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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2

The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2
Karl Ackermann By

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True jazz is, and always has been, subversive. —Tim Hagans
Part 1 of Jazz and Protest took an in-depth look at two landmark artists and the songs that laid the groundwork for protest within the jazz community. Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" took a circuitous route from its origins as a poem to its successful recording on a small label that was not afraid to lend a voice to a progressive movement. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" followed a similarly indirect course, taking the singer/composer's career off the tracks. Though they were the best known songs of the early Civil Rights Movement, these two pivotal compositions were not the only pieces of the time, nor the only actions, to address the issue of equality. There are numerous examples of jazz, as an instrument of change, occurring off the stage. Some were driven by the actions of those behind the scenes and flew in the face of well-entrenched opinions and practices of the time.

Off Stage Confrontations

In a Los Angeles suburb, in 1943, white U.S. military personnel and civilians perpetrated a number of violent attacks against Latinos, as well as some African Americans and Filipinos, ostensibly, to express condemnation of their "flamboyant" clothing—later known as zoot suits—as a purposefully rebellious act. The rationing of fabric during World War II led to the perception, by some, that the clothing was excessive and detrimental to the war effort. The incidents in Los Angeles inspired similar attacks in other California cities and in a number of other locations including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.

The Los Angeles-born producer, and founder of the Verve label, Norman Granz brought a decorum to the jazz scene by moving performances beyond the clubs and bars and into concert halls. Those efforts culminated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JAPT) performances which were an immediate success. Though the less intimate venue took sociability, often in the form of dancing, out of the equation, it opened up jazz to new audiences without diminishing the functional importance of the clubs. The inaugural concert displayed another Granz goal—racial equality, on and off the stage. The 1944 concert was a benefit performance to raise money for the defense of jailed Latino youths who had been caught up in the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles.

The internment of Japanese Americans was well under way in the early to mid-1940s, with more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans relocated to prison camps. A wave of misguided nationalism swept the country following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans, particularly White Americans, viewed recent immigrants with suspicion. At a reservoir off the Los Angeles River, a hang-out for local Mexican-Americans, José Gallardo Díaz, suffered fatal injuries in August of 1942. His autopsy was inconclusive as to the cause of death but he had been drinking and had a fractured skull leading some to conclude that he may have suffered his injuries as the result of a fall. Police had no motive to conclude that foul play was involved and no evidence suggesting any suspects. Nevertheless, they arrested seventeen local Mexican-Americans, and with substandard legal representation, convicted nine of them for second-degree murder, sending them to San Quentin Prison. The racial tensions that sprang from the incident sparked the Zoot Suit riots in 1943.

Los Angeles had its share of more liberal-minded luminaries, including Henry Fonda and Orson Welles, who took up the cause of the convicted teens and formed a defense team. Granz offered his JAPT as a means to further promote the cause. He planned his benefit concert and booked the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium doing his own leg work to promote the show. In the book Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press, 2011), author Ted Hershorn explains that the benefit concert was not an easy sell in all cases and not necessarily due to cause-related reactions, but to a jazz stigma. Hershorn writes, "The Los Angeles Times music critic Isabella Morse Jones turned down Granz's offer of tickets: it was simply 'beneath her dignity' to attend a jazz concert." Even Granz's friend, Atlantic Records founder Nesuhi Ertegun, suggested that the venue may have been too cultivated for jazz music, according to Hershorn. But the Philharmonic Auditorium had a mission to bring culture to the masses and so the concert was booked for July, 1944.

More than two-thousand people attended the show and the crowd was unusually diverse, lining up to see J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jacquet, and members of the Les Paul group, among many other lesser known names. Granz pushed the musicians to play extended versions of their numbers and the audience reaction was boisterous, further inspiring the musicians to give something extra. The success of the improvised show implanted the concept for Granz's later jam session formats. The success extended to financial rewards as well, contributing a significant amount to what was labeled the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. The resulting trial in 1944 turned around the convictions of the San Quentin nine.

This was not to be Granz's only brush with defending victims of discrimination. One of the more notable incidents occurred at a concert in Houston, Texas in October, 1955. Houston was—at that time—a city entrenched in white rule and with a police department that answered to the governing demographic. Granz knew the inherent dangers of Black artists performing in the Deep South but he was also aware of the city's wealth and appetite for jazz music. It was an opportunity that couldn't be ignored when Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour program included prominent names such as Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa and Lester Young. Granz met with a representative of the Houston Music Hall to ensure that all signage related to segregated seated and bathrooms be removed before the performance. As a result, he later had to absorb the cost of returning ticket money to White audience members who refused to sit next to Blacks. What he would not do was re-seat these disgruntled patrons to appease their racially driven preferences.

