We Insist! Jazz's Five Greatest Protest Songs

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln's Protest Aria
Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln's Protest Aria
Candid Records

The writer and journalist 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." That same test, if applied today, would reveal certain improvements in American society. Yet, based on the recent turbulent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., much remains to be done to rectify the present injustices forged upon America's most marginalized.

The seeds of protest due to grave miscarriages of justice for those in pursuit of the same happiness promised by our Declaration of Independence sprung from the soil that yielded the only exclusively American art form, jazz. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz musicians began eagerly addressing inequality and bigotry, bringing to the foreground the sounds and images of the struggle for equal rights. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus confronted specific incidents head on while Billie Holiday transformed a song composed by a white school teacher horrified by the mass lynchings in the South.

Jazz, at the time America's most widely popular music, listened to by blacks and whites alike, felt the urgency to speak for those yelling from outside of the margins, for those who wanted nothing more than the decency that should be afforded to all men regardless of skin color.

John Coltrane, "Alabama" The sad, mournful tones squeezed through John Coltrane's sax in "Alabama" echoed the same appeals for mercy after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in Birmingham Alabama. Four girls, the oldest of the girls being only 14, were mercilessly murdered at the hands of terroristic white supremacists.

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The song reflects the grief-stricken sentiments held by so many in the Birmingham community. But before the victims' family had the opportunity to properly mourn their losses, approximately seven hours later two more kids, two boys both 16 and 13 years of age, were gunned down by police for allegedly throwing rocks directly at cars. The same turmoil that turned the city on its head is heard in Coltrane's lament.

Each movement attempts to make sense of an act that challenges the nature of logic's very principles. Even the ending sounds abrupt, unresolved and dissolute to the fact that something so base could be done to innocent children. Zoom in on Coltrane's face throughout the six-minute performance and lines of contemplation and grief form, giving way to one of his heart-felt performances ever.

Charles Mingus, "Original Fables of Faubus" In 1957, then-Gov. Orval Faubus ignored a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from legally entering a newly desegregated school. The absurdity of the event, placing military guards armed to the teeth in order to keep unarmed teenagers from lawfully entering school, drew the ire from many public officials, but the most razing attack came from one of jazz's most innovative bassists, Charles Mingus.

Featured on Candid Records, the "Original Fables of Faubus" remains one of jazz's most sardonically crafted songs today. It cheekily pokes fun at Faubus' finer fascist features with a call-and-response approach: "Name me someone ridiculous, Dannie?/ Governor Faubus!/ Why's he so sick and ridiculous?/ Because he won't permit integrated schools!/ Well, he's a fool!"

As Mingus howls his last response without mincing his words, he reminds us that Faubus wasn't the only public official responsible. Eisenhower and Rockefeller shared the maligned governor's shame by turning a blind eye to the events, attempting to minimize the stakes on a national scope. Echoes of "Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)" resonate today given the current state of racial politics. From a historical point of view, it wasn't that long ago; moreover, it also reminds us that there is still much to be discussed.

Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit" Prior to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", socially conscious music belonged to the blues. Because jazz emphasized joy, because it swinged so hard, the music filled places like the Savoy or Roseland ballrooms for people who wanted to dance. But underneath swing's reverberations performed in smaller, late-night venues by stripped-down groups were the haunting sounds emanating from one of Jazz music's finest singers, Billie Holiday.

The original lyrics written by a teacher by the name of Abel Meeropol generate images of the solemn reality during the South's lynching practices. When Holiday croons, "Black Bodies swingin' in the Summer breeze/ Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees," it presents a stark contrast to the tree's subtle beauty. The beautiful notes in her earliest performances struggle to escape her mouth. The sparsely-played piano accents Holiday's reflective crooning. The result is a triumphant performance that brings to light what had been left in the dark for too long.

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Nina Simone, "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" Recorded three days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, no more poignant performance exists than Nina Simone's "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" The faces of the audience shown during her live performance say it all. Why? Simone searches deeply within herself for answers that make sense. In the end, she resolves herself to provide more questions and warnings than answers. "Folks, you better stop and think/ Everybody knows we're on the brink," predicts exactly what happens: riots in the streets and calls for justice. With the King of love gone, who out there can ever take his place?

Max Roach, "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Suite" Max Roach once stated that "Peace is the feeling of relaxed exhaustion after you've done everything to exert yourself." More aligned with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Roach confronted peace with a closed fist on "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Suite." Nothing in Roach's immense canon of music resembles the need to achieve justice by any means necessary than "Triptych: Prayer, Protest and Peace."

"Prayer" haunts, speaking for the unheard maligned by injustice. Abbey Lincoln begins the stages of grief by grieving in pitches with cries that reluctantly look back at history's most maligned. The song climaxes with Lincoln's wordless screams, her anger seething over Roach's violent drum fills which mirrors the clubbings, the firehoses, the dogs, the screams. Peace, ultimately achieved through hostile confrontation, gives way to exhaustion. What is achieved resembles the relaxed exhaustion Max Roach expressed. And at the end of this historic performance, everything was left in the recording studio.

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