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Music to his ears: How Jackie Robinson’s love of jazz helped civil rights movement

The ‘Afternoon of Jazz’ concert hosted by Jackie and his wife Rachel was a ‘jam session for civil rights’ and raised nearly $15,000

Jackie Robinson excelled at improvising. Dancing between third base and home plate, he often confounded white pitchers unaccustomed to the flashy, unpredictable style he had learned in the Negro Leagues. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Robinson loved jazz, the other great American improviser. What may be surprising is that after he left baseball, he tapped into his love of jazz to help fuel the black civil rights movement.

On June 27, 1963, Robinson and his wife, Rachel, hosted an “Afternoon of Jazz” on the sprawling lawn at their home in Stamford, Connecticut, to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights organization led by Martin Luther King Jr.

About six weeks earlier, King’s executive assistant, Wyatt Tee Walker, told Robinson that the SCLC was in desperate need of bail money for activists jailed during the now-famous Birmingham campaign in Alabama. Those imprisoned included hundreds of black children who had faced down vicious police dogs and blasting fire hoses on their march to freedom.

Robinson had a soft spot for kids, and he spoke with his wife about the urgent need. As she tells the story, “The idea struck us that our six-acre homesite — with its large, clear pond and hill that sloped down from the house to level ground in a way that formed a natural amphitheater — would be a lovely setting for an afternoon concert.”

Jazz enthusiasts relax on the lawn of the Stamford, Connecticut, home of Jackie and Rachel Robinson as they listen to an afternoon jazz concert. The concert benefited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and brought $14,334 for the organization headed by Martin Luther King Jr.

AP Photo

But not just any concert — a jazz concert.

Robinson and his wife were jazz enthusiasts who personally knew some of the famous musicians of their day. With help from their friend Marian Logan, a former jazz singer, the Robinsons soon put together an impressive lineup of jazz artists who agreed to play for free. Meanwhile, handy neighbors erected a canopied bandstand.

The response was overwhelming. About 500 people were treated to a concert featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Joya Sherrill, Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley and Billy Taylor. A reporter for Life Magazine called it a “jam session for civil rights.”

Rachel Robinson and her friends made sure everything ran smoothly, and Robinson, wearing an apron, worked the food stand, urging the captive audience to give a little extra. He also fixed his “beady eye,” as one friend put it, on anyone with deep pockets.

Late in the afternoon, some party crashers showed up — Duke Ellington, his band and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. As thrilled as everyone else, the Robinsons decided to let them stay and play.

At the end of the day, the Robinsons were completely exhausted and elated. The jazz-and-justice event had just raised about $15,000.

Inspired by their success, Robinson and his wife were soon back at it. A little more than two months later, they hosted another “Afternoon of Jazz,” this one netting about $30,000 for the SCLC and the NAACP.

The Robinsons were delighted that both King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins were able to attend. They knew all too well that these two leaders were often at loggerheads, and that it was important for them to be able to chat in a relaxed setting.

As relentless as ever, the Robinsons hosted another “Afternoon of Jazz” shortly after three young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were brutally beaten and murdered during Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign to increase the number of black voters in Mississippi.

About 2,000 people, including some of the victims’ family members, covered the lawn with blankets, chairs and picnic baskets as Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and other top-notch artists set a mournful and joyful mood for the afternoon.

By the end of the day, the Robinsons had raised about $30,000 for the construction of a community center in Mississippi, in memory of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful “Afternoon of Jazz” happened shortly after the tragic death of Robinson Jr. in a car accident on June 12, 1971. At the time, he had been recovering from drug addiction and eagerly planning the “Afternoon of Jazz” to benefit Daytop, the center where he had received treatment.

Still in unspeakable pain, the Robinsons knew that this “Afternoon of Jazz” would be difficult, even wrenching, but they also felt they had to do it — for their son, for Daytop, for themselves and daughter Sharon and son David.

There were many more “Afternoons of Jazz” to come, and after her husband died in 1972, Rachel steered proceeds to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which, to this day, grants scholarships to talented minority students.

To be sure, the Robinsons raised money for good causes in other ways, too, but the couple believed that there was something especially compelling about using jazz to advance the freedom movement. As Rachel Robinson has explained, “Jazz is the perfect medium to reflect life and the need people have to improvise and transcend barriers.”

Perhaps a similar thought explains why all those jazz musicians, and the rest of us, loved Robinson and his wife in turn. Like jazz, the Robinsons represented our need to be free — to dance between the bases and steal home.

Michael G. Long teaches peace studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and is co-author, with Chris Lamb, of Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography. He has also edited collections of Robinson's civil rights letters and newspaper columns.