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Jazz helped break down U.S. racial barriers

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To its credit, jazz has long been a powerful antidote to racism in America. A democratic force, the African-American art form has brought together blacks and whites. Rooted in freedom and spontaneity, it was bringing blacks and whites together to collaborate and socialize decades before court rulings and the civil rights movement made strides toward equality.

A decade before Jackie Robinson broke down baseball's "color barrier," the black jazz greats Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton were making not just musical but also social and cultural history by playing with Benny Goodman, the enormously popular white band leader and clarinetist known as the King of Swing. Goodman's racial mix worked superbly, and its success struck a significant blow against racism.

Certainly, racism reared its ugly head in many insidious ways in the recording and publishing industries where black composers and musicians were often ripped off by the white power structure. Even the media-created title, King of Swing, would have been far more justly afforded to such legendary black band leaders as Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Jimmie Lunceford. Not even the greatest black jazz artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Ellington or Charlie Parker, were exempt from the long, poisonous reach of the overt racism of their time.

Although scorned by many as vulgar and even morally corrupting, jazz was a unifying social force for blacks and whites who lived their lives mostly as two separate nations within the United States. Through more than the first half of the 20th century, in fact, jazz provided a rare, virtually underground passageway through which many young white musicians and white fans passed on their way to discovering the richness and shared common humanity of black culture.

Since its birth nearly 100 years ago, jazz has traditionally been a brotherhood, with, until recent times, no room for a sisterhood, save for a few.

Female singers, or as they were derisively called "canaries," "warblers" or "thrushes," were more acceptable than female drummers, saxophonists, trumpeters or trombonists. Especially so if they were gorgeous and sexy. They were often seen as a sexual adornment for the band, as well as potentially accessible and easy objects to be hit on.

Not even great talent could shield female jazz musicians from sexism. Their insults and injuries have included being "last hired and first fired," being hit on, mocked, humiliated and sexually harassed.