One of the sets on that evening's card featured Ella Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie. Fitzgerald's cousin, Georgiana Henry, accompanied the singer as an assistant. Before they took the stage, Jacquet and Gillespie passed the time, off-stage, in a low-stakes game of shooting dice while Fitzgerald and Henry shared a piece of pie. Granz insisted that what happened next was a set-up, probably initiated by someone working with, or for, the Houston Music Hall. Though the door to the stage's waiting room was unlocked, Houston City Police broke down it down, charging in with guns drawn in a histrionic and laughable display of law and order. Fitzgerald, Lewis, Jacquet, Gillespie and Henry were arrested as was Granz when he intervened, demonstrating that politics and panic were not mutually exclusive. Granz posted bail for the group and later spent thousands of dollars in order to have the charges against the performers dropped.

An Underdog with a Cause

In the midst of an unprecedented year of releases that included Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia), Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia), John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic) and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic), 1959 was the year that Charles Mingus weighed in on the Civil Rights movement with his historic Mingus Ah Um (Columbia) and—in particular—"Fables of Faubus," a musical indictment of then Arkansas Governor, Orval Eugene Faubus.

In 1957, and in defiance of the well-known US Supreme Court integration ruling (Brown v. Board of Education), Governor Faubus refused to comply with the Court's order to stop the segregation of the Little Rock, AR School District. Faubus called out the state's National Guard to block nine black students from entering the Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered by assuming federal control of the Arkansas National Guard and ordering them to stand down. Eisenhower sent in one-thousand paratroopers to ensure that students were given safe passage into the school. Faubus was not deterred and rather than integrate the Arkansas schools, he ordered them shut down for the 1958-1959 school year. He was elected to six additional terms, a reflection of Arkansas' populist sentiment against integration.

Mingus was no stranger to anger so it isn't surprising that the outrageous actions of Faubus triggered a response from the composer. But Mingus was not known for political works and "Fables of Faubus" was more a misanthrope's personal rant than an activist's manifesto but was nevertheless regarded as a significant contribution to the Civil Rights catalog. There are conflicting anecdotes as to the exclusion of "Fables of Faubus" lyrics on Mingus Ah Um. Some believe that Columbia Records refused to include the lyrical version on the album, feeling that the words were too incendiary. Other versions insist that the lyrics were not written until after the instrumental version was released. Whichever scenario is accurate, it is noteworthy that the vocal version of the song was released on the much smaller label Candid label in 1961, taking the same convoluted route of big label rejections of "Strange Fruit" and "Mississippi Goddam." The opening verse of "Fables of Faubus" quickly gets to the point. Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!/Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!/Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!/Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!/Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!. While not high-concept poetry, the visceral call and response between Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond was emotionally persuasive. Mingus Ah Um was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2003.

Black jazz artists of the Civil Rights era were finding their activist voices by incorporating pointed pieces in otherwise non-political albums, including John Coltrane, whose "Alabama" was in reaction to the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But it was Max Roach's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960) that brought full-album content to the Civil Rights Movement. Roach's then wife, Abbey Lincoln infused blues and gospel into her vocals, in sharp contrast to the overall avant-garde ambiance of the album. On "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace," the raw emotion of her voice conveys a palpable grief for suppressed people from South Africa to the plantations of the U.S. "Driva' Man" and "Freedom Day" share a direct link to slave life in the south while the tracks "All Africa" and "Tears for Johannesburg"—as their titles indicate—focus on repression on the African continent. Across gospel, blues and to some extent, jazz, artists of the time had tended to align themselves musically, with Martin Luther King's approach of peaceful resistance. Roach, however, leaned toward the more radical philosophy of the Black Power Movement. The net result was that critics were on the fence in their reaction to We Insist! and particularly harsh in the their reception to Lincoln's contribution. Years later, the album would be viewed as a landmark recording.

Vietnam and Jazz: "Crack the sky, shake the earth!"

So came the order from the highest ranking officials of the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces as they entered battle against the US and the South Vietnamese Army in what was known as the Tet Offensive. The campaign shocked Americans at home who had been led to believe that the US was winning the Vietnam War. But at the end of the three-phase 1968 operation, the combined loss of life (military and civilian) topped one hundred and fifty thousand people. A Vietnam veteran and the premier free jazz violinist, the late Billy Bang dedicated two albums to his recollections of the war, Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time Records, 2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005) on the same label. For Bang, (born William Walker), The Aftermath was a long delayed catharsis that was not only influenced by his participation in the Tet Offensive, but by the socio-economic conditions at home, that were responsible for making the battlefield demographics a disproportionate venue for the underclasses.

