Why Have So Many Famous Jazz Musicians Been Freemasons?

Why Have So Many Famous Jazz Musicians Been Freemasons?

When we think of the connection between Freemasonry and music, where most people’s minds probably go first is to Mozart, who is the most famous classical composer to be a documented Mason, although some speculate about Beethoven as well. Indeed, Mozart even wrote Masonic themes into some of his music, as was discussed in another of our posts.

What many do not realize is that there are perhaps more famous jazz musicians who were Masons than classical composers, or perhaps any other genre. Why does Freemasonry count so many renowned jazz artists among its ranks? That’s what we’ll be learning about in this post: both the history and reasons for Masonry’s jazz connections.

As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is merely the reflections of one Co-Mason.

A History of Great Jazz Masons

First, let’s just take a look at some of the big names from jazz history who have been a part of the Brotherhood. Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Dizzy Gillespie are just a few household names you might recognize who were either proven or almost certainly Freemasons. There are yet more to list, but these are probably the biggest names who even casual jazz fans will recognize. 

sun ra freemasonSun Ra, an interesting character by any measure, is also theorized to have been a member of a Prince Hall Lodge, or a lodge of a related fraternal order, throughout his career. While not the most well-documented Mason, his flamboyant, Egyptian-inspired stage garb and “cosmic” philosophical expressions certainly make him at least the most colorful character to be associated with both jazz and the Masonic tradition.

So, why is there such a connection between Freemasonry and jazz?

Hip to Be Square

One of the suggested reasons that Freemasonry has been so appealing to musicians throughout history is that along with valuing music as one of the seven liberal arts, it also made it easier for those who lived on the road. By being a Freemason, traveling musicians could easily plug into any community and support network they encountered, via the local lodge. It also provided support at times of sickness and death, which to the sometimes empty-pocketed musicians, could be a godsend.

prince hall freemasonryJazz history is also intimately intertwined with African American history, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that many of these jazz musicians were connected to Freemasonry through Prince Hall Lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry is an order that was chartered by the Grand Lodge of England for African Americans who were rejected from mainstream Lodges at the time, and are predominantly African American in their membership.

At the time when jazz proliferated, and many of the African American jazz Masons were in their hayday, much of the country was still segregated, and racial tensions were still quite high. Life as a musician already wasn’t easy, and if you add to that being part of an actively persecuted ethnic group, it’s not hard to see why the benefits of Fraternal Life would be appealing, even empowering to African American jazz musicians in the early-to-mid 20th century. 

However, it also seems likely that there are deeper reasons for the connection than simple utility and networking.

On the Same Wavelength

Jazz is known by most as a type of music, but it’s also a subculture, and that subculture has its own sort of philosophy and ethic. If we reflect upon both the ideas embodied in the music of jazz, as well as the culture surrounding it, we can find many correlations which give a deeper understanding to the connections between jazz and Freemasonry than simply being a useful fraternal organization for musicians.

Both Freemasonry and jazz, for instance, are about generating new ideas; innovation and forward thinking are qualities that are embraced both in the Lodge and in the creation of jazz music. There is also an inclusiveness to jazz, having originated in the intermingling of various cultures and musical styles in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and that symbiosis and confluence of cultures towards a common goal of progress together is certainly a value held by Masonry, as well.

freemasonry and musicOn a more abstract level, we can look at the actual musical nature and structure of jazz, some of which can be quite abstract, and draw another correlation. Anyone who has developed an appreciation for jazz, especially the more abstract variety, can understand how the phrase “Ordo Ab Chao” could be equally relevant to the craft of jazz as it is in the Craft of Freemasonry. 

 

The Real Origins of Prince Hall Freemasonry

The Real Origins of Prince Hall Freemasonry

A paradox in Freemasonry, where Brothers are supposed to have a high regard for truth, is that the same Brothers have been known to downplay, ignore, and suppress truth that is found to be inconvenient.

The so-called “clandestine” roots of Prince Hall Freemasonry is one inconvenient truth that author and researcher E. Oscar Alleyne, a member of Wappingers No. 671, which labors under the Grand Lodge of New York, wasn’t afraid to talk about during a recent conference. Specifically (*SPOILERS*), that the first Prince Hall lodge, African Lodge No. 1, wasn’t founded on March 6, 1775 with assistance from a so-called “regular” military lodge. Instead, the date likely was in 1778 and assistance came from a degree peddler (*END SPOILERS*).

