Through the decades, election season has been an important source of income for jazz and blues musicians. From national to small-town political races, campaign events requested live music by versatile jazz musicians. There were no DJs. Candidates from the dog catcher to president required a theme song. Band leader usually composed campaign song and gathered musicians to be in a band to perform at events.

“W.C. Handy composed a campaign song for Edward Hull “Boss” Crump who ran for and became mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1909,” said Seth Kibel, a jazz musician from Pikesville, Maryland. “After that successful mayoral campaign, the lyrics were changed to the campaign song, and renamed “Memphis Blues” one of Handy’s most popular compositions. That helped jumpstart the blues craze, but also the fascination that Whites had for Black music that characterized much of the 20th century. It started with politics.”

Kibel has turned his jazz history knowledge into a virtual lecture, “The Intertwined Story of Jazz and Politics – Fun Edition!” scheduled for Nov. 3, from 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. The lecture is offered through Oasis, a nonprofit educational organization in the D.C. area. Participants will learn that revered musicians like D.C.’s native son Duke Ellington, started out playing at political gigs.

Jazz and blues musicians have never shied away from using their art to express feelings about America’s public policies. Fats Waller in the 1920s sang, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” while Billie Holiday’s heart-wrenching “Strange Fruit” (1938) speaks to the horrible lynching of Black people.

Such social awareness became more overt as time went on, as musicians’ political views began to spill outside of their music.

“In the ’50s and ’60s jazz musicians became much more politically outspoken,” Kibel said. “Jazz and protest politics have gone hand in hand for almost a hundred years.”

Kibel talked about Dizzy Gillespie’s semi-serious 1964 presidential campaign.

“Many may have thought this was a joke,” Kibel said. “But he got a lot of attention to the tune of receiving several hundred thousand votes. Gillespie established a platform for his write-in campaign.”

In his platform, Gillespie wanted to see a complete withdrawal from Vietnam, the abolishment of segregation, housing and hospital care for all those who needed it, NASA sending a Black astronaut to the moon and the deportation of Alabama Gov. George Wallace to Vietnam. He also wanted to create a civil service agency guaranteeing work for jazz musicians as government employees.

Gillespie also proposed renaming the White House as the Blues House. He would have a cabinet composed of Duke Ellington (secretary of state), Miles Davis (director of the CIA), Max Roach (secretary of defense), Charles Mingus (secretary of peace), Ray Charles (librarian of Congress), Louis Armstrong (secretary of agriculture), Mary Lou Williams (ambassador to the Vatican), Thelonious Monk (traveling ambassador) and Malcolm X (attorney general).


In the book “DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC,” co-edited by Maurice Jackson, a history and African American studies professor at Georgetown University, and Brian Ruble, distinguished fellow for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, there is a chapter about the Turkish Embassy in D.C. becoming a place where jazz musicians were welcomed to perform.

In the 1940s, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, sons of Munir Ertegun, the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., hosted jazz groups in concert at the embassy for eager audiences, opening some of the first integrated concerts in the District.

Opening up the embassy was a protest against segregation.

“The Ertegun family did not like the idea of the Black musicians entering to clubs through the back door or any of the discriminations that the musicians encountered,” Jackson said.

Later, the ambassador’s sons formed Atlantic Records. They brought in jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet along with Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Lester Young.

“DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC” is available at well-known booksellers. Register for Seth Kibel’s Nov. 3 virtual lecture “The Intertwined Story of Jazz and Politics – Fun Edition!” at

Brenda Siler photo

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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