It has been a troubling and depressing week for many of us in the US as we reckon with the results of last Tuesday’s election. It’s made it hard for me to focus on music. And when I do think about music, I find myself taking a step back and contemplating: what exactly is music for? What does it mean to people who are engaged in a struggle simply for existence, dignity, material comfort and self-determination? I think one of the reasons jazz is so powerful because it is an art form that is by definition an act of resistance. It was created by largely self-taught descendants of enslaved Africans on Western instruments (that originated in European classical and marching band ensembles), and these people poured into their foreign tools their entire souls and intellects, often at great personal risk. They forged a unique aesthetic that was at once fiercely modern and virtuosic and thus demanded respect, but also often witty, tragic, sophomoric, romantic, angry, sensual, and vulnerable – in other words fully human. In a society that constantly denies one’s humanity, that in itself is a miraculous and heroic act of anti-colonial liberation through sound. And I think one of the reasons that we as Americans of all races treasure jazz so much is because that the music, at its core, is really a vital source of healing for an embattled and oppressed community. It’s deeply spiritual kind of folk medicine, created by and for one group of people (with lots of crucial contributions by people of other races) – but its healing spirit is accessible for everyone.
As Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) said, “Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made…This music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes that produced it.” In that spirit, and given that the attitudes that produced jazz are more relevant than ever right now, I have compiled 5 classic jazz songs of protest and resistance, and a list of many more below that for further listening (though the list is by no means comprehensive.)
1. “Original Faubus Fables” by Charles Mingus
“Original Faubus Fables,” also known as “Fables of Faubus,” is one of bassist Charles Mingus’ most famous and celebrated songs, and perhaps his most overtly political one. It’s a bitter satirical protest of Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 deployed the National Guard against 9 Black teenagers attempting to integrate Little Rock Central High School. The music contains mocking rhymes, cries, boos, abrupt tempo changes and cacophony, a musical reflection of the “ridiculousness” of Faubus and his fellow white supremacists.
2. “Alabama” by John Coltrane
Coltrane wrote and recorded “Alabama” in 1963 in response to a horrific Birmingham church bombing earlier that year that had killed four young Black girls. A deeply religious man, Coltrane wrote a melody with all the lyricsm and gravity of a eulogy – and which feels deeply vocal despite having no lyrics. Starting off mournful, the piece builds to a crashing conclusion full of spiritual fervor and conviction.
3. “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone
Written in response to the same church bombing in Birmingham, AL as well as the murder of Civil Rights Movement leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, this song captures Nina Simone’s righteous rage at the obvious injustice she saw around her, as well as the frustration of constantly being told to wait for one’s rights (“Too Slow!”). The anger is not any less for being satirically transformed into a seemingly jaunty show tune.
4. “Freedom Day” by Max Roach
This album, called “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” was originally planned as a five-song suite in commemoration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. A experimental collaboration between drummer Max Roach, lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. and singer Abbey Lincoln, the project eventually grew to encompass the urgent energy of the Civil Rights Movement as well as simultaneous independence movements all over Africa. About this track, Roach says “We couldn’t never finish it…We don’t really understand what it really is to be free. The last sound we did, ‘Freedom Day,’ ended with a question mark.”
5. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
Between 1882 and 1951 there were around 3,500 reported lynchings of Black people, with many more unreported. These were usually brutal and sadistic public murders, often by hanging. During the middle of that genocidal spree, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist named Abel Meeropol wrote a poem and later set it to music, penning the song that would forever be associated with Billie Holiday and would become the anthem of the anti-lynching movement. It’s impossible to describe the horror and power of this song – Holiday herself said she threw up every time she performed it.
One can argue that many common characteristics and tropes of jazz are inherently subversive, even if they don’t seem obviously political:
- Writing intricate, bluesy bebop melodies over pop songs written by white broadway composers and re-titling them (e.g. “Indiana” becomes “Donna Lee”)
- Emphasizing African or Afro-centric themes in the melodies, rhythms, or titles of songs
- Altering the standard playing techniques of the instruments using distortion, bends, growls, vocalizations, and asymmetrical, unquantifiable rhythm (“swing”) etc. to create and appeal to a new and non-Western aesthetic…and on and on.
But for the purposes of the list below, I have collected some more examples of classic jazz and jazz fusion (from the early 70’s and earlier) that all have explicitly political themes of protest and Black Power, either in their titles, lyrics or contexts. There are just so many more…this is really only a place to start. Feel free to let me know if I missed something in the comments!
Attica Blues (entire album)
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
“Free for All” – Free for All
“The Freedom Rider” – The Freedom Rider
“Freedom” – Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus
“Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” – Oh Yeah
Black, Brown, & Beige (entire album)
Pieces Of A Man (entire album)
“Power to the People” – Power to the People
“Mr. Kenyatta” – Search for the New Land
“The Cry Of My People” – The Sixth Sense
“Black and Blue” – The Essential Louis Armstrong
Percussion Bitter Sweet (entire album)
We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (entire album)
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (entire album)
“Backlash Blues” – Nina Simone Sings the Blues
“Go Limp” – In Concert
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” – Silk & Soul
“Revolution (Pts. 1 and 2) – The Essential Nina Simone
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – The Essential Nina Simone
“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) – Live” – ‘Nuff Said
“The Freedom Suite” – The Freedom Suite