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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

Irreversible Entanglements
Irreversible Entanglements (L to R): Camae Ayewa, Aquiles Navarro, Tcheser Holmes, Keir Neuringer, and Luke Stewart (photo: Bob Sweeney)

The worldwide embrace of jazz as an art form did not change the reality that jazz is at root an oppositional reframing of the cultural context placed on Africans in America: a complex, sophisticated style of music produced by people whom many Americans did not believe capable of sophistication or complexity (or worthy of freedom or power). The tension between this fact and the music’s gradual spread across oceans and national borders as a formal system of artistic creation was glossed over from the early ’80s onward, as jazz branded itself “America’s classical music.” While the Black Rock Coalition, Public Enemy, Spike Lee, Living Colour, and others continued the arc of movement toward Black creative self-determination during this period, jazz mostly lay dormant—with a few notable exceptions such as M-Base and the Vision Festival.

But jazz’s position as a music that exists because “we defined what it is we felt was an expression,” and its role as a method of doing just that, has regained its importance in the era of Black Lives Matter. Music like 10 Freedom Summers by Wadada Leo Smith, “Rollcall for Those Absent” by Ambrose Akinmusire, Your Queen Is a Reptile by Sons of Kemet, and “Pig Feet” by Terrace Martin; bandleaders like James Brandon Lewis, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Samora Pinderhughes; and groups like Irreversible Entanglements and Harriet Tubman—the trio of Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, and myself—show that the roots of jazz can produce vibrant new flowers that speak to our lives as lived in this cultural moment.

Today, a major question facing the multiethnic, multigenerational, multinational contingent who are performing and creating what has evolved to become “America’s classical music” is this: How do we as creators respond to the events of our time in a way that both respects the music’s foundations and works for us and our supporters today? Poet Camae Ayewa of Irreversible Entanglements offers this answer: “Pretty much every time Irreversible Entanglements performs, we have some sort of conversation or talk with the audience or the curator, because not only the curator but [also] the audience are seeing that they really want to dive deep into these issues. It’s been really impactful. And it’s been great to see who we’ve been aligned with. We were planning on doing a set with Archie Shepp [before the COVID-19 pandemic]. We’ve performed with Nicole Mitchell, Amina Claudine Myers, the Art Ensemble of Chicago—people that have been pushing the boundaries of what we’re doing now.”

Asked what he wanted the people of his community to take away from that duo performance in Minneapolis on May 30, Douglas Ewart responded, “We’re never down. We’re never defeated. We’re never losing sight of the fact that when you lose a loved one, especially to a murder like what we saw and experienced, we still have to take care of our children. We still have to take care of our mothers. We still have to take care of our communities. Which is what we had to do. We didn’t have time not to rally.”

Of George Floyd and John Coltrane

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.