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Lift Every Voice And Sing: Twenty #BlackLives Albums That Matter

Chris May By

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America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humour, 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. —Sonny Rollins (1958)
Jazz has been inextricably linked with social and political protest since at least the late 1930s, when Billie Holiday made famous the leftist songwriter and poet Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit." The song, which has a power to move that is undiminished by familiarity, likens the bodies of lynched African Americans to fruit hanging in trees.

But the alignment of jazz and protest goes back further than "Strange Fruit." It is likely to have begun with the emergence of the music's roots in the early 1800s in New Orleans' Congo Square, where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to make music and socialize. In the context of the times, the mere celebration of African American culture in public had a political dimension, or would have done for the celebrants themselves anyway, and it is likely that the music that was played in Congo Square included necessarily coded references to the slaves' yearning for freedom, along with exhortations to fight for it.

In 1964, Nina Simone notched up another benchmark with "Mississippi Goddam." Since then, jazz singers and spoken-word artists from Leon Thomas through Gil Scott-Heron and Dwight Trible to the Last Poets and Kendrick Lamar have kept the message that Black Lives Matter alive.

Vocals, however, are not mandatory. Vibe and attitude can be just as powerful as words. In 2019, saxophonist Bobby Watson illustrated the point in an interview in which he talked about his time with Art Blakey's The Jazz Messengers in the late 1970s.

"Art had us play 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' [the de facto African American national anthem] at the opening of every show," said Watson. "That was his musical statement. He didn't go to the mic and talk about why he was doing this song; he just did it. He never made any speeches, but we all knew why. He was very political, and there was always an undercurrent of social awareness and black pride in the music. Art also demanded respect by the way he had us dress in the band. We wore overalls, and it was because as black men, off-stage, you could not just walk around free and get any respect dressing that way. But Art would not allow perceptions to dictate anything. He was saying, 'You're going to respect me for who I am, because I'm great at what I do.'"

Sadly, jazz's business and critical establishment has not always welcomed overt expressions of rebellion by African American musicians. In the 1960s, when the music was still overwhelmingly mediated by white gatekeepers, the social radicalism of players such as those associated with John Coltrane and the New Thing school was viewed as threatening by many commentators. Three years after Sonny Rollins released Freedom Suite (Riverside, 1958), the critic Ira Gitler, reviewing Max Roach's Percussion Bitter Sweet (Impulse!, 1961) in Downbeat, accused the singer Abbey Lincoln of being a "professional Negro," because of the lyrics Lincoln wrote and sang. The fact that she had taken on the role of "a professional Negro" because of her daily encounters with white racism simply did not occur to Gitler (who would not have regarded himself as racist).

In a July 2020 interview with All About Jazz, trumpeter and Strata-East co-founder Charles Tolliver suggested that the idea if not the phrase Black Lives Matter has existed since 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to America by British colonialists. Shamefully, it is perhaps the most important single-issue political movement in the US over four hundred years later, as indeed it also is in Britain.

This article uses a broad definition of "black lives matter." Albums which specifically address the murders of black people are included, but so, too, are albums which celebrate the fact that black lives and black culture have thrived in the face of white racism and despite social and economic disadvantage.

In one way or another, each of the albums listed below supports the idea that black lives matter. Some include spoken word or sung lyrics, but most are purely instrumental. With lyrics or without them, their message comes over loud and clear.

The list starts in 1958 and continues to 2020, and includes albums made in the US and Britain. Many of the discs are well known, but hopefully you will find a few that are unfamiliar to you.

BLACK LIVES MATTER: 20 ALBUMS THAT MATTER

Sonny Rollins
Freedom Suite
Riverside, 1958

As touched on above, the endorsement of a newly militant black liberation movement by African American jazz musicians in the late 1950s and 1960s was greeted with incomprehension and hostility by the majority of the predominantly white critical establishment. In his original sleeve note for Freedom Suite, Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews, whose social views were progressive for the late 1950s, tied himself up in knots trying to make Rollins' album appear less radical to conservative record buyers. "It is not a piece about Emmett Till, or Little Rock, or Harlem, or the peculiar election laws of Georgia or Louisiana, no more than it is about the artistic freedom of jazz," wrote Keepnews. The statement was contradicted in Rollins' brief addendum, presumably included at his insistence, which reads: "America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humour, 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." Rollins and Keepnews did not work together again until the 1970s.

