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Jazz and Freemasonry seem like an incongruous pairing, yet in the 1950s, the secret society developed into a support network for artists and the world’s largest fraternity for black males, including Duke Ellington and Sun Ra.
When the City of London festival learned of the discovery of a long-dormant masonic temple adjacent to Liverpool Street station, it seemed natural to utilise this magnificently sumptuous hall as a one-off concert venue. The only remaining question was what type of music should it feature.
“The logical choice would have been to hold a Mozart recital, because Mozart was a freemason,” says Paul Gudgin, former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and current director of the City of London Festival. “However, I happened to be reading a biography of Duke Ellington at the time, and it made a fleeting reference to his membership in a Masonic chapter. I thought it remarkable that such an anti-establishment guy was determined to be the brains behind an establishment organization. And I felt that would be the ideal location for a homage. “
This month, the City of London Festival will feature two Duke Ellington tributes in this ornate neo-classical masonic temple, which has been relocated to the basement of the Hyatt group’s Andaz hotel. On July 4, Tommy Smith, saxophonist, performs, while Julian Joseph, pianist, performs on July 11.
“It’s a badge of honor to learn that Ellington was a mason,” Joseph says. “Not only was he a member of a musical elite, but he had gained entry to this hidden and powerful organization, which was only accessible to a select few.”
When you delve into the history of Freemasonry, you’ll realize that Ellington was only one of a number of prominent African-American artists inducted into its enigmatic realm. Nat King Cole, WC Handy, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Paul Robeson all joined him.
“Throughout history, Freemasonry has drawn musicians,” according to Martin Cherry, librarian at the London Museum of Freemasonry. “While Mozart is the obvious example, in 18th-century London, a lodge called the Lodge of the Nine Muses was created, attracting a variety of European musicians and artists, including JC Bach. For musicians and artists who were new to a city, the lodge provided an opportunity to meet other artists and network with potential employers.”
The same was true two centuries later, on the other side of the Atlantic. “Musicians frequently lived on the road,” Cherry explains. “Being a member of an organization with lodges located throughout a country could help alleviate the drudgery of life on the road, especially in a country as large as the United States.
“Freemasonry was also helpful to its members in times of need, tending to their health and paying for their funerals. Mozart’s funeral was notably funded by his lodge, and there is evidence that freemasons funded the funeral of Mississippi Fred McDowell — there are photos of his open coffin wearing his masonic regalia.”
Numerous white jazz musicians and bandleaders, including Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin, as well as numerous country and western stars, were freemasons. However, Freemasonry, like so much else in American life, was segregated, with American masonic lodges divided along racial lines.
Black freemasons: the sons of Prince Hall
Black freemasonry stretches all the way back to before the American Revolution, when Prince Hall (1735-1807), a liberated black abolitionist and leather craftsman, was refused admission to the St John’s masonic lodge in Boston, Massachusetts. Hall and 14 other free black men were initiated into freemasonry in 1775 by a British military lodge stationed in Boston, undeterred by the rejection.
In 1784, after the British had departed from America, the English grand lodge granted Hall a charter to establish an African lodge in Boston. It was so successful that Prince Hall was appointed provincial grand master, enabling him to establish two further African Masonic lodges in Philadelphia and Rhode Island.
Over the next two centuries, Prince Hall freemasonry spread throughout the United States, eventually becoming the world’s largest black men’s fraternity. By the mid-twentieth century, grandiose Prince Hall masonic temples could be found throughout the country — from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, and from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin.
“One of the reasons African-Americans are drawn to Prince Hall freemasonry is that it was founded by African-Americans for African-Americans in the 18th century,” Cherry explains. “It has a story to tell. And, like the rest of American freemasonry, it grew in popularity throughout the early twentieth century, when Americans tended to join things.”
By 1900, Prince Hall Masonry had developed into a platform for politicized African-Americans, with members such as Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Throughout the twentieth century, freemasonry attracted a number of prominent figures in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr’s father – Martin Luther King Sr (1900-84) – was a member of Atlanta’s 23rd lodge. Medgar Evers, the NAACP activist slain in 1963, was a 32nd-degree freemason in the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction. Alex Haley (1921–1992), author of Roots and biography of Malcolm X, was also a 33rd-degree mason of the same order. Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), the first black member of the United States Supreme Court, was backed by his Louisiana Prince Hall lodge. Richard Pryor (1940-2005) was a member of a Peoria, Illinois, lodge, as were actor and activist Ossie Davis (1917-2005), Paul Robeson (1898-1976), and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-89).
“As with all freemasonry, Prince Hall freemasonry has a strong middle-class appeal,” Cherry notes. “The numerous Prince Hall visitors to the Masonic Library and Museum in London are frequently physicians, attorneys, or skilled artisans, with a strong military background. Some join because their family members were members; others believe it is an excellent way to network. Some enjoy the camaraderie and social aspects, while others enjoy the ceremony and regalia.”
Along with serving as a networking institution, freemasonry may have appealed to many politicized African-Americans on a philosophical level. Freemasonry’s esoteric tenets include gnostic literature, allusions to ancient Egypt, and alternate Bible readings. Thus, the Prince Hall lodges became a forum for the open exchange of pre-Christian knowledge with black liberation theories and relics of African religions.
Egyptology: the Sun Ra connection
When Afro-Guyanese historian George GM James (a Prince Hall mason and professor at the University of Arkansas) published his seminal 1954 book Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, he established explicit links between freemasonry and Egyptology. According to James, Egypt was the “cradle of the mysteries and the masonic fraternity,” while Greek philosopher Socrates was only a “master mason” and “fellow initiate of the Egyptian Mysteries.”
Sun Ra is the most evident musical representation of this. Sun Ra, born Herman Sonny Blount in 1913, appears to have been a freemason throughout his career. He played regularly at a masonic temple in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and was a frequent visitor to the city’s masonic library, one of the only places in the city where African-Americans had unfettered access to books, according to his biographer John Szwed. Indeed, Sun Ra’s stage attire is heavily influenced by masonic cloaks and aprons (his ceremonial robes for the 1974 film Space Is the Place were borrowed from an Oakland, California, Prince Hall lodge), while his obsession with Egyptology, as the writer Kodwo Eshun suggests, bears a strong resemblance to freemasonry.
“While Sun Ra was associated with the masons,” Cherry notes, “there is no proof that he was ever a member of a specific Prince Hall lodge.” Cherry believes it is more than likely that Sun Ra was a member of the Knights of Pythias, another mysterious organization that meets in lodges and claims Louis Armstrong as a former member. Dizzy Gillespie, however, is not mentioned as a member of the Prince Hall lodge, but his autobiography discusses his passion with freemasonry and his application to join a masonic lodge.
Prince Hall’s popularity appears to have peaked, with the average age of members fast growing and fewer young African-Americans entering. Numerous reports, however, imply that Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West are freemasons. Martin Cherry believes we should treat these stories with skepticism.
“The internet is rife with claims about hip-hop musicians becoming freemasons,” Cherry explains. “My favorite fact about Lil’ Kim is that she is a member of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization for freemason wives. The majority of these rumours originate from anti-masonic or anti-rap music websites that attempt to connect freemasonry, hip-hop, and the occult.
“I’m certain that if any prominent hip-hop artists were freemasons, the lodge that initiated them would have profited,” he says. “Like when Shaquille O’Neal, a basketball superstar, was made a mason on the spot by the grand master of the Prince Hall grand lodge in Massachusetts.”
Shaq joins a distinguished pedigree that includes not just George Washington and Oscar Wilde, Mozart and Buzz Aldrin, but also Sugar Ray Robinson and Don King, Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington.