Released in 1960
Jazz has often been used as a method to express the unequal treatment the African American community. From the descriptive poetry in the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the coded language in Louie Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue,” Jazz was always a platform of protest against the status quo. With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing in the year 1960, it was also one of the primary concerns on the minds of jazz musicians. Legendary drummer Max Roach understood this and decided to devote much of his music and time to supporting the Civil Rights Movement. We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was the manifestation of the sentiments of the movement, and its statement was as as bold as the title.
Every aspect of the suite is constructed around conveying the important moment that was happening in the African American community and throughout the country, the fiery decade that pushed the issue of inequality to the forefront of America’s consciousness. From the provocative album cover with Max Roach sitting at the counter of a segregated restaurant to the liner notes where he writes about his experiences, it is clear that the whole album has no intention to be indirect about its message.
The music ensemble assembled for the suite was also built around an all-star cast in the Jazz world that was carefully thought out to play various roles throughout the album. The highly respected saxophonist Coleman Hawkins often leads the group consisting of Walter Benton on tenor sax, Booker Little on trumpet, Juilian Preston on trumpet and James Schenk on bass to represent the African American music tradition. Also equally noteworthy is the inclusion of Michael Olantuji on Congas and Raymond Mantilla and Tomas Du Vall proving percussive support to the band to portray the fast growing Afro-centric ideology in the jazz world.
But what really makes the album come to life is the dynamic performance by Roach’s then wife, the late Abbey Lincoln who passed earlier this year. The singer who was one known as the ‘black Marilyn Monroe’ embraces Max’s call to protest and expresses the treatment of blacks in the US in song. On the first song “Driva Man,” Abbey channels in her opening poem the brutal reality of the treatment of enslaved blacks a century before, and stirs up the feelings of perseverance in those hard times. Coleman Hawkins and the band echos Abbey’s lyrics when she finishes reciting them with a stirring performance on the tenor sax, and at the end both of them come together to repeat it a third time. Repetition is used throughout the album to convey a sense of fellowship and also as a tool to reinforce the emotional depth of the entire performance. It can be seen used on the next track as well, “Freedom Day,” where Abbey metaphorically sings about the desire of the Civil Rights movement to see a bill passed that would finally strike down segregation, with a upbeat supporting performance from the horn section.
The apex of the album, and the most controversial moment in it, is the three-part spiritual “Triyptch: Prayer, Protest, Peace” that in quick parts moves from moods of meditation, to empowerment and to reflection. As Abbey begins with a gospel-like chant, she then becomes enraged and yells that is reminiscent of folkloric performances in certain African traditions. Intended to portray black anger and the peaking tension of the country, it also stirs up imagery of the more aggressive forms of resistance to enslavement such as rebellion and fleeing to the north, with the final part as the successful, or even failed, result of this. This kind of open ended interpretation that the album leaves to the listener by not becoming too preachy in its performances is part of its power and timelessness that made it much more than just a simple protest piece.
Originally the album was supposed to portray the trip of Africans to America and depict this history up until the present, and was supposed to have had the second to last song “All Africa,” a mixture of a celebratory poem penned by Oscar Brown Jr. and a energetic solo by the percussive section, placed first on the album. But the final track order of the album instead expresses Max Roach’s black nationalistic thought process behind it, as many in the Civil Rights Movement were inspired by the independence that some countries in Africa were gaining. It is with this idea that songs such as “Triyptch” and “All Africa” also serve as a call to bridge relations between African Americans and Africans. The addition of Congas and a percussive section to “All Africa” and “Tears For Johannesburg” also embodies how Max saw the commonalities between the groups of people divided across the Atlantic Ocean. This cultural connection would also be explored in albums released in the next couple of years such as Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika.
It may seem like now that putting together an album that protests a political or social issue is not really a big deal, as one needs to look no further than the recent Roots and John Legend collaboration, but back when Max embarked on putting this suite together, it was in a time when patriotism without question was still very high and much of the country did not want to deal with the race issue. In that sense, it was radical. So radical in fact that the album was banned in South Africa in fear of how the last song “Tears For Johannesburg,” a tribute to the Sharpesville massacre in the apartheid ruled country at the time, could stir up protest there as well. It was very much a Jazz masterpiece, but it was also an important co-sign to the efforts of leaders like Martin Luther King who depended on music to help galvanize the movement. 50 years later, the message still rings. It cannot be stated enough how much this historically important masterstroke of Max Roach’s is a required listening.
Words By Putnam Doug