The “Greensboro Four” sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, 1960. Read about the protests here.
The cover of drummer Max Roach’s 1961 album We Insist! was an explicit reference to the Greensboro protests. We Insist! drew analogies between social and political freedom, and the aesthetic freedom of Roach’s 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.
(For more about changing black fashion and beauty standards in the 1960s, read the lovely photoessay “The Photos that Lifted Up the Black Is Beautiful Movement.”)
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.
Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s 1965 album Fire Music included numbers that linked jazz overtly to political consciousness, such as the spoken-word-plus-free-jazz tribute to Malcom X, “Malcom, Malcom, semper [i.e. always] Malcolm.”
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, suggesting that Kenyan tribal music is more revolutionary than jazz:
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 [emphasis in original.]