Duke Ellington
Black Brown And Beige
Columbia, 1958

Rollins' Freedom Suite is instrumental, but the title and the vibe (and Rollins' sleeve note) makes the music's meaning crystal clear. Duke Ellington's Black Brown And Beige features gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, voicing lyrics which preclude any possibility of doubt. Interviewed in 2019 about the album, bassist Christian McBride (see the final entry in this list, below) said: "Duke was always somehow able to express and convey the feelings of black folk without being angry. You could feel the sadness, pain, angst, but it was always done through this filter, this lens of triumph in the end ... of hope." Ellington wrote the piece in 1942 and performed it at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1943. This performance, with Mahalia Jackson at the height of her powers, is the best recorded version.

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus
Candid, 1961

Like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus could express sadness, pain and angst in his work with ringing effect. Mingus was not shy of expressing anger, too. "Original Faubus Fables" on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus explodes with rage, in Mingus' spoken word dialogue with drummer Dannie Richmond and the impassioned playing of his quartet, which also includes alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Ted Curson. The piece is about the racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who defied a Supreme Court ruling to use the National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling at Little Rock Central High School. "Original Faubus Fables" was included on the septet album Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959) as "Fables of Faubus." This stripped-down, 9:15-minute quartet version is even more intense.

Max Roach
We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
Candid, 1961

Critic Nat Hentoff, who produced Max Roach's We Insist! (along with around thirty other Candid albums including Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus), highlighted the inspirations behind the album in his liner notes, which are as uncompromising as the music. Among Roach's subjects are lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom marches, historical slavery and contemporary segregation. The album includes lyrics by the singer and writer Oscar Brown Jr., sung by Abbey Lincoln. The inclusion of elder statesman, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in the lineup is significant. Hawkins grew up in an era when jazzman were obliged to disguise or even deny their political beliefs in order to protect their job prospects in a scene which was controlled, in the most part, by white people, by no means all of whom were as progressive as, for instance, equal rights campaigner Norman Granz. For Hawkins to pin his colours to Roach's mast is indicative of the rising militancy and universality of the civil rights movement. Hawkins' solo on "Driva' Man" contains a squeak in the take used on the album. "No, don't splice," Hawkins told Hentoff. "When it's all perfect, especially in a piece like this, there's something very wrong."

John Coltrane
Live At Birdland
Impulse!, 1964

In a sense, every album saxophonist John Coltrane recorded is a declaration that black rights matter. This is especially true of those he made for Impulse! in the 1960s. Coltrane rarely discussed the inspirations behind his work (1965's A Love Supreme being one obvious exception), but every note he played was a celebration of African American culture and his lived experiences as a black man in the US. Live At Birdland, made by Coltrane's Classic Quartet, opens with his much loved "Afro Blue." But the track which mostly concerns us here is side two's "Alabama." Coltrane wrote the tune in memory of four African American girls (aged 11 to 14) who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in a bomb attack on a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Tender and reflective for most of its five-minute duration, until drummer Elvin Jones' turbulent passage near the end (check the YouTube clip below), the wholly instrumental "Alabama" is as emotionally affecting as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."

