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Revisited! The Freedom Now Suite

We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite
Cover image of We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite

The Freedom Now Suite, written by drummer Max Roach and writer/singer Oscar Brown Jr. is perhaps the best-known jazz work with explicitly political content. Known primarily through the Candid recording We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, the album’s liner notes begin with a thunderous quotation from A. Philip Randolph: “A revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. It is unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools—wherever the dignity and potential of men are denied. Youth and idealism are unfurling. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now!”

The album cover photograph commemorates the student lunch counter sit-ins that began in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, making explicit through visual means the link between the political events of 1960 and the subject matter of the Freedom Now Suite. The five movements of the work (“Driva’ Man,” “Freedom Day,” “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” “All Africa” and “Tears for Johannesburg”) are organized as a historical progression through African-American history, a shape similar to the one in Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. The Freedom Now Suite moves from slavery to Emancipation Day to the contemporary civil-rights struggle and African independence.

Listen to the tracks on We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite in this Spotify playlist:

Nat Hentoff’s liner notes explain that the suite grew from a collaboration between Roach and Brown on a large choral work to be performed on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1963). Since Brown v. Board of Education, this had been the NAACP’s target date for complete desegregation. The rapidly developing political events of 1960 caused a change in content and direction, ultimately leading to the work recorded in late August and early September 1960.

Although Roach recalls an invitation from the NAACP to write an Emancipation Proclamation centennial piece as key to the project, Brown (whose father had been an active organizer for the Chicago NAACP’s campaign against restrictive covenants) remembers no such request. According to Brown, the original plan was to write a long work titled The Beat that would “tell the story of the African drum from Africa up to contemporary times.” “All Africa” was originally intended to begin the work, followed by “Driva’ Man,” depicting conditions under slavery, and “Freedom Day,” celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation. Africa in this plan began rather than ended the work, suggesting a more evolutionary perspective on history than the Freedom Now Suite.


Brown met Abbey Lincoln when she was performing at the Black Orchid in Chicago in 1957. At her request he wrote the song “Strong Man” (recorded on Oct. 28, 1957) for her then-boyfriend Max Roach. Lincoln introduced Brown to Roach, and the two regularly talked about music with one another. From these conversations the idea for The Beat gradually emerged. Brown recalls that Roach used a melodica to compose. “Max at the time had one of those little pianos, I forgot what you call them, but you blew in them,” Brown says. “So he taught me those tunes and we composed with him playing that instrument.” Since Brown lived in Chicago and Roach in New York, the drummer remembered that “we did it on the road, kind of; we really wrote it by telephone.” The two of them argued about politics continually during their collaboration and finally parted ways over differences about how the work should end. As Brown recalls: “I wrote a sonnet, a Shakespearean sonnet:

The voice of love is lifted now in song
That sends its echoes orbiting the earth
Inviting all mankind to sing along
In tribute to its kind for all its worth

“So I was preaching love. Max thought that Malcolm X had a better solution than Martin Luther King. That was the end of our dispute at the time, which was a very serious one. So that whole collaboration was aborted and at that point it was never completed—although it was pretty near completion when we fell out.”


Roach agrees: “Oh yeah, we fought. We never could finish it. It [still] isn’t finished.” The problem, he suggested is that “we don’t really understand what it really is to be free. The last song we did, ‘Freedom Day,’ ended with a question mark.” It’s actually in the first verse:

Whisper listen, whisper listen
Whisper say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’ must be lyin’
Can it really be?

Brown did not know about the Freedom Now Suite recording until he received a postcard from Nat Hentoff requesting biographical material to be included in the liner notes to the album. Brown was disappointed that the music from their collaboration had been rearranged without his knowledge to serve Max Roach’s political vision. Like many contemporary reviewers, Brown disliked the screaming included in the ‘Protest’ section of “Triptych,” the segment of the work that proved to be most controversial. Brown stressed that although his collaboration with Roach was stormy, the two of them were in basic agreement over the need to dedicate one’s artistic work to social justice. Their differences of opinion were over issues Brown described as “vital to the times” and about which everyone around them was debating, both inside and outside of the jazz world. As Brown puts it:


“In fact, during that whole period we were not estranged, we were together, in a sense, we were arguing. We were arguing about the screaming. We were arguing about the image he wanted Abbey to have.”

