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Wed Mar 12 07:07:28 MST 2003
Village Voice, March 12 - 18, 2003
Lincoln Center Thaws Its Cold War on Jazz Activism
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
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."
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