Miles Davis
A Tribute To Jack Johnson
Columbia, 1971

If John Coltrane could be enigmatic, Miles Davis made it his default position. But he usually welcomed opportunities to speak about A Tribute To Jack Johnson and even wrote the sleeve note. The album is the soundtrack for a documentary about the early twentieth-century African American boxing champion Jack Johnson. Davis, who practised boxercise to keep fit, felt a deep affinity with Johnson. In interviews, Davis spoke about Johnson's love of jazz, sharp clothes, fast cars and beautiful women, all enthusiasms which he shared, and spoke too about the image of muscular black-manhood that Johnson projected and which so disturbed mainstream white American society. The album has two tracks, which were remixed and reconstructed after the fact by producer Teo Macero. Davis dominates the proceedings, supported by a killer jazz-rock ensemble: keyboard player Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Steve Grossman, electric bassist Michael Henderson and drummer Billy Cobham. Among the trace elements are excerpts from In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and a bass line evoking James Brown's 1968 hit "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)."

Archie Shepp
Attica Blues
Impulse!, 1972

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp's Attica Blues is his conceptual masterpiece, a plain speaking yet nuanced response to the Attica prison uprising of 1971. The majority of the facility's inmates were African American and during the subsequent inquiry into the uprising it emerged that guards routinely referred to their batons as "nigger sticks." By the time the authorities had regained control, thirty-three prisoners were dead along with ten prison guards and support staff. Five of the suite's ten tracks have lyrics written by Shepp and trumpeter Cal Massey and two others have spoken-word narrations by the civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. The album's focus was Attica, but other issues are highlighted: the cover, for instance, has a photograph of African American athletes raising their fists in salute on the podium during the 1968 Mexican Olympics, in a historic protest akin to sportspeople taking the knee in 2020. In 2013, Shepp toured the album and rerecorded it for the live disc I Hear The Sound (Archie Ball), fronting a mostly French lineup dubbed The Attica Blues Orchestra.

Roy Brooks And The Artistic Truth
Ethnic Expressions
Im-Hotep, 1973

The drummer Roy Brooks is a tragic example of how black lives have been deemed not to matter. Beset with psychiatric issues from the start of his career (with Yusef Lateef and Horace Silver) in the late 1950s, Brooks became seriously ill in the late 1990s and was imprisoned from 2000 to 2004, only then being admitted to hospital for treatment. He passed in 2005. After releasing the landmark spiritual-jazz album The Free Slave (1972) on Muse, Brooks recorded Ethnic Expressions live at Harlem's Small's Paradise with a collective lineup which includes saxophonists Sonny Fortune and Hamiet Bluiett, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and, on "Eboness" and "Eboness (Kwanza)," singer Eddie Jefferson and narrator Black Rose respectively. Black Survival (Im-Hotep) followed a year later.

Juju
A Message From Mozambique
Strata-East, 1973

With track titles such as "Freedom Fighter" and "Make Your Own Revolution Now," the debut album from JuJu, a percussion-heavy sextet led by the saxophonist J. Plunky Branch, placed the band firmly on the politicised wing of spiritual jazz. The music sounds a bit like an angrier version of Pharoah Sanders' contemporaneous albums. Richmond-based Branch was soon to form the Black Fire record label with the Washington DC-based DJ Jimmy Gray. Despite the track titles here, in his liner notes for the 2020 compilation Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story 1975-1993 (Strut), Branch says, "Self-determination and unity became part of the highest ideals [of the era]. We were not yet fist-raising revolutionaries but we were trying to be revolutionary in uniting black people."

Jayne Cortez
Celebrations And Solitudes
Strata-East, 1974

Poet Jayne Cortez's album covers such harrowing subjects as a real-life lynching in New York ("Lynch Fragment 2") and the murder of ten year old African American Clifford Glover by a white policeman ("Homicide"), who was later acquitted on all charges. Other poems include tributes to Leadbelly ("Lead") and John Coltrane ("How Long Has Trane Been Gone") and to the first leader of post-colonial Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah ("Song For Kwame"). Throughout, Cortez is accompanied only by bassist Richard Davis, who recorded with Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and also provided a solid foundation for Van Morrison's versifying on Astral Weeks (Warner Bros, 1968). For ten years, Cortez was married to Ornette Coleman, and was the mother of drummer Denardo Coleman.