Although Brown and Roach’s political differences were very real, they do not divide easily into the common associations of leftist/nationalist/separatist and liberal/accommodationist/integrationist. Brown stressed that his model for politically committed art was Paul Robeson (decidedly a leftist). Likewise, Roach’s interest in black nationalism did not prevent him from giving the world-premiere performance of the Freedom Now Suite at a benefit for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a nonviolent direct-action organization, or from performing a scaled-down version of the suite for the 1961 Annual Convention of the NAACP, held in Philadelphia shortly after the Freedom Rides. Although Roach and Brown had many differences, like many other musicians and jazz fans engaged in similar debates during the heat of the civil-rights movement and black power, the shared commitment to activism sometimes outweighed ideological and methodological disagreements.

The benefit performance of the Freedom Now Suite for CORE was a gala event held at the Village Gate on Jan. 15, 1961. According to Abbey Lincoln, the event was set up through Jimmy McDonald, a folk singer from CORE, whom Lincoln and Roach knew through a group of socially aware artists. The suite was presented with an ensemble including dancers (including Maya Angelou), and a narrator (Ruby Dee). The band, led by Roach, included Booker Little, Marcus Belgrave, Julian Priester, Eric Dolphy, Walter Benton, Michael Olatunji, Larry Ridley, four conga drummers, and Lincoln—a lineup somewhat different from the recording, which had included Coleman Hawkins. According to Dan Morgenstern, who reviewed the performance for Metronome, “interaction between music and dance was perhaps not as organic as it could be at the Savoy Ballroom, but strong enough to pinpoint the continuing relationship between the two forms.” Dolphy played an extended solo on bass clarinet that was “refreshingly original and moving” and Roach’s drumming “paced the performance with impeccable control and surging strength.” Morgenstern concluded that Freedom Now “consciously employs jazz as a weapon in the good fight and proves it can be a potent one.”

Several more performances of Freedom Now took place in 1961. In April the work was performed at the Jazz Gallery to mixed reviews. A reviewer for Variety found that the material had a “bitter mood” and described the works as “new-frontier club stuff and most likely a little too far out in uncut timber for most tastes.” Reception, however, seemed to depend on the audience. The performance of portions of the suite at the 1961 NAACP Convention was enthusiastically received. Indeed, the work was so successful at the convention that plans for a tour of the south were formulated in the fall of 1960, although Lincoln recalls that, in the end, the tour never actually took place.


The Freedom Now benefit at the Village Gate was unusual in its explicitly political dramatic content and use of images from contemporary events, but in other respects it was one among dozens of events held between 1960 and 1965 in which jazz musicians donated their services to civil-rights organizations and other related causes. Although socially minded concerts had been a feature of the jazz landscape since the 1930s when Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and many others played for a variety of causes including the Scottsboro Boys and the NAACP, a threshold was crossed on Feb. 1, 1960 when the student lunch counter sit-ins began in Greensboro, N.C.

Benefit concerts occurred in response to major events in the civil-rights movement including the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Birmingham movement and March on Washington in 1963, and the Mississippi voter registration projects of 1964. Although benefit concerts generated considerable amounts of money for civil-rights organizations, their purpose and popularity cannot be fully explained by the economic dimension alone. Many of these events offered a dramatic forum in which northern audiences could hear directly from southern activists about day-to-day life on the front lines of the movement. They also created social spaces in which musicians and audiences could feel like they were “doing something” to aid the southern struggle.

Max Roach also attempted to make good use of Freedom Now. In 1963, an article in Amsterdam News announced that copies of the album would be available free to “any fundraising organization requesting it.” That the album could be perceived as politically dangerous across international boundaries is evident in South Africa’s decision to ban its sale in 1962—a response to “Tears for Johannesburg,” the piece that Max Roach dedicated to the victims of the Sharpeville massacre, the infamous slaughter of demonstrators nonviolently protesting apartheid pass laws.


