Jazz Activism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 12 07:07:28 MST 2003


Village Voice, March 12 - 18, 2003

Lincoln Center Thaws Its Cold War on Jazz Activism
Fire Music
by Daniel King

In the 1960s and '70s, the Jazz and People's Movement, lead by Rahsaan 
Roland Kirk and Lee Morgan, physically disrupted Dick Cavett's, Johnny 
Carson's, and Ed Sullivan's television shows during broadcast. Max Roach 
did once, too. But nowadays, the activist flame seems only set on a 
simmer. What's become of jazz protest? The question is old, but in an 
era of international emergency, it's relevant. So poet Amiri Baraka, 
playwright Sonia Sanchez, Columbia professor Robert O'Meally, and 
trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater are discussing dissent in jazz—and maybe 
exercising it—when Lincoln Center hosts "Jazz and Social Protest" on 
March 18.

But dissent against what? And why?

How successfully the panelists address jazz activism, and prescribe a 
course for it, might depend on how clearly they consider Max Roach and 
Abbey Lincoln's legacies. The drummer and vocalist placed a luncheonette 
sit-in image on the cover of their 1960 recording We Insist! Freedom Now 
Suite, combining hollers and shrieks into what has become jazz's most 
acclaimed protest album—although the record is, curiously, out of print.

"The music Max and Abbey did in We Insist!—all the AHHHHH!—that is one 
of the most profound contributions to musical technique," says Baraka. 
"To conceive of the scream itself being musical—that's blues, but a 
reorganization of blues material."

Lincoln raised awareness by raising her voice in the '60s, but sings, 
today, with gentle ease. She fought through a cold during her Blue Note 
performances last November. So what does the charismatic 72-year-old 
have to do with political protest?

"I was never politically active," answers Lincoln. "I'm social. I had a 
reputation as a beautiful woman and as a sex queen. I made a movie 
wearing Marilyn Monroe's dress, I started wearing my hair natural with 
Dr. King and his movement, and I sang the Freedom Now Suite. I didn't 
write that. That was Roach. I'm socially active."

"There's a difference," explains Baraka. "A political activist talks 
about election politics. A social activist, to me, is someone who takes 
a stance about issues that might have a political dimension to them, but 
do not necessarily enter into the processes that trigger political 
action. What's political action? Yes or no—vote. Jones or Smith—vote. 
Socialism or capitalism—vote. Social activism is 'We don't like this.' "

"Consider the Haitians in Brooklyn when Giuliani was vamping on them," 
says Baraka, referring to rallies against police brutality and racial 
profiling. "First they were just protesting, then the drummers changed 
their drumming to an attack motif based on Haitian tradition and 
history. They started fighting with police. That's not verbal instruction."

Baraka refers to percussion's continued confrontational role as evidence 
that music and politics have not disbanded. But climates have changed 
since sit-ins and run-ins were routine in the '60s. Fist-fighting with 
cops is not a jazz standard. Today, Jazz Against War unites musicians to 
oppose attacking Iraq, Knitting Factory hosts End the Israeli Occupation 
jazz benefits, the Department of State sends performers abroad as Jazz 
Ambassadors, Congress declares 2003 the Year of the Blues, the an 
ex-president gives saxophone performances with Václav Havel, and so on. 
These political avenues seem subtler than, say, Roach's decision to 
storm Carnegie Hall during a Miles Davis concert in 1961, carrying a 
"Freedom Now" poster.

So what's happened to impromptu instigation like Roach's? Well, many 
musicians partially attribute the reduced visibility of jazz activism to 
the erection of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the world's most powerful jazz 
organization. Board member Albert Murray acknowledges and admires the 
program's aim to "separate jazz from political activism," he says. 
Murray describes his role as "some colored guy who was studious about 
jazz and could deal with it on sophisticated aesthetic terms, and not 
just go into race relations and civil rights and stuff like that. I was 
not there to protest—I just wanted to understand the damn music. This is 
not about civil rights and feminism. This is art."

full: http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0311/king.php

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