Monday , 22 January 2018
The secret history of the jazz greats who were freemasons

The secret history of the jazz greats who were freemasons

secret masonic hall, liverpool street, londonJazz and freemasonry are unlikely bedfellows, but in the 1950s, the secret society became a support network for musicians and the world’s largest fraternity for black men, among them Duke Ellington and Sun Ra

When the City of London festival found out about a long dormant masonic temple that had been uncovered next to Liverpool Street station, it seemed obvious that this wonderfully opulent hall should be used as a one-off music venue. The only question was – what music should it host?

“The obvious choice would have been to host a Mozart recital, because everyone knows that Mozart was a freemason,” says Paul Gudgin, former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and now director of the City of London Festival. “But it just so happened that I was reading a biography of Duke Ellington which mentioned, in passing, his membership of a masonic lodge. I found it astonishing that such an anti-establishment figure turned out to be at the heart of an establishment organisation. And I thought it would be a perfect place to pay tribute.”

This month, the City of London Festival will host two Duke Ellington tributes in this elaborate, neo-classical masonic temple, now in the basement of the Hyatt group’s Andaz hotel. Saxophonist Tommy Smith plays on 4 July, and pianist Julian Joseph on 11 July.

“It’s something of a badge of honour to hear that Ellington was a mason,” says Joseph. “Not only was he part of a musical elite, but he had managed to enter this secretive and powerful organisation, one that only the privileged few had access to.”

Start digging into the history of freemasonry and you discover that Ellington was just one of many renowned African-American musicians to be inducted into its mysterious world. He was joined by the likes of Nat King Cole, WC Handy, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Paul Robeson.

“Throughout history, freemasonry has attracted musicians,” says Martin Cherry, librarian at the Museum of Freemasonry in London. “Mozart is the obvious example, but in 18th-century London, a lodge was established called the Lodge of the Nine Muses, which attracted a number of European musicians and artists, including JC Bach. For musicians and artists who were new to a city, the lodge would have been an opportunity to meet fellow artists and network with people with whom they may be able to find work.”

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