The Music

The politics of the Freedom Now Suite have received far more attention than the music. If 1960 was the year of the lunch counter sit-ins, the protest against pass laws in South Africa and the admission of 16 African nations to the U.N., it was also the year when the debate over Ornette Coleman and free jazz rippled through the jazz community. The Freedom Now Suite occupies a space somewhere between mainstream jazz modernism and the new thing. It makes use of blues form and chorus structures in some of its movements and almost always defines tonal centers, although often through ambiguous harmonic means, such as parallel whole-tone or quartal voicings. Aspects of the work that take from more avant-garde stylistic trends in the 1960s include its use of a pianoless ensemble, moments of collective improvisation, such as occur at the end of “Tears from Johannesburg,” and the screaming in “Protest.”

Dealing with the music in jazz is often confused with simply providing a structural account of it: its keys, harmonies, rhythmic patterns, melodic styles, textures, timbres, genres and forms. The Freedom Now Suite offers the opportunity to think about how these musical dimensions also carry symbolic associations that are key to generating a deeper expressive power. The question to ask is: What musical means did Roach and his band choose to convey the socially engaged message they desired and how do the structural and symbolic aspects of the music combine? The Freedom Now Suite draws on both longstanding musical symbols of African-American cultural identity (the blues and the spiritual) and more immediate historical contexts, such as the civil-rights movement, African independence and the Sharpeville massacre to weave a web of musical interrelatedness. Modernism is always present too, as Roach and his musicians strive not only to make use of the African and African-American legacy, but to do so in a modern way.

“Driva’ Man,” which opens the suite, is a work song based on a transformation of blues form. Abbey Lincoln starts out a cappella in C minor, accompanying herself on the tambourine and singing lyrics describing the brutality of slavery:


“Get to work and root that stump
Driva man’ll make you jump
Better make your hammer ring
Driva man’ll start to swing
Ain’t but two things on my mind
Driva man and quittin’ time”

The blues, normally in 4/4, are performed here in 5/4 with the tambourine and later the rimshot evoking the crack of the driver man’s whip on beat one of every measure. (The full blues progression is completed in six bars rather than 12.) When the horns enter, Coleman Hawkins’ tenor saxophone plays the melody, while trumpet, trombone and a second tenor accompany in parallel whole-tone voicings. Although Lincoln began in C minor, when the horns enter, the melody is reharmonized by a bass line in A flat. Later the same voicings return, reharmonized by a bass line in C minor. Here Roach as modernist plays with the tonal ambiguity of symmetrically structured chords.

The legacy of the spiritual is especially strong in “Triptych,” a movement that is itself divided into three parts: “Prayer,” “Protest” and “Peace.” “Triptych” is a duet between Lincoln and Roach that moves from expressive interplay between wordless voice and percussion (on “Prayer”) to extended screaming (on “Protest”) and back to “Peace.” “Prayer” is a wordless spiritual or moan centering on an E minor pentatonic scale. Abbey Lincoln is at her most haunting, as she slowly builds from low to high in call and response with Roach’s drums, which are tuned to match the tonality of Lincoln’s voice. Roach introduces Lincoln’s voice by playing a descending perfect fourth. Throughout the section Roach uses this interval to provide tonal support for Lincoln’s singing.

“Protest,” near the structural center of the suite, provides the most avant-garde moment in the work. Abbey Lincoln performs a minute and 20 seconds of stylized screaming accompanied by continuous rolling figures on the drums. Lincoln recalls that it was Max Roach’s idea, not hers, to include the screaming: “It wasn’t an approach to music that I would have chosen, but because I thought of him as a teacher—he preceded me—I did what I could to please him.” Lincoln, whose voice throughout is the vibrant carrier of the message, took greater heat for that message than Roach, something that was to become apparent only after the release of her album Straight Ahead in 1961.


In comparison to the extended laments, wails and shrieks played a few years later by artists such as Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, the avant-gardism of Lincoln’s “Protest” is fairly mild. This segment of the performance, nevertheless, generated the most criticism, perhaps because of the explicit programmatic meaning ascribed to it. The liner notes state that “‘Protest’ is a final uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulated fury and hurt and blinding bitterness. It is all forms of protest, certainly including violence.” Here Roach and Lincoln explicitly reject the philosophy of nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King and the mainstream civil-rights organizations, despite the fact that they did not object to performing the work on behalf of those organizations. The association between sound and meaning forged here is more didactic, with the composer telling us what we should take away from it. “Peace” also has an intended programmatic meaning: to represent the protester after she has done everything possible to assert herself. Lincoln’s wordless spiritual, now more breathy and jagged, continues over a 5/4 meter played by Roach.

