Malcolm X is being remembered this week across black America on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. It is a sober time to commemorate the murder of a sober, serious man who fought for the liberation of African people. But he was a man—one who had a great sense of humor, a winning smile, and a great love for his people and the classic music they created: what’s now known as standard jazz.
There was a recent public auction of a March 9, 1950, letter by Malcolm X, in which he discusses the art form and some of the artists he knew and loved, including the late luminary and jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt. In his six-page, two-sided, handwritten letter to “My Dearly Beloved Brother Raymond,” Malcolm X, in jail for his crimes as Detroit Red, talks the talk of the newly converted, in his case, to the Nation of Islam.
For three pages he talks about the greatness of Elijah Muhummad’s teachings and how they had purified him to seek and see truth. But then, as letters tend to do, it rambled. On Page 4 he segued into jazz:
“No wonder we do some of the things we do … no wonder we drink, dope and all sorts of things to soothe our soul … no wonder we so continuously have sought the lures of night life to create some sort of peace within ourselves … no wonder we have so longingly turned so often to music for its comforting effects.”
Malcolm continues, talking about music’s spiritual power:
Music, Brother, is ours … it is us … and like us it is always here … surrounding us … like the infinite particles that make up Life, it cannot be seen … but can only be felt … Like Life!!! No, it is not created … but like the never-dying Soul … eternally permeates the atmosphere with its Presence … ever-waiting for its Master … the Lordly Musician … the Wielder of Souls … to come and give it a Temple … mould it into a Song. Music without the Musician is like Life without Allah … both being in need of the house … a home … The Temple … the Complete Song and its Creator.
Sonny [Stitt] & Milt Jackson played together up in Flint, Mich. in ’45 just after Sonny left [Mr.] ‘B’ [jazz singing great Billy Eckstine]. All of them know me well, but few know me under my own name. Is ‘B’ a Muslim? I heard Diz [legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie] was. Please tell me the fellows who are. There are many who belong to the Ahmadiyya Movement, but I want to know how many and which ones that are in show Biz belong to ours, under Mr. Elijah Mohammed.
Detroit Red/Malcolm X was no stranger to jazz or its greatest practitioners. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in continuous print this October, is replete with Detroit Red’s casual, first-name association with, he brags, every major black jazz artist of the mid-1940s, including Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Lester “Prez” Young, Don Byas, Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Sy Oliver and Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams. He knew many of them so well because he sold marijuana to many of them, he confessed.
Katea Denise Stitt, 50, is the daughter of Sonny Stitt. She carries on the family’s jazz tradition, as interim program director at 89.3 WPFW-FM, a public radio station in Washington, D.C., dedicated to jazz and leftist talk.
Her reaction to the appearance and content of the letter, which was shared with her by a family friend, jazz historian William Brower? “A huge smile, followed by a bit of melancholy in wishing I could have had discussion about Malcolm X with my father.” (Sonny Stitt died in 1982 when Katea Stitt was still a teen.)
As can be typical in the relationship between parents and children, Katea Stitt told The Root that her famous father never mentioned Detroit Red and his subsequent globally historic identity to her: “He never told me about knowing Malcolm X, although he did mention the Nation, and Elijah Muhammad, in terms of proper diet, living, etc. He would reference the book How to Eat to Live when discussing health with us.”
In an email to The Root, she wrote, “I was thrilled to read it [the letter], not only because he speaks so warmly of my father, but his thoughts on the significant role of music, and that of the musician, were immensely moving. To have him refer to my father and jazz, no less, in that way is mind-blowing to me!”
Stitt told her 13-year-old daughter, Johanna, about the letter and her family’s casual connection with this historic figure.
“We talk about her grandfather all the time; she is pretty open and receptive, thankfully,” Stitt said. “She had questions about the other musicians referenced, and who Malcolm was, etc. At the end of our discussion, her words were, ‘That's really cool, Mom!’”
Stitt added: “Through the letter, we get a different glimpse of Malcolm as a cultural icon and thinker, in addition to a political one. … It was just wonderful to experience a part of Malcolm X that is not heralded enough, in my opinion: his deep love for, and commitment to, all humanity.”
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.