S.R: Let’s just get right into it. What does Freedom Sounds mean to you? And do you think jazz, more so than other kinds of music, is a politically charged music?
I.M: Well, I think that it is, yes. One of the reasons I called it Freedom Sounds is that it seems to me that the music has always been about freedom in its own way, both in this internal sense of the music, of freedom in musical expression, and also being very, very much intertwined with the struggle for racial justice in the mid-20th century of the United States. Music was a path towards thinking about freedom and musicians were viewed as leaders in terms of thinking about “How are we going to have freedom?”. There’s a whole debate about what freedom means, that happened within the musical community.
S.R: Let’s go back to the Buddy Bolden days. Is jazz about freedom?
I.M: Well, see I would qualify that. I don’t think that the sounds of the music themselves are inherently about freedom. I think the thing that made the history of this music about freedom has to do with the circumstances under which the musicians playing it were living. In other words, it’s really a historical explanation. It has to do with the circumstances under which the musician emerged. In the city of New Orleans, which was experiencing an intensification of segregation at the time, music was one of the only pathways available to African-Americans for having, in some ways, a life that was freer than other lives. So if your alternative is sharecropping or menial service, being a musician represented having a kind of freedom in the world that you couldn’t have in many of the other occupations open to African-Americans. I don’t think improvisation itself is something that is universal worldwide. You can find it in many different cultures. You can find it under circumstances that are very hierarchical. You can find it under circumstances that are very egalitarian. But I think the thing that ties the history of jazz specifically to freedom has to do with the particular historical circumstances in which the music developed, in which musicians, in order to practice their craft, continually had to butt heads with a structure that was not working in their favor.
S.R: So you think it’s almost by coincidence that the sound of jazz takes traits from African music?
I.M: Well, I’m not so sure I’d go as far as to say coincidental, because I do think that there is something about call and response and improvisational forms that do facilitate a kind of human interaction in a kind of basic way. But I say what I’m saying about historical contingency because I think sometimes people have overly romanticized the fact that simply, if it’s improvisation, it’s going to be about freedom and political struggle. Freedom Sounds is really trying to make a case for showing the ways in which jazz musicians interacted with the social and political world around them and were drawn into the themes of the civil rights movement. And indeed how they were morally pressured by the civil rights movement and Black Power movements, to show which side they were on. It was about a larger social dialogue as well as the formal possibilities that are there in the music.
S.R: George Lewis made this case of silencing, saying basically that jazz is an outgrowth from the condition of silence. Do you agree with that?
I.M: Yes. I do. I think that’s a very apt way to talk about it. There were a lot of things that could be not said in words that were said in music. Things were said in instrumental music at a time when the kinds of words that we now are accustomed to hearing in hip-hop and other forms of music simply were not possible.
Think about Charlie Parker. People talk about the Bebop movement in this context because you have the Swing Era, with music that became America’s popular music through the vehicle primarily of white performance. That was what publicly was seen in the 1930s and 1940s, to the point that many of the pioneering African-American bands – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson – were really erased by the power of the way the music industry was structured at that time. So you have the voice of Charlie Parker emerging in the 1940s. You have Thelonius Monk. You have Max Roach. They are developing a voice that, in their minds, was about not being able to be so easily imitated by other people. It was about developing a singular and personal voice, without saying in words so much what the critique was about. But the people inside the jazz community very much read it as a commentary on the nature of what the music was about. This was a strong aspiration to be something more than popular music, to be something more than a commercial music; to make an artistic statement of some kind that demanded recognition of the achievements and beauty of African American achievements in music.
S.R: I’m interested in how early American legends were able to negotiate their identities in relation to Africa during the era of jazz evolution. Who do you think was the first African-American artist who directly addressed a relationship to Africa in their music, either successfully or unsuccessfully?
