Fire Music

Lincoln Center Thaws Its Cold War on Jazz Activism

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.

Poet Amiri Baraka: percussion can still confront you.
photo: Jimmy Katz
Poet Amiri Baraka: percussion can still confront you.

"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."

"Protest? Why should we—it's not required. Rap's taking that area over anyway," writer Stanley Crouch, who helped promote and advise Lincoln Center's jazz program in the 1980s, says. "If jazz musicians are going to protest something now, it might not be what people think. Protesting white racism—that's an easy target. But if you want to protest why black people buy into the updated minstrel show you get in rap, or the intellectually genocidal embracing of anti-intellectual ways of looking at the world based on so-called street knowledge, go ahead. If jazz musicians were going to be political, they'd have to go in that direction, and you can believe they're not ready to go in that direction, because that would be far heavier than making some recording about Trent Lott."

Crouch, who remains an artistic consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the late '80s championed Wynton Marsalis, who became artistic director. The program has concentrated on comparatively conservative jazz, including Duke Ellington's and Louis Armstrong's music, while swinging its doors shut on avant-garde musicians, including Archie Shepp.

"I never expected I'd play Alice Tully Hall given what Marsalis has said about me and my music privately," says Shepp, referring to a show last month. "Particularly because I've been engaged, speaking on the streets, raising money for radical organizations." Between saxophone solos in the 1960s, he also recorded angry, sometimes furious, anti-racist poems.

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