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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

Three albums in the jazz protest hall of fame: Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Max Roach’s We Insist! and Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man
Three albums in the jazz protest hall of fame: Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Max Roach’s We Insist! and Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man

Artistically, Black Power demanded the embrace of Blackness and Black vernacular forms, whether from the U.S. or elsewhere in the diaspora. Long before “Free Nelson Mandela” became a worldwide rallying cry, jazz musicians embraced Pan-Africanism and called for global Black self-determination. In the 1960s records by Max Roach and Randy Weston were banned in South Africa, and censors there were alerted to watch for any American records that had “Freedom” in their titles. South Africans Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Miriam Makeba gained fame in the U.S., and West African percussionists Babatunde Olatunji and Saka Acquaye became mentors to John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

Striving for Black unity meant embracing all dimensions, spiritual as well as temporal. Among those who sought such unity were Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Brother Ah, Milford Graves, Phil Cohran, and Alice Coltrane and organizations like the East in Brooklyn and the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. These “inter-dimensional” workers focused on both self-empowerment and community-centered action and often avoided or rejected working in the jazz “market,” instead concentrating on community uplift with a goal of cultural transcendence.

As the Black Power movement grew and evolved, two groups in particular came to be regarded as its musical embodiments. One was the Last Poets, who began focusing on one of the components of “African-esque” culture explored by Duke Ellington—oratory—in the late ’60s. Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who produced their latest album Toxic Times, says, “When I heard the Last Poets it opened a whole new world in terms of knowing what was going on socially and how Black folks were being mistreated on another level—in government, housing, all the basic functions of life.” Their wedding of rhythmic wordsmithing styles found in the streets and prisons of American cities to lyrics expressing revolutionary Black consciousness, placed over a bed of pure rhythm, foreshadowed what would come to be known as hip-hop.

The other group, directly inspired by the Last Poets, was a songwriting team who produced some of the most iconic music of the Black Power era: poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson, both of whom were steeped in jazz. “Since my parents were such avid bebop fans,” Jackson says today, “I came to understand early that there was something in the nature of bebop that was rebellious … It felt like bebop was a conscious attempt to repudiate some of the social acceptance of Black music, and when I say ‘social acceptance’ I obviously mean the broader American society. It’s loud, it’s brash, people considered it to be dissonant. To me, it was the end of Black people trying to be polite and mannerly, and to fit into white society. It was totally the antithesis of that musically … It was a vehicle for a lot of Black anger, and it dovetails really well with the civil rights movement.”

The drive for Black self-determination and community empowerment also led to the birth of musical self-help groups nationwide; the AACM and record labels like Strata-East and Tribe were just the tip of the iceberg. Musicians like Archie Shepp embraced the dual challenges posed by the idea of “Black Power music,” welding avant-garde expression to Black vernacular forms. The cultural tenets established in this era became part of the accepted canon of thought in the U.S. jazz community, as well as in Black jazz communities across the globe. Black consciousness in jazz manifested itself in expressions like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band and music such as Miles Davis’ “Calypso Frelimo.”

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.