For The Aftermath, Bang assembled not just a band, but a "band of brothers" with direct links to Vietnam. Vietnam War veterans included saxophonist Frank Lowe, trumpeter Ted Daniel, drummer Michael Carvin, and cornetist/conductor Butch Morris. The album represented something deeper than exorcising the trauma of the war though that was a large part of the purging process. The Aftermath was a love/hate exploration of the experience that included elements of the native musical lexicon, components that revealed a bond with the people of Vietnam. This embracing of the war-torn land was even more evident in Vietnam: Reflections where Bang included a number of Vietnamese folk tunes, reimagined in improvisational form.

Not in Their Names: The Liberation Music Orchestra

A genuine jazz legend, the late bassist/composer Charlie Haden dedicated much of his creative energy to social activism. His early career, which included works with Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman (on The Shape of Jazz to Come) was sidelined by drug addiction from 1960 through his treatment, ending in 1964. Not only did Haden return and rise to be the most highly regarded bassist since Mingus, but he also committed time to helping other musicians break their own addictions. His remarkably diverse catalog spans almost ten years with Keith Jarrett's trio and American Quartet, Old and New Dreams with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell, his own mainstream Quartet West and countless collaborations that included John Coltrane, Geri Allen, Ginger Baker, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian and many others. But it was with the Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO) that Haden found his political and social platform while giving voice to those who had little or no opportunity to speak for themselves.

Haden and another renaissance figure in jazz, Carla Bley, were the nucleus of LMO, a collective that featured Gato Barbieri, Redman, Motian, Cherry, Andrew Cyrille, Michael Mantler and Roswell Rudd among its original members. The themes behind all of the LMO albums were of war, racial injustice and political discord. Beginning with their self-titled debut (Impulse!, 1969), the Vietnam War was the impetus, though the contents of the album were far reaching. The stormy, sometimes violent, 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the Spanish Civil War—which took a half-million lives—inspired a number of the album's compositions. The war pitted Nazi-influenced nationalists against the Spanish Republic, which was supported by the western allies. The Nationalists were supported by the Hitler regime throughout the war which ran from 1936 to 1939. Though the war—the antecedent to World War II—is little discussed in the West, it is notable not just for the enormous casualties but also because the American oil giant, Texaco, illegally provided support to the fascist leader, General Francisco Franco. It is believed that Franco could not have fielded his troops without these oil supplies. "El Quinto Regimiento," "Los Cuatro Generales" and "Viva la Quince Brigada," all originally Spanish folk melodies, were updated with lyrics during the war and are included on Liberation Music Orchestra as instrumentals.

LMO released three additional studio albums with a variety of global musicians but always with Haden and Bley as the core. It was Bley's extraordinary talent as an arranger that conveyed the necessary depth of emotion for the wordless subject matter. Ballad of the Fallen (ECM, 1982) was a response to the Reagan administration's illicit involvement in Nicaragua where U.S. backed anti-communist "contra" death squads killed an estimated fifty-thousand people while secretly supporting drug cartels. Despite U.S. aid, CIA intervention, and the loss of life, the Socialist Sandinista Junta successfully overthrew the U.S. backed dictator and ruled from 1979 through 1990. The album includes four re-worked traditional pieces, including the title track and "Els Segadors [The Reapers]," "Si Me Quieres Excribir" [If You Want to Write Me], and "La Santa Espina." Haden and Bley both contributed original compositions as well.

LMO followed with Dream Keeper (Blue Note, 1990) and a partial shift in focus to South Africa. The three-part title track features the Oakland Youth Chorus in an affecting performance augmented with the additions of trumpeter Tom Harrell, tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis and trombonist Ray Anderson. The final LMO studio release, Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005), was inspired by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not just confined to overtly political messages, the album includes an outstanding version of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," possibly drawing a dotted line to its use in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 classic war film Apocalypse Now.

The Unknown Impact of Protest Music

In writing about the philosophy of The Core Trio, trumpeter Tim Hagans makes the point that ..."true jazz is, and always has been, subversive." Similarly, Rob Mazurek has expressed the opinion that his music is a form of protest against conventional obstacles to creative freedom. Music has as long a history in protest as the act of protest itself. The ancient West African griots, would sometimes use their bard-like role to express their musical criticism of a king or tribal leader. Fast forward to new millennium and we hear of Brazilian workers singing their protests of pension cuts in 2017. The same year gives us trumpeter Avishai Cohen addressing Middle East turmoil on Cross My Palm with Silver (ECM, 2017) with titles such as "Will I Die, Miss? Will I Die?" and "Shoot Me in The Leg."

