Songs of Freedom

Can music free your mind from mental slavery? Depends which Free Radical you ask

Geez, you put forth an innocent cliché and get a sermon in return…It's par for the course with Cooper, who believes his music -- even when only instrumental -- is an extension of his politics. Not all of his collaborators feel the same way. Sheppard plays in the Free Radicals core band with Cooper and nine others, as well as part-time guest (and jazz, blues and R&B singer) Gloria Edwards. Both disagreed, Sheppard more strongly.

Together, the three musicians make for an interesting cross-section of humanity. There's Cooper himself, the thirtysomething Rice grad, vegan, left-wing activist and peacenik; Sheppard, a septuagenarian Jew from New York City; and Gloria Edwards, the Fifth Ward-bred blues, jazz and R&B singer who has in recent years become both more committed to her Christian faith and more politically active. Between the three of them, there's close to 100 years of professional musical experience, though the bulk of it was garnered in vastly different worlds -- Cooper's on the Houston punk scene back in his Sprawl days, Sheppard's on the New York jazz world of the pre-bebop era, and Edwards's on both the local blues scene in the wards and in the stylish hotel ballrooms along South Main, not to mention a fairly recent gig as the performer-in-residence at a hotel in Indonesia.

While Edwards is very political when she's not on stage, she believes in separation of stage, church and state. As does Sheppard. "Music should be happy," he says. "Politics isn't happy."

Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.
Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.


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Cooper, who is also a journalist for the radical Web site, decides to put on his interviewer's hat. He presses Sheppard on the matter. "Clearly every time Free Radicals gets the chance, we play a benefit and things like that, how do you feel about that?"

"I'm there to play the music," Sheppard says. Edwards laughs and claps her hands. "You sound like my husband," she says, referring to veteran trumpet player and arranger Nelson Mills III.

"I'm going to play the music. That's all. I don't care," Sheppard says again.

"What if you get rounded up and they see your name on the CD?" Cooper presses.

"I've been rounded up before. I worked with Lenny Bruce. Are you kidding?"

A few minutes later, Cooper again picks up the tack. "So you're just there for the music, and that's great, and I'm happy to have you. But I was wondering if you thought the freeness of the music and so forth is consistent with certain types of ideology, like freedom and so forth."

"I don't think so, and I'll tell you why," Sheppard says. "I think one way -- I'm conservative on some things, but if anybody asked me if I was a liberal I would say yes. But do you know Bill Miller the bass player? He's the wildest mutha I ever played with -- there is nobody I know more liberal musically, but he's a conservative politically. I can't even talk to him about stuff, he's so far to the right. But we get playin', oh my God!"

And we left it that. But a few days later Cooper called back. "Harry said that you can play jazz and stuff even if you're not that free in your thinking," he said to the answering machine. "While I think that's possible, the music we play -- ska, Afrobeat, funk, jazz, capoeira -- has a history of being connected with struggles of liberation, and if you play this stuff and aren't part of that movement, I believe it's less authentic."

Having redeemed his politically suspect bandmate, Cooper said "peace" to the answering machine and hung up.

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