I.M: I think the one about whom there has been so much recent work done is Louis Armstrong and his stance in the 1920s and 1930s. He did songs like What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue? There were songs that were specifically done. But many people have called attention to some of his film segments, for example, the famous Shine scene in the movie he did in the 1930s, in which the producers have dressed him up in classic minstrel stuff. Yet, if you look at his stance and what he’s playing through the music, even in that ridiculous costume, you cannot miss the power of the music. He is winking to the camera and showing a lot of strength and playfulness with the camera in a way that many people have argued is a signifier; taking a regrettable situation into which he was put, and transcending it through the power of the music that he was playing.
So I think Armstrong really did start doing many of these things. I also think that Duke Ellington is absolutely a critical voice here. They come from two different kinds of backgrounds. If Louis Armstrong is from the impoverished, poor background, Duke Ellington is from the more middle-class background. He makes a struggle in the 1930s and 1940s for the dignity of the music. There is a famous, famous debate that happened with the critic John Hammond: Duke Ellington records a piece called Reminiscing in Tempo, a 12 minute piece done in memory of the death of his mother. John Hammond thinks that it’s too pretentious, that he’s trying to be too orchestral with it. Why doesn’t he just play the blues like he’s supposed to? It really angers Ellington. For Ellington, he wasn’t going to let somebody put him into a stereotype about what his musical language should sound like. He had larger aspirations for the kind of composition and sounds he wanted to make. Duke Ellington was also very pioneering with his Black, Brown & Beige suite in 1943 that was to be a tone poem about the history of African-Americans in the United States. He calls it Black, Brown & Beige instead of Red, White and Blue. He has a program to it. It has a symphonic scale in which he is trying to portray the journey of African-Americans from slavery through emancipation to contemporary life in the United States. It was a very powerful statement. The critics react in a mixed way. Also, some critics say, “Well, why doesn’t he just stick to the blues and 32 bar tunes like you’re supposed to,” since that was what was in popular music. So I think these are two different kinds of paths of commenting through music on similar situations.
S.R: Duke Ellington would also have used the words “jungle music” to describe his sound.
I.M: That was the late 1920s when that is going on. Part of it was him having Bubber Miley in the band. And he’s sitting up there in Harlem playing to The Cotton Club, which was a segregated club in which they had African-American entertainment playing to a white crowd. Duke Ellington was enough of an entertainer to know that appealing to people’s primitivist fantasies about African America might be good for business.
I don’t think it was all so strategic as that with him though. He loved the sound. This is what going to New York did for Duke Ellington – remember he came from Washington DC. In New York, musicians were meeting a lot of recent migrants from the South, players like Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton. They began to embody these very, very bluesy sounds that were then interjected into the kind of ensemble that Duke Ellington played. So you can’t just identify one strategy with one person. There were multiple strategies out there for African-American musicians. In different contexts, they chose to deal with it in one way or another.
I think the trope of Africa is very interesting. You have W.E.B. DuBois leading the way with that. And you have Marcus Garvey in New York in the 1920s really making people aware of their African heritage with the Back to Africa Movement.
When I interviewed Randy Weston and Max Roach for my book, they were very much strong in arguing that, in their communities, and Randy was particularly talking about Brooklyn, there was a lot of awareness of Marcus Garvey in the 1940s and 1950s. In the book, I try to trace some of those moments in which musicians were referencing Africa and the international moment. Paul Robeson was very much involved in thinking about Africa in the 1940s. Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie were meeting various African musicians and people from Africa in the 1940s. Dizzy Gillespie talks about this in his autobiography, saying that by getting in touch with our African heritage, we were really playing our identity. Also for Dizzy Gillespie, the relationship with Mario Bauza and Afro-Cuban music was very important. I argue that Africa channeled through Afro-Cuban and Latin music was a very important musical resource in the 1950s. You have Art Blakey making direct references to Santería or Lucumi, as the Afro-Cuban religion is called. In A Message from Kenya, he’s collaborating with Sabu Martinez. So, many people were involved in Afro-Cuban religion in the mid-1950s. I make the point that it’s no accident that Art Blakey, who went to Ghana in the 1940s, makes some albums that strongly reference Africa right around the time of the independence of Ghana in 1957. This was a time in which a lot of African-Americans were following what happened. So Art Blakey makes Holiday for Skins, Orgy in Rhythm, making use of African elements specifically drawn from Afro-Cuban religious music.
