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Freedom Suite Revisited

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How ironic...that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity. —Sonny Rollins
In 1956 Sonny Rollins was one of the best-known tenor saxophonists in jazz, having recorded and released two wonderful and classic jazz albums, Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness, the latter being a tenor standoff with John Coltrane. In the following two years, freed from his Prestige Records contract, Rollins set about making some great records that were released on a variety of labels, including Riverside, Contemporary, and Period. He released Way Out West and worked with Thelonious Monk. Yet, even as his career ascended he was faced with the specter of racism when he attempted to rent an apartment in New York City. “Here I had all these reviews, newspaper articles and pictures,” Rollins later said. “At the time it struck me, what did it all mean if you were still a nigger, so to speak? This is the reason I wrote the suite.” “The suite” refers to the famous composition “Freedom Suite”, a nineteen minute piece that featured Rollins, accompanied only by bass and drums. It was jazz music’s first explicit extended instrumental protest piece, and its intentions were signaled in the original liner notes written by Rollins: “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."

The piece, a series of variations on fairly simple melodic material, caused a sensation, but Riverside Records decided it was too incendiary and pulled the recording, reissuing it under the title Shadow Waltz, the name of another track on the recording. Orrin Keepnews, the producer and part-owner of Riverside Records, wrote a new set of liner notes that stated Rollins’ intentions much less succinctly:

“This suite, then is ‘about’ Sonny Rollins: more precisely, it is about freedom as Sonny is equipped to perceive it. He is a creative artist living in New York City in the 1950s; he is a jazz musician who, partly by absorbing elements of Bird and Monk and many others, has evolved his own personal music; he is a Negro. Thus the meaning of freedom to Rollins is compounded of all this, and, undoubtedly, much more. In one sense, then, the reference is to the musical freedom of this unusual combination of composition and improvisation; in another it is to physical and moral freedom, to the presence and absence of it in Sonny’s own life and in the way of life of other Americans to whom he feels a relationship.”

Keepnews is certainly not altogether wrong in his assessment, but he certainly pulls back some of what Rollins made very specific in his statement. Rollins’ statement that “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture” was, in 1958, a bold statement, to say the least. Yet he demonstrates it quite ably in his themes and the improvisations he unfurls during the course of the suite. Thelonious Monk, who was extremely influential in Rollins’ development, told the saxophonist to “play the melody, not the changes,” and Rollins seems to have followed that advice well. He never gives the impression that improvisation is a mechanical or mathematical process based on the chord changes, instead following his melodic inspiration wherever it may lead. On “Freedom Suite” he plays with his various themes until the listener becomes aware, slowly over the course of the work, that they are interconnected. This attention to the melodic structure of improvisation as well as its harmonic structure has made Rollins one of jazz music’s most celebrated improvisers. Indeed, Rollins provides the complete melodic content of “Freedom Suite,” accompanied only by the bass work of Oscar Pettiford and the powerful drumming of Max Roach, who would go on to record the equally important (though currently unavailable) We Insist: Freedom Now Suite with then-wife Abbey Lincoln, Oscar Brown, Jr. and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.


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