Freedom Now

sit in

The “Greensboro Four” sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, 1960.

Max_Roach-We_Insist!_Max_Roach's_Freedom_Now_Suite_(album_cover)

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.

“All Africa.”

“Freedom Now.”

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
Of reality.
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 —
they wail!

dig?

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?

Jazz 59

In 1959, African-American director Ed Bland made the influential short film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America.

1959 was also the year that saw some of the most innovative music to date in the genre.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

In September, 2019, the Sounding Out! blog published a special series on the 60th anniversary of Mingus Ah Um. Check it out here.