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The Changing Nature of Protest in Jazz

Melvin Gibbs explores how the music's role in the fight against racial injustice has evolved

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

What Ellington covertly expressed was overtly expressed in 1939, however, using voice. Written by a Jewish communist English teacher from the Bronx; inspired by a photo of two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging from trees, surrounded by a crowd of 5,000 whites after being lynched; and performed by vocal icon Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” is arguably the most important protest song in the English language. Musing on the power of Holiday’s performance, vocalist Fay Victor says, “When she toured with the Artie Shaw band she saw firsthand how she had to be segregated. Supposedly on that tour, she didn’t see an actual lynching but she saw a Black man hanging from a tree. So she was living that experience, and [living it] as a Black woman. My feeling is, when she sang that, it was a clarion call: ‘This is what is happening right now.’

“I sang that song once with the Duke Ellington Big Band,” Victor continues, “and I made a conscious decision to sing it as ugly as possible. Because to me, there’s no way to sing it any other way. Danny Glover hosted. He lifted me up because he loved it so much. Other people hated it. But I didn’t care. For me the point was, this is about an ugly, nasty thing and I’m not going to try to articulate really pretty notes around it.”

In 1943 Ellington himself made an overt musical “demand,” premiering his extended musical “history of the Negro in America,” Black, Brown and Beige, at Carnegie Hall. With its debut, the concept embedded in the second half of his 1931 statement quoted earlier—“what we know as ‘jazz’ is something more than just dance music”—came to full fruition. In the words of Douglas Ewart, “Duke Ellington played music, he had drama, he had dance, and all the other components, the African-esque sort of components, within culture. He wasn’t just isolated to music but had dance, theatre, oratory, all within the framework of music.”

The following generations of jazz instrumentalists embraced the foundational cultural interventions of the greats that preceded them (like Europe, Holiday, and Ellington) and expanded on them, sparking a movement in the music that resulted in waves of innovation as well as exponential growth in virtuosity. The foundational greats had shown the world that African-American culture was as exciting and intricate as any on the planet, drawing from and nourishing an aesthetic that both interrogated and transcended the gatekeepers invested in blocking Black progress. The younger generation, drawing from this well, began to say openly what they were expressing aesthetically and emotionally in their music. And over time the music itself evolved, like African-American culture itself, from an “ask” of basic dignity and cultural acceptability to a “demand” of equal justice and the right of cultural self-determination, a musical parallel to the evolving civil rights movement in America.

When Sonny Rollins released his Freedom Suite in 1958, using a piano-less trio, he implicitly connected the freedom afforded an instrumentalist in a format that didn’t have a harmonic instrument dictating changes with the freedom afforded a full citizen of the United States. In 1959, in response to the governor of Arkansas’ refusal to allow the schools of the state’s capital city to be integrated, Charles Mingus created “Fables of Faubus.”

That same year Max Roach, the drummer on Freedom Suite, and lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. began working on a project that would commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The piece they developed as a result of that collaboration led to one of the quintessential examples of music as protest. We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960) makes explicit what was implied in Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. Abbey Lincoln’s vocals are the glue that holds the album together, running the emotional gamut from sighs to screams. The inclusion of Coleman Hawkins, who played a purposefully imperfect tenor sax solo on “Driva’ Man” because he felt it best captured the mood of the moment, connects two generations—and makes clear that what Roach was now saying openly was the same thing that the founding fathers of jazz had been expressing in the music from the beginning.

Speaking of the willful imprecision in that Hawkins solo and its implications for those who use musical performance for community-building purposes, Mankwe Ndosi says, “Being able to show the grit, the rough edges, sometimes even the breathiness, the weakness of life … to me speaks to a humanity. So that it [music presentation] becomes less performative and more evocative, less about display and more about engagement.” About Lincoln’s wide-ranging vocalizing and its resonance, she adds, “I grew up in a household where my father spoke Kiswahili. There was music with other languages I didn’t know. So, around me there were sounds that I didn’t understand that I knew had meaning, emotion, history. People call things ‘extended vocal technique.’ But I think of it as simple communication and using the whole palette of what we’re able to do with the technology of our bodies to communicate. Maybe for other musicians it’s technique. For me it’s conversation.”

Melvin Gibbs

Melvin Gibbs is a bass guitarist, composer, and producer whose 40-year career has featured work with Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Eye and I, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Rollins Band, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, and Arto Lindsay, among many others. He is currently one-third of the trio Harriet Tubman with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis. In the 1980s, he was an original member of the Black Rock Coalition.