed, it seemed to me, for social rather than religious reasons, if you can separate the two.
“Man, if you join the Muslim faith, you ain’t colored no more, you’ll be white,” they’d say. “You get a new name and you don’t have to be a nigger no more.” So everybody started joining because they considered it a big advantage not to be black during the time of segregation. I thought of joining, but it occurred to me that a lot of them spooks were simply trying to be anything other than a spook at that time. They had no idea of black consciousness; all they were trying to do was escape the stigma of being “colored.” When these cats found out that Idrees Sulieman, who joined the Muslim faith about that time, could go into these white restaurants and bring out sandwiches to the other guys because he wasn’t colored — and he looked like the inside of the chimney — they started enrolling in droves.
Musicians started having it printed on their police cards where it said “race,” “W” for white. Kenny Clarke had one and he showed it to me. He said, “See, nigger, I ain’t no spook; I’m white, W.'” He changed his name to Arabic, Liaqat Ali Salaam. Another cat who had been my roommate at Laurinburg, Oliver Mesheux, got involved in an altercation about race down in Delaware. He 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.”
Didn’t ask him no more questions. “How do you do?” the guy said.
When I first applied for my police card, I knew what the guys were doing, but not being a Muslim, I wouldn’t allow the police to type anything in that spot under race. I wouldn’t reply to the race question on the application blank. When the cop started to type something in there, I asked him, “What are you gonna put down there, C for me?”
“You’re colored, ain’t you?”
“Colored … ? No.”
“Well, what are you, white?”
“No, don’t put nothing on there,” I said. “Just give me the card.” They left it open. I wouldn’t let them type me in W for white nor C for colored; just made them leave it blank. WC is a toilet in Europe.
As time went on, I kept considering converting to Islam but mostly because of the social reasons. I didn’t know very much about the religion, but I could dig the idea that Muhammad was a prophet. I believed that, and there were very few Christians who believed that Muhammad had the word of God with him. The idea of polygamous marriage in Islam, I didn’t care for too much. In our society, a man can only take care of one woman. If he does a good job of that, he’ll be doing well. Polygamy had its place in the society for which it was intended, as a social custom, but social orders change and each age develops its own mores. Polygamy was acceptable during one part of our development, but most women wouldn’t accept that today. People worry about all the women with no husbands, and I don’t have any answer for that. Whatever happens, the question should be resolved legitimately and in the way necessary for the advancement of society.
The movement among jazz musicians toward Islam created quite a stir, especially with the surge of the Zionist movement for creation and establishment of the State of Israel. A lot of friction arose between Jews and Muslims, which took the form of a semiboycottin New York of jazz musicians with Muslim names. Maybe a Jewish guy, in a booking agency that Muslim musicians worked from, would throw work another way instead of throwing to the Muslim. Also, many of the agents couldn’t pull the same tricks on Muslims that they pulled on the rest of us. The Muslims received knowledge about themselves that we didn’t have and that we had no access to; so therefore they tended to act differently toward the people running the entertainment business. Much of the entertainment business was run by Jews. Generally, the Muslims fared well in spite of that, because though we had some who were Muslim in name only, others really had knowledge and were taking care of business.
Near the end of the forties, the newspapers really got worried about whether I’d convert to Islam. In 1948 Life magazine published a big picture story, supposedly ab6ut our music. They conned me into allowing them to photograph me down on my knees, arms outstretched, supposedly bowing to Mecca. It turned out to be a trick bag. It’s one of the few things in my whole career I’m ashamed of, because I wasn’t a Muslim. They tricked me into committing a sacrilege. The newspapers figured that if the “Icing of bebop” converted, thousands of bebopperswould follow suit, and reporters questioned me about whether I planned to quit and forsake Christianity. But that lesson from Life taught me to leave them hanging. I told them that on my trips through the South, the members of my band were denied the right of worshiping in churches of their own faith because colored folks couldn’t pray with white folks down there. “Don’t say I’m forsaking Christianity,” I said, “because Christianity is forsaking me-or better, people who claim to be Christian just ain’t It says in the Bible to love thy brother, but people don’t practice what the Bible preaches. In Islam, there is no color line. Everybody is treated like equals.”
With one reporter, since I didn’t know much about the Muslim faith, I called on our saxophonist, formerly named Bill Evans, who’d recently accepted Islam to give this reporter some accurate information.
“What’s your new name?” I asked him.
“Yusef Abdul Lateef,” he replied. Yusef Lateef told us how a Muslim missionary, Kahlil Ahmed Nasir, had converted many modern jazz musicians in New York to Islam and how he read the Quran daily and strictly observed the prayer and dietary regulations of the religion. I told the reporter that I’d been studying the Quran myself, and although I hadn’t converted yet, I knew one couldn’t drink alcohol or eat pork as a Muslim. Also I said I felt quite intrigued by the beautiful sound of the word “Quran,” and found it “out of this world,” “way out,” as we used to say. The guy went back to his paper and reported that Dizzy Gillespie and his “beboppers” were “way out” on the subject of religion. He tried to ridicule us as being too strange, weird, and exotic to merit serious attention. Most of the Muslim guys who were sincere in the beginning went on believing and practicing the faith.