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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2

Karl Ackermann By

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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

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