Arthur Blythe
Lenox Avenue Breakdown
Columbia, 1979

A bit of a stretch this one, but alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe's chef d'oeuvre is a vibrant celebration of urban African American culture, and as such qualifies for inclusion in the category Black Lives Matter. It is also one of the least known masterpieces in the entire jazz canon. An alumnus of Horace Tapscott's Pan African Peoples Arkestra, Blythe co-produced Lenox Avenue Breakdown with ex-Impulse! / ex-Flying Dutchman producer Bob Thiele, who he had previously encountered during the recording of Tapscott's The Giant Is Awakened (Flying Dutchman, 1969). Multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson once said that Blythe could "play the entire history of the music in one phrase." Add flautist James Newton, tuba player Bob Stewart, guitarist James Blood Ulmer, bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Guillermo Franco and things are really cooking. Incredibly, Lenox Avenue Breakdown has only been reissued twice, most recently on CD by Jazz Koch in 1998. If ever you see a copy, do yourself a favour and seize it.

Randy Weston
The Spirits Of Our Ancestors
Verve/Antilles, 1992

The 2xCD The Spirits Of Our Ancestors is probably the greatest album pianist Randy Weston ever recorded, a celebration of jazz's African heritage. It deserves inclusion here on the same grounds as Arthur Blythe's Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Weston revisits eight of his best-loved pieces fronting a mid-sized ensemble arranged by his longtime friend, the trombonist and orchestrator Melba Liston. The band is a striking assemblage of bop, hard bop and spiritual-jazz luminaries. Dizzy Gillespie, whose big band Weston was a member of in the late 1940s, guests on "African Sunrise," which was written for him by Weston in 1983. Also featured are trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, alto saxophonist Talib Kibwe and tenor saxophonists Billy Harper, Dewey Redman and, guesting on "African Cookbook" and "Blue Moses," Pharoah Sanders. There are two bassists, Alex Blake and Jamil Sulieman Nasser. The drummer is Idris Muhammad and the percussionists are Big Black and Weston's son Azzedin.

Soweto Kinch
A Life In The Day Of B19: Tales From The Tower Block
Dune, 2006

Along with Denys Baptiste (see below), alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch is part of the generation of British musicians who paved the way for the new London jazz scene of 2020. Socio-political concerns are often explicitly addressed in these musicians' work, within a British context. On A Life In The Day Of B19: Tales From The Tower Block , Kinch weaves a story around twenty-four hours in the lives of three residents of a social-housing estate in British second city Birmingham's B19 postcode. In his sleeve notes, Kinch wrote that the album was dedicated to "people told they're least likely to succeed." The music is as gritty as the subject matter. The overwhelming majority of Kinch's generation and the younger players who have followed them are graduates of the pioneering Nu Troop and Tomorrow's Warriors outreach projects organised by bassist Gary Crosby and his partner, Janine Irons. Crosby and Irons have been assiduous in promoting technical excellence while also teaching the social history of jazz.

Denys Baptiste
Identity By Subtraction
Dune, 2011

A companion piece to British tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste's Let Freedom Ring! (Dune, 2003), a festival commission recorded with a twelve-piece band, Identity By Subtraction has Baptiste leading a quartet comprising pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Gary Crosby and drummer Rod Youngs. Both albums address black people's campaigns against white racism and for equality and both employ spoken-word. Nigerian poet Ben Okri is featured on Let Freedom Ring! and the veteran Jamaican-born, London-based bassist Coleridge Goode is heard on Identity By Subtraction, reminiscing about his eight decades of life in Britain (Goode passed in 2015, aged 100 years). Baptiste's big, muscular sound recalls that of Sonny Rollins—in a 2020 All About Jazz interview Baptiste said that Rollins' "Don't Stop The Carnival" was the record which turned him on to jazz as a child. Baptiste also said that Rollins' Freedom Suite was one of the albums that made him realise that jazz could be more than just a series of notes.

