Jazz & Protest
Here in the United States, we recently celebrated the birthday of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This weekend saw millions of people following in his footsteps in Washington, D.C.
Jazz musicians have often used their platform to speak up about important social issues. Here are some examples.
Charles Mingus – “Fables of Faubus” / “Original Faubus Fables”
Mingus recorded this song as a commentary on Arkansas governor, and noted segregationist, Orville Faubus. It appeared on the Mingus Ah Um album, although the record label made Mingus record it without the words. Here it is with the lyrics restored.
Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln – We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
Max Roach and Oscar Brown collaborated on this 1960 album, which deals with African-American history in America from the Emancipation Proclamation through the movements of the 1950s.
Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit”
We’ll close with this, perhaps the most famous piece of protest music in the jazz genre. Originally published as a poem in The New York Teacher in 1937, Abel Meeropol later set his words to music. This song eventually caught the ear of Billie Holiday, who sang it as no one else could, leaving an idelible mark on the American consciousness.
Do you have a favorite jazz protest song? Let us know in the comments.
Nina Simone, Missisippi Goddamn
Seeing this topic made musicians and titles swirl endlessly in my head. No doubt because jazz is rooted in the African American experience, protest songs are an essential part of the music. Perhaps Charles Mingus in his restlessly rebellious and creative ways wrote and recorded the most compositions of anyone we may regard as protest songs, so your first example is apt. A few other Mingus gems that come to mind are “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” “Prayer for Passive Resistance,” “Meditations on Integration (Or for a Pair of Wire Cutters),” “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion,” and the less well known, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”–a song that more unusually blends Mingus’ humor with his anger. Then there is the band “Rebel Souls” led by Chicago-based drummer, Ted Sirota. “Rebel Souls” routinely made music with an overt political and cultural point of view. Sirota looks to Mingus as a prime inspiration for taking on political questions in his music. And we must look to Charlie Haden’s recordings and concerts with his “Liberation Music Orchestra.” There is also Julius Hemphill’s recording, “‘Coon Bid’ness.” The list seems endless and in some ways no doubt is.