Jack Johnson

The following is from Joe Riberdy’s class presentation:

History and Context

  • Who was Jack Johnson (1878–1946)?
    • World Heavyweight Champion during Jim Crow
    • married mostly white women and, once famous, attacked for doing so
      • convicted of violating the “Mann Act” (plain racist)
    • owned  “Black and Tan” (desegregated restaurant and club)
    • Trump granted a posthumous pardon to Johnson in May, 2018
  • What did Miles Davis (1926–1991) have to do with Jack Johnson?
    • Davis was asked by Bill Clayton to record soundtrack
    • Davis venerated Johnson

What did you hear?

some ideas…

  • soft at some points
  • groovy but very dissonant
  • fast, screeching runs by Miles
  • “striking” by John McLaughlin (guitarist on side A)

What’s the importance?

might express…

  • reflecting
  • Johnson triumphed despite racism
  • the burning pain of discrimination or that of johnson’s victory (to the establishment)
  • emotional reaction to aspects of Johnson’s story


What Was The Point? What Was Miles’ Perspective?

  • Miles looked up to Johnson as a hero who overcame racial obstacles in his life

 “The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a sign for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? And of course being born Black in America … we all know how that goes. The day before Johnson defended the title against Jim Flynn (1912) he received a note: “Lie down tomorrow or we string you up—Ku Klux Klan.” Dig that!”  

-liner notes, by Miles Davis

  • Miles loved that Johnson’s lifestyle made white people angry that a black person could live just like them.

“He smoked cigars, drank only the best champagne and prized a 7 ft. bass fiddle on which he’d proudly thump jazz. His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt mighty Whitey felt “No Black man should have all this.” But he did and he’d flaunt it. There wasn’t a “smile-smile chuggin’ along” implication in his broad grin that seemed to always be on his ebony face—in other words he was putting them on! What was a reality to Johnson was a living-color nightmare for the anti-Johnson Americans who couldn’t get ready for his “truly sophisticated attitude.”

– liner notes by Miles Davis

  • What was he trying to say with the music? (Discuss)
  • Second track of the album called “Yesternow”

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