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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2

Karl Ackermann By

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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


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