5/4 meter frames the large-scale shape of Freedom Now Suite, appearing as it does at the beginning (“Driva’ Man”), middle (“Peace”) and end (“Tears for Johannesburg”). Given the popularity of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” from 1959’s Time Out, it would be hard not to read Roach’s metrical choice as a commentary on “Take Five.” Although experiments in different meters (including Roach’s own Jazz in _ Time from 1957) had long preceded Brubeck’s album, the version of 5/4 time most under discussion in jazz at the time of the Freedom Now Suite was Brubeck’s. The amount of attention devoted to Brubeck and other prominent white West Coast musicians in the press was a sore point among African-American musicians in the ’50s and early ’60s. The press, in their view, overlooked more deserving African-American figures such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Max Roach. By framing the Freedom Now Suite in 5/4, Roach turns the meter associated with “Take Five” on its head, using it in a more ambitious way, both musically and politically. If the 5/4 here were, in part, a commentary on Brubeck, it would not be the first time that Roach had showed an interest in interracial oneupsmanship. He had, after all, recorded Rich Versus Roach with Buddy Rich in early 1959. Indeed, a sense of interracial competition through music is an important subsidiary dynamic motivating many of the colossal achievements in jazz of this period.

In “All Africa” and “Tears for Johannesburg,” the Freedom Now Suite points to Africa through the use of a percussion ensemble, rhythmic ostinatos and open-ended modal frameworks. “All Africa” begins with Oscar Brown’s ode to the beat, sung by Abbey Lincoln, who then recites the names of dozens of African ethnic groups, including the Yorùbá, Mandingo and Masai. Babatunde Olatunji accompanies Lincoln on a drum and responds to her in Yorùbá interjecting, according to the liner notes, proverbs about freedom from each tribe. An African diasporic sensibility is musically enacted in the extended percussion solo that follows this recitation, through the use of a well-known seven-stroke bell pattern that is found not only in West Africa but also in the sacred music of the Caribbean and Brazil. This celebration of African nationalism was joined two months later by Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika (Freedom Africa). Interest in collaborations with African and Afro-Caribbean musicians (Olatunji, Candido, Amanda Peraza, Solomon Ilori, Chief Bey) grew considerably in the early 1960s among musicians such as Weston, Roach and Art Blakey, at exactly the time of a surge in African independence.


“All Africa” leads directly into “Tears for Johannesburg,” a vehicle for open blowing (as would become increasingly common in the work of John Coltrane) organized by a 5/4 ostinato in B-flat minor. Lincoln begins by wordlessly intoning the pitches of a melody that will appear most clearly articulated only at the very end of the movement. After her sustained delivery, the horns enter; they add more definition to the melody but still improvise substantially around it, with Booker Little’s trumpet leading the way. Open-ended solos over the vamp follow (by Booker Little, Walter Benton and Julian Priester). At times the ostinato is momentarily transposed down a half-step to A, which provides a feeling of leading tone resolution to the otherwise stable B-flat minor tonality. When the horns return (after percussion solos), their clear projection of the harmonized melody (in fourths) reveals that “Tears for Johannesburg” has inverted the usual order of melody and embellishment, presenting paraphrased versions of the composition first and the most direct statement of the melody last.

Open-ended modal frameworks in the late ’50s and early ’60s often expressed a nonwestern aesthetic interest. This is apparent in John Coltrane’s improvisations on “Africa” and “India,” recorded in the year following the Freedom Now Suite. Although the Coltrane recordings are often cited as examples of a free-blowing modal approach, Roach is not often credited with being a contributor to this emerging aesthetic. Indeed, one product of a close look at the Freedom Now Suite is the realization that Roach’s contributions as a composer deserve much greater attention.

Forty-one years after the recording of the Freedom Now Suite, the work still sounds fresh, modern and haunting. A close look at the interplay between the social, the political and the musical that it embodies reminds us that jazz tradition has always been in dialogue with the social and cultural movements going on around it, and has often been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.

Originally Published