22 June 2016: jazz with a message

Jazz and protest go hand in hand, and this week’s theme of jazz with a message seems particularly timely. As always, click the MixCloud button (left) to hear this week’s CJ and check out the embedded links below. 19th century writer and social john_coltrane_order_is_everythingreformer Harriet Martineau said, If a test of civilization be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power. Well, after a decision that has literally split the UK, we too will soon find out how one half treats the other. Of course, we are not comparing the post-Brexit environment with the social circumstances that generated the radical, fierce equal rights messages so powerfully conveyed in our music this week. But we can always reflect on the power of music to help define where we are and what we feel.

Radical music will not – by definition – be easy listening. Good. Stay with it and appreciate the part that great black music played in achieving social change in the USA. To begin with there were marion brown vistaVisions: Have I lived to see the milk and honey land,
Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands?
This is Stevie Wonder filtered through alto player Marion Brown from his album Vista, released on the Impulse! label in 1975. The track features two ‘engine room’ greats – Reggie Workman on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums in addition to Allen Murphy on vocals. The vocals on this track might give you a misleading impression of Marion Brown’s music: here he is in a very different context – music from his album Sweet Earth Flying with Muhal Richards Abrams and Paul Bley on piano.

We followed this with two well known and haunting tunes. Firstly, John Coltrane’s Alabama: his response to the 1963 Baptist church john coltrane live at birdlandbombings in Birmingham, Alabama in which four girls (the oldest only 14 years old) were mercilessly murdered at the hands of white supremacists. Then the chilling, explicit Strange Fruit written in 1939 by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol and delivered with unrivalled intensity and emotion by Billie Holiday. Meeropol was apparently haunted by a photograph of the lynching of two black men and wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

frank foster loud minorityUp next was a Cosmic Jazz favourite – this time in its original form – from Frank Foster. The Loud Minority (1974) is a long and, at times, free piece with impassioned vocals from Dee Dee Bridgewater supported by an approving crowd. The message is clear: We are the loud minority and, as such, we are a part of those concerned with change. On this track, Foster’s big band is a powerhouse with terrific performances from Marvin Peterson on trumpet, Jan Hammer on piano, Earl Dunbar on guitar and Elvin Jones on drums. This track is, of course, the inspiration for a favourite tune from Japanese jazzers United Future Organization – here’s their take on Loud Minority (with its original video too).

gil scott heron and brian jackson bridgesMore mellow in delivery, but still delivering a powerful message were Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. From their 1977 album Bridges came the almost inevitable choices for such a theme. Scott-Heron reminds us that We say that since change is inevitable, we should direct the change/Rather than simply continue to go through the change. Seems appropriate. Bt the way, Bridges also contains the anthemic We Almost Lost Detroit, a track sampled by Common on his The People track from Finding Forever.

Wild, free and unpredictable could describe another musical appeal to the rights of minorities. This was Triumph of the Outcasts, R-2377721-1280502406.jpegComing from pianist Adegoke Steve Colson, whose music carries social, political and spiritual messages. Again, it is a tune with a distinctive, unique vocal that accentuates and drives home the message, from vocalist wife Iqua. Colson was a member of the influential Black Artists Group (BAG) in Chicago but following his move to New Jersey, the Newark City Council named 13 November as Steve Colson Day! The proclamation honoured the premiere of his multimedia work, Greens, Rice, And A Rope and Colson has gone on to work with many avant garde jazz artists, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake and Henry Threadgill. The penultimate track on this week’s show was from another revolutionary jazz figure, Philip Cohran. Along with his Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Cohran has ploughed a singular furrow meshing elements of John philip cohran on the beachColtrane, James Brown and Fela Kuti into what Thom Jurek in his Allmusic review of the album On the Beach calls a seamless solidarity of black consciousness. The track Unity tells us how things should be and complemented the name chosen for Steve Colson’s band (The Unity Troupe). To end this week’s we dived back into the spiritual realm with the Charles Gayle Trio, recorded live in Poland, and invoking the way to Eternal Life. 

  1. Marion Brown – Visions from Vista
  2. John Coltrane – Alabama from Live at Birdland
  3. Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit from Jazz Greats Bille Holiday
  4. Frank Foster – The Loud Minority from The Loud Minority
  5. Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson – Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From) from Bridges
  6. Steve Colson and the Unity Troupe – Triumph of the Outcasts, Coming from Triumph!
  7. Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble – Unity from On the Beach
  8. Charles Gayle Trio – Eternal Life from Christ Everlasting

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