The “Greensboro Four” sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, 1960.
The album cover of We Insist! was an explicit reference to the Greensboro protests. We Insist! drew analogies between social and political freedom and the aesthetic freedom of its music.
The Max Roach Quintet performing “Driva Man,” one of the numbers on We Insist!, about the abuses of slavery. Note Abbey Lincoln’s Afrocentric dress and natural hair style, signs of resistance in the early 1960s.
Before her collaboration with Max Roach, Lincoln had been a nightclub “girl singer” in New York and Hollywood, marketed as much for her looks as for her musicianship.
Read “The Photos that Lifted Up the Black Is Beautiful Movement,” a lovely photoessay about 1960s resistance to white standards in the beauty and fashion industries.
Just two years earlier, in 1958, Roach had played on tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s album Freedom Suite. The music on Freedom Suite does not explicitly reflect the struggle for civil rights; its “freedom” is total liberation from musical conventions of harmony, melody, and time. Nevertheless, as Rollins noted in the liner notes for the album:
America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.
Some black radicals, however, completely rejected the idea that music could be revolutionary. In his poem “Hipping the Hip,” Ramón Durem wrote:
Blues — is a tear
bop — a fear
There’s no place to hide
in a horn
Durem also makes a musical reference to the Mau Mau uprising — the armed revolt in the 1950s that drove the British out of Kenya and led to that nation’s independence, comparing Kenyan tribal music favorably to the widely-ranging music of bebop:
Mau Mau only got a five-tone scale
but when it comes to Freedom, Jim —
Mau Mau songs sung at a monument for Kenyan rebel leader Dedan Kimathi:
Other scholars of jazz history deny any link between free jazz and civil rights. As Mark Gridley contends:
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did not originate free jazz, but it may seem that way to a few observers because some free jazz did appeal to some musicians who were motivated in part by the civil rights movement. These musicians also adopted approaches and sound qualities associated with some free jazz. Consequently a few styles within free jazz were perceived by some journalists (LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, for instance) and some musicians (Archie Shepp, for instance) as sounding sufficiently angry to provide a new mode of expressing anger over social injustice. So even though civil unrest did not spawn free jazz, these individuals apparently felt that some of the music provided a good soundtrack for it.
It may be helpful also to keep in mind that some avant-garde musicians, including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp, were not only outspoken and active in the civil rights movement but also were angry by their temperaments. Their remarks and their sounds appealed to angry journalists LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Frank Kofsky who adopted the musicians’ stance for their own political causes. At the same time, however, we need to remain aware that Mingus and Shepp were not necessarily improvising free of preset chord changes or meter in their protest pieces. Despite following spontaneously shifting tone centers during improvisations in one performance, his 1960 recording of “What Love,” which is not a protest piece, the music of Mingus in general cannot be accurately categorized with free jazz, though often it is accurately classified with avant-garde jazz of the era.
This link between avant-garde jazz sounds during the 1960s and the civil rights movement of that era did not necessarily reflect the motives of the originators of free jazz. The originators had other inspirations, and those inspirations reflected a fundamental tradition in jazz of continuously seeking new methods and materials. For instance, the most turbulent of saxophonist Albert Ayler’s free jazz was inspired by the sounds of ecstatic charismatic Christian church worshippers who were speaking in tongues. The most turbulent of saxophonist John Coltrane’s music, whether chord-based, mode-based, or free-form, was motivated by an intense quest for new forms, exploring new variations. Coltrane said, “I’ve got to keep experimenting.”
[Emphasis in original.]
What do you think?