JT Essentials: Protest Jazz

"Strange Fruit," "We Insist!," "Attica Blues" and more

Max Roach's "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite"
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Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra

“(What Did I Do to Be So)

Black and Blue


(Vocalion, 1937)


As written by Fats Waller and lyricists Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf for the revue Hot Chocolates, “Black and Blue” was the lament of a dark-skinned woman who’d been jilted by a light-skinned black man. But Armstrong, who was in the revue’s pit orchestra, transformed it into a grave protest anthem about an oppressed people’s psychic burden.

Billie Holiday

Strange Fruit” (Commodore, 1939)


The frankness of “Strange Fruit” remains startling in 2016; in 1939, it was unimaginable. Holiday solidified her greatness, laying bare the horrors of lynching-then still a regular, accepted occurrence in parts of America-with a stark, stately power that made high art of writer Abel Meeropol’s left-wing polemic.

Max Roach
We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

(Candid, 1960)


In jazz, We Insist! is all but synonymous with the civil-rights movement. It’s best known for its centerpiece, “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace,” featuring wordless, screaming vocals by Roach’s future-wife Abbey Lincoln. But the album is full of equally galvanizing moments, such as “Freedom Day” and the percussive fusillade “All Africa.”

Archie Shepp
Attica Blues (Impulse!, 1972)


Shepp is perhaps the most outspokenly political and fiery of avant-garde jazz musicians. But Attica Blues, a response to the previous year’s Attica Prison riot, is as much What’s Going On as Ascension, as laden with pathos, lyricism and groove as it is with Shepp’s raw intensity.

Revolutionary Ensemble
Vietnam (ESP-Disk’, 1972)


The Revolutionary Ensemble (violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone and drummer Jerome Cooper) was a freeform trio, and free though Vietnam is, it’s also quite tonal-melodic, even deliberate. There’s little of the chaos we associate with the Vietnam War. The implication is that the death and destruction were actually methodical-an idea that continues to resonate today.

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