Sometimes a piece of music waits for its moment. Heroes + Misfits, the rock-and-R&B-steeped debut by pianist Kris Bowers, was released on Concord last March, and for a while I regarded it a bit warily: Though I admired its clarity of purpose and execution, I couldn’t fully embrace the album’s urgent, portentous air.
Then I saw Bowers and his band at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. More to the point, I heard them play an electrifying version of “#TheProtester,” track three on the album, with an imploring ad-lib vocal by Chris Turner.
“Who are we?” Turner sang plaintively. “What are we?/What are we to do?” He repeated those questions as a refrain, making meaningful tweaks-like “Who are we to you?”-before lowering the boom, with anguished allusions to the situation on the ground in an American city. It was late August, and I’m certain that no one in that age-diverse Harlem crowd needed to be told that Turner was invoking Ferguson, Mo., where citizen protests had been going strong in the wake of a police shooting, two weeks earlier, that took the life of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown. Poignant and raw, the performance resonated with the national mood-and altered my perception of Bowers’ album, which no longer felt quite so overdetermined.
By almost any measure we’ve been living through an era of deep tensions in this nation, driven in large part by institutionalized racial injustice. The slaying of Michael Brown came only weeks after Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, was choked to death by a New York City police officer. Mass protests across the country, sparked by a grand jury’s decision not to indict Garner’s killer, found a rallying cry in “Black Lives Matter”-an activist movement launched the previous year, when a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. That verdict, in turn, had arrived just as the movie Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant at the hands of Oakland transit police, was opening in theaters nationwide.
“Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference,” writes the cultural scholar Jeff Chang in Who We Be: The Colorization of America, a brilliant and ambitious new book from St. Martin’s Press. An interrogation of the rise of multiculturalism over the last 40 years, Chang’s study is dispassionate in tone but pointed in its stance. (Compare the declarative swagger of “Who We Be” with the pained ambiguity of Turner’s lyric “Who are we?”)
Three pages into the introduction of Who We Be, Chang cites an as-yet-unpublished essay by pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, making the case for music as an instrument of empathy, a means by which African-Americans have historically elided those stubborn perceptions of difference. It’s no coincidence that Iyer, perhaps more than any jazz artist of our time, has applied his musical output toward the cause of social justice.
The centerpiece of Wiring (Intakt), a superb recent album by the avant-garde collective Trio 3, featuring Iyer as a guest, is his “Suite for Trayvon (And Thousands More),” a three-part composition that opens in swinging angularity, proceeds to a Julius Hemphill-like groove section and concludes in a mournful dirge.
Late in 2014, during Iyer’s three-night residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he began each concert with a striking tableau: human bodies lying strewn across the stage, and then engaging in a semaphore familiar from our long season of protests, notably the rhetorical gesture of both hands raised. “The music coalesced into rhythmic, tolling modal chords,” wrote Jon Pareles in his review for the New York Times. “‘Black Lives Matter’ read the screen overhead. It was an activist elegy.”
Of course, there’s ample precedent for social protest in jazz, notably during the civil-rights movement: Charles Mingus, Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp. One thing that has differentiated their contemporary heirs is the wildfire pace and viral potential of social media. (Bowers was really on to something when he settled on “#TheProtester” as a song title; its typographical flourish grew ever more relevant in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and a related, Eric Garner-inspired Twitter hashtag, #ICantBreathe.) Another distinguishing factor has to do with the terms of debate: Our present moment is riven by bickering about whether a so-called “post-racial” society, one that has seen the reelection of a black president, could possibly be as troubled as it seems. That might be one reason why the commentators in jazz’s ranks fixate on specific, unequivocal tragedies rather than more nebulous, systemic problems.
I’m thinking not only of Iyer but also pianist Orrin Evans-and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, whose 2011 Blue Note debut includes a track dedicated to Oscar Grant. Last year Akinmusire released The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, an impressively assured follow-up that included “Rollcall for Those Absent,” a litany of names including Grant, Trayvon Martin and Amadou Diallo.
Akinmusire’s next album could well include a memorial tribute to Mike Brown and Eric Garner-and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and 18-year-old Antonio Martin, and whoever follows in their grim example. There’s obvious reason to exhort Akinmusire, Iyer and Bowers to continue these efforts. And from this soapbox, I’d like to urge others in our ranks to join them. (Surely Wynton Marsalis, the influential force behind Blood on the Fields and Black Codes [From the Underground], has something to say at this juncture?) Art can be not only a mirror for society but also a catalyst. But only if we grant it those powers, and only if it finds a means of expression.