Social Justice Takes Center Stage at Winter JazzFest


If you want to draw aesthetic conclusions about the state of jazz circa 2017, you could do worse than attend the annual Winter JazzFest, which runs January 5–10 and comprises some 130 acts scattered throughout venues mostly in and around the West Village, with a marathon weekend cluster of performances beginning on January 6. In its thirteenth season, the festival is setting its focus on issues of social justice — a new-old development for an art form now entering its second century.

Over the past five years or so, a critical mass of jazz musicians, including a trio of intrepid trumpeters — Christian Scott, Terence Blanchard, and Ambrose Akinmusire — have begun making music tied explicitly to racial consciousness. At the same time, politically aware rappers such as Kendrick Lamar have teamed up with the likes of Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, bringing jazz into the activist mainstream. It’s a throwback to a more socially radical time in jazz, when musicians were producing art linked to Afrocentrism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement. It’s a tradition that includes Louis Armstrong’s 1929 rendition of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” wending its way into the mid–twentieth century with Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s We Insist!, John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Times have changed, but the issues have remained salient, as movements like Black Lives Matter push race relations back into the forefront of the national dialogue. This year the Winter JazzFest, which will close with a performance by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, received so many performer submissions with a focus on racial and social justice that making the theme official was only natural, says Brice Rosenbloom, the festival’s founder and co-producer.

“We felt it was necessary to do what we could to make a statement and show that this was an organically developed theme that grew from the submissions we received,” Rosenbloom explains. “The hope here is that my fellow presenters who are attending the festival will be inspired to include these types of projects on their performing arts calendars.” (Winter JazzFest coincides with the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference; the festival will also pay tribute to the pianist Thelonious Monk, who celebrates his centennial in 2017.)

The slate of socially minded performances is vast and varied, taking on issues such as police brutality, incarceration, class, and identity, including the trombonist Craig Harris’s “Breathe,” inspired by Eric Garner and others, and “Songs of Freedom,” with the singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Theo Bleckmann, and Alicia Olatuja.

The drummer Nate Smith will perform a song called “Disenchantment: The Weight,” which he wrote around the time of the George Zimmerman trial, from his forthcoming album, Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere, due out in early February. Featuring the singer Amma Whatt, “Disenchantment” is a hip-hop-inflected lament. “The weight,” she sings, “how do you stand under it all?”

“The song is a space where people who feel unjustly disenfranchised, disempowered, can have a safe space to just take a breath and say, ‘I’m tired of this, I’m sick of this,’ ” says Smith.

Another drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, put together a new band with the specific intention of commenting on our current political moment. The group, called Social Science, will have its first performance at the festival, playing mostly originals, aside from Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” which “very much speaks to what we need today,” says Carrington, whose own lyrics tackle such subjects as the election (“The Waiting Game”) and police brutality (“Bells”). “I think so many of us have just felt the need to be active in whatever way we can,” Carrington adds, “and personally, I have never done it.”

“At its best, jazz is about collective radical imagination,” says Samora Pinderhughes, the young pianist and composer, who will perform “The Transformation Suite,” his searing multidisciplinary project featuring music, theater, poetry, and visual art. “It’s about creating things that didn’t exist before. And we’re all facing these new sets of challenges that we never envisioned.”

Pinderhughes, 25, began “The Transformation Suite” on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2012, he says. He was disenchanted with the way King’s vision and legacy had been sanitized in the popular imagination, “how folks had wanted to strip away the radical elements of his work,” such as his critiques of war and capitalism. “The goal is to look for and inspire transformation,” Pinderhughes says.

Greg Tate, the Voice contributor and musician (who, on January 7, is participating in a festival panel at the New School on social justice and the role of music), sees these developments in modern jazz as a welcome change. “Jazz’s tradition is one of political resistance, of daring,” he says. For the past 25 or 30 years, though, jazz has remained relatively apolitical and devoid of statements of activism or protest. In the 1980s, Tate says, jazz became more aesthetically focused as independent-minded musicians like Steve Coleman, Von Freeman, and Cassandra Wilson, associated with the M-Base movement, looked inward. “It was focused on its own history, its own bona fides, its own identity crises, as it were,” Tate says.

Now, however, jazz is looking out. “The jazz history that I know, that I embrace, has always been engaged with, in support of, grassroots black politics, social-justice politics,” says Tate. “A space is opening up again, and it seems to me a good time to have a conversation about a renewal of social-justice-focused artistry inside of jazz.”

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