Freedom Now

sit in

The “Greensboro Four” sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, 1960. Read about the protests here.

Max_Roach-We_Insist!_Max_Roach's_Freedom_Now_Suite_(album_cover)

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.

“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.

(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
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, 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 —
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 [emphasis in original.]

Jazz 59

In 1959, African-American composer Ed Bland made the influential short semi-documentary film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America. Bland used the music of avant-garde Afrofuturist composer and pianist Sun Ra as the soundtrack.

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.