A Brief History of the Policing of Black MusicBreaking News
tags: African American history, Police, music
Billie Holiday died handcuffed to her hospital bed because her drug addiction had been criminalized. A Black FBI informant posed as a suitor, hunted her, fell in love with her even, and turned her in for heroin possession, not for hurting anyone, or violence, or for singing too beautiful and true a song but because she was self-medicating against the siege of being a famous Black woman in America, a woman who carried the weight of the nation’s entire soul in her music.
For as long as Black music has been popular, crossover, coveted by white listeners and dissected by white critics, it has also been criminalized by white police at all levels of law enforcement. A micro-archive of the criminalization of Black music and police presence within the music, focused on jazz music and improvised forms, shows why we now cry and chant unapologetically for abolition. Even when our life’s work is to bring more beauty into the world, to create new forms, we are brutalized, policed, jailed, and die in contractual or physical bondage. Or both.
Thelonius Monk’s composition In Walked Bud is dedicated to his friend, fellow pianist Bud Powell, a memento to the night when Bud protected Monk from police during a raid of the Savoy Ballroom in 1945. The Savoy was targeted as one of Black music’s epicenters in Harlem. Bud stepped between an officer and Monk and was struck in the head, incurring injuries that damaged his cognition, causing him to be institutionalized on and off for the rest of his life.
In 1951, Monk and Bud were sitting in a parked car when the NYPD narcotics division approached. Unbeknownst to Monk, Bud had a small stash of heroin and attempted to toss it out the window. It landed on Monk’s shoe instead—Monk was blamed, did not snitch on his friend, and was sent to Rikers Island for 60 days, held on $1,500 dollars bail. When released, Monk’s Cabaret Card, which granted him legal license to play in New York clubs, had been revoked. It would take years for the charges to be dropped and the license reinstated, years the Monk family and innovation in Black music suffered at the whims of the police. And the policing of Monk didn’t stop there.
In 1957, on a drive with Charlie Rouse and Nica, his rich white baroness friend, in Nica’s Bently, Monk asked to stop for a glass of water. Denied this simple request by the white waitress at the cafe they found, Monk just stood and stared at her, agape with disgust. The waitress called the police; when they arrived Monk walked right past them back into the car with Nica and Charlie. He would not get out when the police approached. Get out of the car you fucking nigger. Monk’s window was down and the officer started smashing his hands with a night stick: our genius Black pianist who gave us the break the space between Black thoughts and Black notes, getting his hands bashed and broken by police because he wanted a glass of water. Monk was cuffed, humming, his bloodied hands behind his back in chains.
In 1959 Miles Davis was standing on the sidewalk outside of his own gig at Manhattan’s Birdland. He was with a white woman, smoking a cigarette between sets. A police officer pulled up and asked him what he was doing loitering—at that time a Black man just standing was criminalized, but especially one standing with a white woman. Miles pointed out his name on the marquee, explaining that he was between performances. This cavalier deference to the matter-of-fact seems to trigger the racism always-already seething in some cops.
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