Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Max Roach and Barack Obama

From the very beginning of the American Republic, the position of African Americans has been central both to our peril and our promise. Jefferson and Madison knew it. Abraham Lincoln realized it and it brought him back into politics in 1858 when Stephen Douglas urged us to adopt a pro-choice attitude toward slavery, thus abandoning our most sacred principle. Martin Luther King brought us back to it in his transcendent "I have a dream" speech. Whether you voted for Barack Obama or not, you might acknowledge that today represents the final movement of the great American symphony.

Jazz was intimately connected to the Civil Rights Movement if only because so many of its founding geniuses were African Americans. In honor of Barack Obama's inauguration, I present a bit of Max Roach. Here's a brief review of We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.

A jazz landmark, and one of the enduring artistic statements of the Civil Rights Movement. From the opening "Driva'man" — with Coleman Hawkins' tenor maintaining dignity in the face of the whip-cracks drummer Max Roach emulates with his rim-shots — to the closing "Tears for Johannesburg" — a wordless cry for the victims of apartheid — Roach alternately condemns and celebrates the African-American experience. There's inspired soloing by trumpeter Booker Little and trombonist Julian Priester, a stirring percussion jam with Olatunji and others, and hair-raising vocals, both verbal (lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) and nonverbal, from Abbey Lincoln. This provides the template for countless subsequent musical suites and dramatic presentations on the subject, but Roach was firstest with the mostest.
I have long loved this Max Roach album, as a rare example of narrative jazz. Here's one sample:
Max Roach/Freedom Day/We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

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