Music has clearly influenced Civil Rights and Anti-war movements in creating more awareness and lending a memorable humanitarian voice but like legal measures, it cannot be depended upon to alter human nature in any significant way. But what seems to be reliable over an extended history, is that the music of protest will not stop. Recent years have seen both tribute and renewal in recordings that deal with equality and human rights. Two notable references are Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers and Noah Preminger's Meditations on Freedom.

Noah Preminger: Meditations on Freedom (Self-produced, 2017)

Open and civil discourse has always been a tenant of democracy. Recent political events in the U.S. have reduced that discourse to a crude, gutter-level low that has left an alienated population in its wake, marginalized and left without a strong voice. From the time of our Civil War, protest music has provided counsel for vulnerable segments of society. With Meditations on Freedom saxophonist Noah Preminger adds his voice to the ranks of Mingus and Haden.

Preminger's quartet of trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and Ian Froman on drums has been together on two recent releases, Pivot: Live At the 55 Bar (Self-Produced, 2016) and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (Self-Produced, 2016). Paying homage to the Mississippi Delta Blues has been an extended objective of Preminger's and he applies some of the same techniques to the music of protest on Meditations on Freedom in that he is neither nostalgic nor dismissive of the source of inspiration.

The album opens with Bob Dylan's early Civil Rights classic "Only a Pawn in Their Game" from The Times They Are A-Changin' (Columbia, 1964) and takes a reverential approach to the original for much of its playing time before allowing for some heartfelt improvisation. "The Way It Is," Bruce Hornsby's more modern statement on prejudice and apathy takes an edgier slant compared to the ironically melodic original. Another anthem of the Civil Rights Movement—Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"—has the delta blues feel and radiates emotion. The last of the cover songs is George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" which the ex-Beatle wrote as part of his ongoing humanitarian aid project to bring awareness to the plight of Bangladesh refugees.

In the spirit of the cover pieces, Preminger's original compositions broadcast the same sense of urgency. "We Have a Dream" swings in conveying a sense of hope while the environmentally focused "Mother Earth" has an urgency appropriate to the ravages of climate change. The time changes of "Women's March" reflect a renewed realization that we can too easily move one step forward and two back. "The 99 Percent" and "Broken Treaties" are studies in frustration and disengagement, both with elements of anger and melancholy but neither without hope. With Meditations on Freedom, Preminger gives weight to the significance of our concerns and a wake-up call to those who disregard past history.

Track Listing: Only a Pawn in Their Game; The Way It Is; A Change Is Gonna Come; We Have a Dream; Mother Earth; Women's March; The 99 Percent; Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth); Broken Treaties.

Personnel: Noah Preminger: saxophone; Jason Palmer: trumpet; Kim Cass: double-bass; Ian Froman: drums.

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012)

Ten Freedom Summers is a sprawling, visionary four-disc collection that plays out like a living memorial of the Civil Rights Movement and its actors. Smith's core Golden Quartet, with John Lindberg on bass, pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeron akLaff, add percussionist Susie Ibarra as the jazz component of the recording. The Southwest Chamber Music Ensemble adds a broader range while challenging genre assumptions. The two groups work in conjunction on some compositions and independently on others.

While not strictly chronological, the first disc opens with "Dred Scott, 1857," a tribute to the Virginia-born slave who sued for his own and his family's freedom in an 1857 Supreme Court case. The court ruled against Scott 7-2 and the decision led to general outrage in the North and accelerated the tensions that led to the Civil War. Smith touches on many landmark Civil Rights milestones in the collection. Pieces reference Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Martin Luther King, Jr. among others.

One highlight of Ten Freedom Summers is "Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964." At almost one-half hour, the suite expresses emotions in measured and varying degrees expanding free and avant-garde concept at times and incorporating comforting elements of classicism at others. The final disc in the set pays tribute to 9/11 with "September 11th, 2001: A Memorial" and closes—coming full circle—with "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy." A personal and historical benchmark in Smith's long, extensive catalog, Ten Freedom Summers benefits from hindsight and analysis to be considered the most comprehensive narrative of the Civil Rights Movement in creative music.

Photo RGD0006N-0764-1 courtesy of Houston Public Library HMRC

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