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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

Billie Holliday
Billie Holiday (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

In 1963 violence aimed at people of African descent crested in a Birmingham, Alabama incident that shook the United States to its core. This act of white supremacist terrorism, known today as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, killed four Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair—and injured as many as 22 other people. It moved John Coltrane to write “Alabama,” and contributed to Nina Simone writing her classic “Mississippi Goddam.” It galvanized the movement, and it led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Unfortunately, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the following year did not cause a true abatement in anti-Black terror in the U.S. Nonviolent protest, though it was successful tactically, hadn’t changed the hearts and minds of those who felt they stood to lose if African Americans gained. The shooting of nonviolent voting-rights activist James Meredith in 1966 sparked a realization in the Black community that calling for “freedom” was not enough. Safety demanded Black Power: the ability of Black people to determine their own destiny, to have the ability to make rules and set terms.

The demands of Black Power were and are at the cutting edge of what American culture can stand. Its achievement requires the breaching of frontiers, making it congruent with the musical avant-garde. In the words of Douglas Ewart, “The demand comes first with the musicians going deep into themselves to bring out other aspects of themselves. That demand is then placed on the listener, on the community, on the audience—for them to come out of their known zones, their zones of comfort, their zones of habit, that they change their way of hearing things, of seeing things … The demands come from changing the approach to doing things. That’s part of where we are now.”

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.