It was not unusual in the 18th Century for lodges to independently form on their own and then go looking for a Grand Lodge to provide them with a charter or warrant. In that context, African Lodge’s true origins are nothing to be concerned about. Brothers have been anyway, Alleyne said during an all-too-brief presentation of his paper at the International Conference of Masonic Research Lodges, the ICOM, this past May in Toulon, France.

“Some people don’t like the truth of this story because they think it means that Prince Hall was clandestine or was irregularly made,” Alleyne said.

Getting stuck on that notion misses the greater point: that African Lodge overcame racism, the then current enslavement of most peoples of color in North American, and the war-encroaching international politics to come into being, Alleyne said. “They were able to accomplish something that didn’t seen accomplishable,” he said.

I strongly recommend reading the online version of Alleyne’s paper, including maps and documents I’ve never seen before, because a brief summary is all I can offer here. Alleyne cites as his text John L. Hairston’s “Landmarks of our Fathers: A Critical Analysis of the Start and Origin of African Lodge No. 1,” edited by Alleyne. Hairston, a publisher, author, and researcher, is a demitted member of Harmony Lodge No. 2, which labors under the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Washington, and a member of University Lodge 141, which labors under the Grand Lodge of Washington.

Alleyne started where most Masonic scholars and casual readers start, with the legend that Bostonian caterer and leather dresser Prince Hall. Hall, a free man of color, along with other free men of color in the same city, decided to form their own lodge after being turned away from existing lodges. According to that legend, Hall and 14 others were initiated into Freemasonry by Irish Military Lodge No. 441, under the direction of WM Sergeant John Batt, on March 6, 1775. By July of the following year, African Lodge was organized under a limited permit from Batt, and by 1779, thirty-three Brothers were listed on the rolls of the Lodge. Prince Hall later petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a warrant or charter, which was granted June 30th, 1784.

That story, told and retold for generations and included on a number of Prince Hall websites, was written in the early 20th Century – not Freemasonry’s shiny era of accurately written histories – by William H. Grimshaw, most noted for his “Official History of Freemasonry Among the Colored People” published in 1903.

“Grimshaw probably was the person who caused the most problems with this story,” Alleyne said. “Grimshaw made up stories about things that didn’t happen.”

Scholars then repeated those stories, which then took on other inaccuracies, others believed it all and, in that “Who Shot Liberty Valance” (When the legend becomes fact, print the legend) way, became perpetuated. Documentation that suggested otherwise was downplayed, ignored and suppressed, all in service to the legend.

Hairston’s extensive research makes a convincing case that the truth isn’t so simple as Grimshaw would have anyone believe and piecing all that together is made difficult because records are lacking, Alleyne said. The true story appears to be that neither Hall nor any of the other 14 Brothers of what would be African Lodge were made Master Masons in 1775 and Irish Military Lodge No. 441 had nothing to do with their initiations or the foundation of African Lodge No. 1.

The Lodge certainly sought assistance more locally. My ears perked up when I heard Alleyne mention Hall’s connection to the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Joseph Warren, who then was Provincial Grand Master of Freemasons in Massachusetts. After all, I’ve long been convinced that Warren was behind the consecration of St. Anne’s Lodge, a female-only Lodge of Adoption in Boston, and the making of Masons in that Lodge. But that’s another paper, expected next year.

Hall approached Warren for a warrant in March of 1775, at the same time Grimshaw alleged the Lodge was founded with help from the Irish military lodge. Warren’s death June 17 of that year during the battle of Bunker Hill shut Hall off from that opportunity, Alleyne said. Hall also sought out several other options, including connections in France.

African Lodge finally made some headway toward organization through Batt, who provided a “permit” to bury their dead and march in processions as Freemasons. However, contrary to what Grimshaw wrote, Batt had no known associations with Military Lodge No. 441 and appears to have been something of a degree seller, a common thing over the centuries. Hall likely understood the truth about Batt at the time but he continued to seek out a way for African Lodge to be “regularized”, which happened with its recognition by the Grand Lodge of England in 1784.

“This is the correct story,” Alleyne said.

 

Universal Freemasonry

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