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Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa by Ingrid Monson

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While it is difficult at times to completely follow Harvard University professor Ingrid Monson’s every shifting thesis in Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, this is a very enjoyable read. It is, I assume, intentional that the book feels improvisational, and free like the jazz she discusses. The book, more accurately, is like gumbo because it combines many historical, cultural, and political strains to make a point about the black experience, political struggle, and black cultural expression in the modern era. Monson simply follows jazz through time, mainly through the time when black people in America sought their freedom and equality.

Freedom Sounds begins with the famous story of Louis Armstrong basically denouncing President Eisenhower for his failure to protect the black students integrating the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas and this is a fine example of everything Monson wants to do. Armstrong, criticized often during his career for being uninterested in the black struggle for equality and for low level accommodating posture, got it right in the heat of the moment that time.

Freedom Sounds is full of these moments. Dave Brubeck, the piano legend, who is white, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954, and it is, of course, considered a cultural crime against Duke Ellington, the legend of all legends in jazz. Ellington didn’t hate; he congratulated Brubeck, who, needless to say, was worthy. Other tidbits are part of the known history as well and Monson does raise these moments high. Jazz musicians helping to raise money for the Civil Rights struggles. Duke Ellington touring Africa via the U.S. State Department. Jazz musicians consider revolting against the record companies and the clubs in the 1960’s along with their blacker, freer versions of jazz.

A section in “Freedom Sounds entitled, “Color Coded Styles,” is indicative of Monson’s deep research and this is why this work is truly trustworthy. The section discusses the various jazz styles – hard bop, third stream, West Coast (cool), etc., and reveals the simplistic attempt to label cool jazz as white and hard bop playing as black. Monson is skillful here and the narrative is easy to connect. This most interesting book is incredibly important but the thesis probably requires five times as many pages to explain jazz’s complex relationship to race, racism, and American sociological history. Monson has gotten the discussion started.

Originally Published