Selection: Freedom Day
Booker Little (trumpet) Julian Priester (trombone) Walter Benton (tenor saxophone) Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone) James Schenck (bass) Max Roach (drums) Abbey Lincoln (vocals) Nat Hentoff (supervisor) Nola’s Penthouse Sound Studios, NYC, August 31, 1960
More jazz spliced with the civil rights politics of 1960, inextricably linked to the social and racial issues of the day (some would argue, to this day, but this is not the place for that).
I think it is beholden on anyone with a serious interest in modern jazz of America in the ’50’s and ’60s, to wrestle a little with the context of the predominantly Afro-American musicians who created it. Picking up on the theme of last post and singer Bill Henderson’s vocals on Senor Blues, this Max Roach album places Miss Abbey Lincoln (later Mrs Max Roach) in the front line of a polemic on the Afro-American journey. This is not the role of singer as entertainer, but singer as voice of protest and political impatience.
As an interested observer of liberation politics (part of my undergraduate studies some decades ago) I notice people are often very clear on what they are against: oppression, injustice, exploitation and the like. What they are for is more difficult to articulate and usually results in a restatement of what they are against, a future without oppression, injustice etc.. Roach’s Freedom Now! Suite seems to me to be in that same difficult place: what does Freedom look like? If you had it, what would you use it do?
Wiki is more detailed in its coverage of this record than probably most, which proceeds track by track, telling you something about the sensitivities. Of my selection, Freedom Day, it notes:
Although the track is titled Freedom Day, Max Roach confessed… “we could never finish it, because freedom itself was so hard to grasp: we don’t really understand what it really is to be free. The last sound we did, ‘Freedom Day,’ ended with a question mark.”
This tension between expectancy and disbelief is also mirrored in the musical technique of the track. Hentoff writes, “‘Freedom Day’ manages to capture both the anticipation and anxiety of the moment of Emancipation by setting its minor-blue solos over a feverishly paced rhythm section.” The conflicting layering of the instruments in the track help to express this conflict of belief in the piece
This is an important record which overtly moves into social/political territory more commonly associated with folk music and protest songs.That was undeniably Max Roach’s intention, whether it makes for good music or good politics is your decision. On the recording the demand for “Freedom”, is followed by “disbelief”, doubt whether freedom has been achieved, side-stepping the question where you go with new-found Freedom. “Freedom” invites responsibility for how that freedom is used, but the victim of oppression doesn’t have responsibility. I sense this is a difficult juncture for those accustomed to institutional injustice.
Anecdotes of choice, I liked the story about Norman Grantz and his JATP city-by-city road-show, cited by Whitney Balliett, great book, The Sound of Surprise ( wasn’t that your recommendation, Alun?) : if the concert promoters at any city had issues with racially integrated performance of Jazz At The Philharmonic, the show would be cancelled. That is the line to take.
Vinyl: Candid 8002 original pressing, deep groove 1960. Note of caution for those who prefer a free or cheap download:
The (Amazon) digital download is a major bargain, BUT, be aware this is mastered from a vinyl copy. It has several pops throughout and the surface noise associated with a good but used for 30+ years record.
The cover art
Arresting, provocative, symbolically black and white cover, the photographer’s viewpoint places you at the centre of the action. Three Afro-American men (the musicians?) are drinking at the bar. It looks like you have interrupted them, they half turn to look you over, with suspicion, The waiter is white, dressed in white (in case you missed the point), he is unsurprised and watching the situation, he waits to see how this will play out. The unanswered question: What’s going down? Who are you? A masterly photographic political polemic from 1960.
It is no coincidence that Candid was the only label that permitted Charles Mingus the freedom to record the unexpurgated lyrics of Fables of Faubus, which the other major labels considered too controversial. No doubt the major influence here was artistic director for the Candid label, Nat Hentoff, jazz writer and lifelong civil liberties activist.
A rarity from Ebay, from the same seller as my copy of the Max Roach Percussion Bitter Suite. Candid was a brave if short-lived label, and We Insist: Freedom Now Suite was only it’s second release. Credit where it’s due, a bitter slice of American history, but necessary.