knew better than anyone what it would take to successfully reshape the soul of America and finally level the playing field for American Blacks. Jazz musicians like trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong challenged racist leaders and the cultural foundations of a racist nation. Shortly after the 1957 Little Rock school crisis, Armstrong offered harsh criticism that made headlines, saying “The way they are treating my people in the South, the Government can go to hell.” He mocked segregationist Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas as a “motherfucker” and derided war-hero President Dwight Eisenhower as “two-faced” and having “no guts” for failing early on to protect the brave Black kids desegregating Little Rock’s Central High.

Count Basie more than rose to the occasion by composing transformative tunes like “Black, Brown, and Beige” a musical homage to the history of African-America, and writing Jump for Joy, a play that banished Uncle Tom from the stage and American life and that insisted it was time to stop turning the other cheek.

A mass movement also required money for everything from bringing people to rallies to bailing them out of jail. Basie wrote checks, while his wife Catherine Basie not only raised bagfuls more, but played pivotal roles in civil rights groups in New York and beyond.

Most of all, with Black people constituting just 10% of the population at the time, you needed support in white America. No trio did as much as Ellington, Armstrong, and Basie to set the table for the insurrection by opening white America’s ears and souls to the grace of their music and their personalities, demonstrating the virtues of Black artistry and Black humanity. They toppled color barriers on radio and TV; in jukeboxes, films, newspapers, and newsmagazines; and in the White House, concert halls, and living rooms from the Midwest and both coasts to the Heart of Dixie. But they did it carefully, knowing that to do otherwise in their Jim Crow era would have been suicidal. If James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard are rightfully credited with opening the door to the acceptance of Black music, it was Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington who inserted the key in the lock.

Whether or not young activists who dismissed the aging musicians as Uncle Toms understood that, Rev. King did. That’s why he went to Chicago to see Ellington and Jump for Joy, embraced Catherine Basie and Lucille Armstrong along with their husbands, and appreciated how the dancehall’s “joyful rhythms” and “language of soul” provided the countermelody for his movement. “Jazz speaks for life,” King wrote to the organizers of the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. Three years later he told the Negro National Association of Radio Announcers, “You have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between Black and white. School integration is much easier now that they share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances.”

Other leaders and luminaries joined King in recognizing the revolutionary power of jazz and its practitioners. unabashedly adored the Count and Ellington. Ralph Ellison preached the gospel of Satchmo. tapped his love of jazz and jazzmen to raise money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Even Frank Sinatra, a surprising anti-racism activist, got the message.“Maybe the political scientists will never find the cure for intolerance,” said The Sultan of Swoon.” Until they do, I challenge anyone to come up with a more effective prescription than Duke Ellington’s music, and Duke Ellington’s performance as a human being.”

Armstrong’s activism was the most counterintuitive, since he was the one most disparaged as an Oreo and a sellout. That hurt because he’d worked so hard to dig out of a life of Louisiana-style racism. He’d hoped fellow Black people would acknowledge and appreciate how his becoming world-famous helped them along with him.

Armstrong and his mixed-race sidemen traveled the South long before the freedom riders did, and before it was safe to do so. No Black person had ever starred on commercially-sponsored network radio before he took over for Rudy Vallee on NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show in 1937, back when Jackie Robinson was eighteen and the only Reverend King was eight-year-old Martin’s daddy. Still in his 30s, Louis became the first of his race to be featured in mainstream American films. No jazz musician of any color had made the cover of Time magazine (1949)or of Life magazine (1966) until Armstrong, none had published a memoir until his Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1936), and none had dazzled British royalty (King George V in 1932). “As time went on and I made a reputation,” he said, “I had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay. I was the first Negro in the business to crack them big white hotels–Oh, yeah! I pioneered, Pops!”

The public could see all of that at the time. We now know even more about his attitudes and activism, thanks to the release of hundreds of hours of his private tape recordings. They include not just racy jokes and random musings, but tortured reactions to what he labeled the “shame” of racism. He blasted famous Black leaders he thought were false prophets, insisting that Marcus Garvey and Josephine Baker were exploiters, not healers. But he adored Martin Luther King, making audio tapes of hour after hour of the TV coverage of his assassination in 1968. Sometimes he counseled friends to endure racial blows, others he boasted about doing just the opposite. When a white workman disrespected him, he shouted into the recorder the insults he’d shot back at the laborer, explaining, “You try to be a gentleman, they won’t let you, that’s all. I’m just showing you what we have to go through.”

Daily battles like that were exhausting, but he used his wit to mask his despair. Before a performance at New York’s Basin Street East nightclub in the 1950s, pianist Errol Garner stuck his head into the trumpeter’s dressing room to ask, “Hey, Pops, how’s everything?” Louis: “White folks still in the lead.”

Ellington’s version of subversion, while comparably non-confrontational, was more straightforward.

While the up-tempo and airy “Take the ‘A’ Train” was Ellington’s signature tune in his early years, a very different number characterized the maestro later on. The song, “King Fit the Battle of Alabam,” marked a rare occasion when he employed Satchmo-like verbal idiom and an even rarer one of him using his music to sound off on the racial violence engulfing America. Few remember the song because it played only during the six-week run of My People, a show staged in Chicago in 1963 during a centenary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. His libretto railed against Bull Connor, the racist police chief in Birmingham, Alabama, for violently assaulting youthful Black demonstrators with a barrage of fire hoses, club-wielding officers, and snarling German Shepherds: “King fit the battle of Alabam’ – Birmingham . . ./And the bull got nasty – ghastly – nasty/Bull turned the hoses on the church people/And the water came splashing – dashing – crashing/Freedom rider–ride/ Freedom rider–go to town/Y’all and us–gonna get on the bus/Y’all aboard – sit dow