“Sonny’s Blues” is set in post–World War II New York, in the midst of an important cultural and political revolution that permanently changed the country. Artists from all over the world had made New York a new cultural capital, establishing Greenwich Village, where Sonny briefly lives, as the bohemian center of the city. A diverse array of artists, including the painter Jackson Pollack, musician Charlie Parker, and writer Jack Kerouac, all converged in New York around this time. These artists learned and borrowed from one another, and although there were great differences in style and subject matter, many of the artists were responding to what they believed was America’s unique cultural and political crisis following the end of the war. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny wants to move past the traditional conventions of music, as did many postwar artists whose work expressed radical new notions of individual freedom and artistic liberty.
At the same time that the art scene in New York was exploding, thousands of African American soldiers were returning home from the war and heading north toward communities like Harlem, where, instead of finding new job opportunities and equal rights, they found newly constructed housing projects and vast urban slums. Sonny and his brother both serve in the war, and each returns to find a radically different life in America. It was an experience that thousands of other African Americans faced following the war’s conclusion. The civil rights movement, which had begun in the South early in the decade, had quickly begun to spread across the country as millions of African Americans began to agitate for equal rights. Although America in the 1950s was generally more conservative, the groundwork for the radical political movements of the 1960s was being laid. Hundreds of homes in Harlem were leveled to build the housing projects, which would eventually become symbols of urban blight and poverty. Harlem was at a critical juncture in its history, seemingly ready, as Sonny notes, to explode. “Sonny’s Blues” is a testimony to both the frustration of life in America’s cities and the eventual transformation of that frustration into a political and artistic movement.