Fire Music


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.”

“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.

“There have always been blacks, going back to Booker T. Washington, who have eschewed any confrontation with white norms,” says Shepp. “That’s part of the reason for Wynton’s and Mr. Murray’s unheralded success. They’ve made white people feel very comfortable that blacks don’t care about anything but entertaining them. [Marsalis and Murray] have kept Lincoln Center on a purely cultural basis, knowing damn well that white folks get upset when Negroes start talking about civil rights and socio-economic freedoms”—topics Shepp spoke about extensively during the ’60s, and again two weeks ago, when he blurted in Alice Tully Hall, “We send people to die needlessly! It’s senseless. We could deal with our own problems here before we deal with other problems around the world.”

Convincing or not, his words resonated, and exemplified a brand of rebellion that, Murray says, Jazz at Lincoln Center proudly excluded from its original philosophy: “Lincoln Center is about aesthetic sophistication, which has nothing to do with political protest.”

It seems ironic, then, that Lincoln Center is hosting “Jazz and Social Protest.” Perhaps there was a glitch at the board meeting? Or perhaps Lincoln Center’s new management wants to thaw its cold war on jazz activism. Todd Barkan—artistic administrator for the past two years—among other Lincoln Center employees, deserves credit for broadening the center’s programming.

“One of the most important lessons we can learn from Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln,” says Barkan, “is their resolute insistence on being themselves—that’s a real important idea. It’s related to the essence of the music we’re trying to promote at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We’re becoming much more able to present many different elements of the music with moving into our new wing. More jobs and more musicians is what we’re trying to do—and that will involve everybody from [John] Abercrombie to [John] Zorn—A to Z.”

“If they came to us and invited us to perform in those positive, healthy terms,” says free-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, dismissed by Crouch as an inferior, irrelevant musician, “we’d surely have a discussion.”

Maybe panelists will both address Barkan’s comments and discuss the reasons activism has been brushed aside by Lincoln Center for the past decade. The event’s host won’t mind, right? And there’s plenty of history to unrevise, insists saxophonist Oliver Lake, who formed the Black Artists Group and World Saxophone Quartet to “protect artists’ rights and encourage self-empowerment,” he says. “Lincoln Center had the ears of all the major networks and newspapers. The fact that they had such a powerful PR arm meant they were able to take money out of the pockets of people like the Art Ensemble and the World Saxophone Quartet. Lincoln Center did a PR number on all of us.”

“Yes, there was an emphasis on the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong,” counters Barkan. “But I don’t think Jazz at Lincoln Center has deprived any musicians or any elements of the music from any kind of financial support whatsoever.”

“Oliver isn’t exaggerating at all,” says David Murray, another former member of the World Saxophone Quartet. “[Lincoln Center] had to do and say everything they could to get this deal over. Now that they’ve got this deal over, they’re trying to soften the story. But there was a lot of shit flying at that time, and when the shit came their way, they were very offended. I was one of the ones throwing the shit back. But I’ve forgiven all these guys because, basically, the world sees exactly who they are.”

“There was a lot of talk on the streets,” offers Bowery Poetry Club owner and poet Bob Holman, regarding claims that Lincoln Center helped to cause an economic decline in politically charged jazz. “But whatever happened then, I do know that, now, Marsalis is giving his own time to help a low-profile downtown arts organization that does a lot of heavy-duty street work. And jazz is absolutely potent politically these days. I think of things as varied as Baraka’s performances at the Bowery Poetry Club and Wynton’s benefits for Steve Cannon’s Gathering of the Tribes. Two diverse examples: Baraka as a spokesperson for radical change, and Marsalis working for one of the most hidden and wonderful downtown arts organizations, giving his own time on an annual basisto donate a small concert in an intimate space. . . . Jazz musicians and poets have historically come together to promote political change, and that’s definitely still going on.”

“Everybody’s mad at Wynton,” says Crouch. “But if Marsalis becomes the symbol of everything you can’t stand, i.e., a Negro with more power than you . . . look, all this stuff about music being more inclusive—’I want to be open, man, I want to be open’—well, why does being open have to include not playing?”

Not playing, or not swinging? Much avant-garde jazz today doesn’t swing, by Lincoln Center’s standards, which seem to measure swing using a calculator and graph paper. And while not all un-swinging jazz expressly protests war or encourages race equality, much does—free-jazz bassist William Parker’s catalog, for instance, demonstrates a strong link between tampering with conventional 3/4 meter and demanding social change.

“Maybe [we] can get William Parker into Lincoln Center,” says Shepp. “This music is political by its very nature. The first music we [African Americans] created was a protest music that recanted slavery and spoke for liberation and freedom, and it always has.” Many musicians disagree with Shepp’s argument that jazz inherently “concerns freedom,” but share in his frustration that “Wynton and company will never engage anything outside the area of culture, anything that’s considered dangerous, like jobs, like breaking down racist barriers.”

“That’s why guys like Marsalis are put in the positions they are,” Shepp says. “Not to see that things get better, but to see that things don’t change.”