Terence Blanchard Featuring The E-Collective
Breathless
Blue Note, 2015

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard's A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007) would have made it into this list had it not been pipped at the post by the more recent Breathless. The 2007 album was made with a small band augmented by the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia. Breathless has Blanchard fronting the E-Collective quintet. The album takes as its jumping off point the police murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, whose last words to the NYPD policeman applying a chokehold to him in 2014 were "I can't breathe"—words which were also, of course, the last ones spoken by George Floyd to the Minneapolis policeman kneeling on his neck in 2020.

Sons Of Kemet
Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
Naim, 2015

Reeds player Shabaka Hutchings, the leader of Sons of Kemet, is perhaps the most prominent and certainly (with three of his bands in 2020 recording for Impulse!) the most internationally feted player on the new London jazz scene. All three Sons Of Kemet albums, like much else of Hutchings' work, focus in part on identity and ethnicity and the history and legacy of slavery. Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, the band's second release, includes tracks such as "In Memory Of Samir Awad," "In The Castle Of My Skin" and "The Hour Of Judgement." An instrumental disc, to allay any doubt about its focus a two-line message takes up all of the left-hand page of the CD inner sleeve. It reads: "Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do. Children Of Immigrants Wandering Through A Post-Colonial Babalas."

Christian Scott
The Emancipation Procrastination
Ropeadope, 2017

Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's The Emancipation Procrastination uses attitude and ambiance to deliver its message, though track titles such as "Gerrymandering Game" and "Unrigging November" set out the context. The album is the final chapter in a trilogy of discs which Scott released in 2017 in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, following Ruler Rebel and Diaspora (both Ropeadope). The unofficial fourth volume in the series is Ancestral Recall (Ropeadope, 2019), on which Scott does use spoken-word interludes between tracks. Musically, The Emancipation Procrastination continues Scott's intersectional blend of jazz and hip hop, this time out with foregrounded electric guitar and Fender Rhodes evoking Miles Davis' late 1960s and early 1970s jazz rock.

Camilla George
The People Could Fly
Ubuntu, 2018

Nigerian-born, London-based alto saxophonist Camilla George's second album brings the soulful melodicism of Cannonball Adderley and the edgier vibe of Arthur Blythe. The album's centrepiece is a seven-piece suite inspired by a book of folk tales about slavery, also called The People Could Fly, which George's mother used to read to her as a child. The oral and written literature of the African diaspora is rich in stories about black people being able to fly, an expression of the desire to leave a poisoned present for a brighter alternative world. The closing track is Curtis Mayfield's "Here But I'm Gone." The band includes some of the most distinctive musicians on the new London scene including keyboard player Sarah Tandy, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, singer Cherise Adams-Burnett , bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective.

Matana Roberts
Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
Constellation, 2019

Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis is part of a projected twelve-album series which the alto saxophonist, writer and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians member Matana Roberts began in 2011. A breathtakingly imaginative mix of social realism and magical realism, it is Roberts' personal and political chronicle of African American history. There is a kind of linear narrative at play, but it exists in a wider poetic vision: best not to get too cognitive with it, but instead allow the combination of minimally structured jazz, folk musics (from the Appalachians to Africa), samples (from field hollers to speeches by Malcolm X), and spoken word to work its magic. What emerges is a celebration of blackness, humanism, and societal and personal struggle. If Roberts ever decided to add video to the series, synapses could be seriously rearranged.

Christian McBride
The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait Of Four Icons
Mack Avenue, 2020

An ambitious work, concisely realised in a little over an hour, bassist and composer Christian McBride's The Movement Revisited is the 2020 instalment of his ongoing salute to the African American civil rights movement. It focuses on four of the movement's heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Embracing big band jazz, small group jazz, gospel, funk and chorale musics, together with spoken word passages, the suite employs an eighteen-piece band, the ten-piece Voices Of The Flame gospel choir, two lead vocalists and four narrators. A fifth movement is inspired by Barack Obama's election victory in 2008. At least two more movements suggest themselves: the Trump nightmare and (bring it on) its aftermath.

Photo of Terence Blanchard by Joseph Allen.

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