S.R: Of all those Art Blakey records that channel Africa in a variety of ways, on a personal level, which one really speaks to you?
I.M: Dingo. It’s such an amazing piece. It’s got the classic 12/8 bell pattern in it. It starts out with a minimalist kind of beat coming in and then it adds the parts. As each part comes in, the polyrhythm gets thicker and thicker. The African feel of the groove intensifies. Then the voice comes in. You know that you’re in the presence of something from Africa and that it’s very spiritual, very lively and very, very deep.
S.R: So tell me, how did you interpret the origin of the Freedom Now suite?
I.M: You see I went out and I tried to do some research on the Freedom Now Suite. I actually interviewed Oscar Brown, who had been involved with it, before I was able to interview Max Roach. Oscar Brown told me this amazing story about how the Freedom Now suite came to be. The story diverges a little bit from what’s on the liner notes of the album. Basically Oscar Brown talked about this collaboration that they tried, that the original idea was to try to do this thing for the 1960 300th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The original plan was to begin in Africa, just as Black Brown & Beige had begun, and go through emancipation to the present day. Now, in the course of working on this, they discovered that they had political differences about what was going on. Oscar Brown came from a more nonviolent integrationist kind of perspective. Max Roach’s own father had a history of strong historic participation in the NAACP in Chicago. So while they were researching they got into debates about this.
Max Roach became increasingly interested in African nationalism and also what Malcolm X was doing. The message was: “you can’t rely on white people to take care of us. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, and let’s look to African nationalism and ways to organize ourselves to have self-determination.” I think the strongest part of that message was developing self-determination. What’s interesting about the Nation of Islam at that point is that one of the reasons that their newspaper attracted a bunch of attention is that they were one of the few organizations actively interested in Africa at the time. Many of the people were interested in Africa; they had African cultural bazaars, they had dances, and so on and so forth. If you were interested in African culture, you were more likely to see stuff about that in Muhammed Speaks than you were in The Pittsburgh Courier or The Chicago Defender at that time. So Max Roach becomes more interested in this and they comes to blows about this. In fact Oscar Brown leaves and they go their separate ways. They just quit collaborating. Oscar Brown went his own way. Later on, Max Roach finishes this piece. What’s interesting is that he completely changes the order. Rather than have Africa begin the suite, he now switches it around to have Africa end the suite. So it’s a story of slavery to emancipation to protest and struggle, with Africa being part of the future, rather than the past. In other words, locating the struggle for freedom in this more global pan-Africanism moment. So it switches the valence of it. The other that interests me about the Freedom Now suite is that everybody talks about the politics of this piece. But people seldom realize that Max Roach is the composer of the music. Max Roach seldom gets the credit for having been the composer that he was. There are very interesting aspects to the music that he’s doing here. It’s a pianoless group. It’s not outside in the sense of Ornette Coleman at that moment. But it’s using a lot of chortle voicings rather than triadic voicings. And it has very, very open, wide open improvisational sections that people are free to go in and out of.
S.R: Could you take us through the Freedom Now lyric and Driva’ Man and Prayer Protest Peace?
I.M: So Driva’ Man. First of all, you’ve got to know that 5/4 is a crucial time device organizing the whole piece. You’ve got 5/4 in Driva’ Man, you’ve got it in Protest/Peace and in Tears From Johannesburg. So you’ve got the crack of the Driva’ Man‘s whip going. It starts out in this haunting way with Abbey Lincoln singing Driva’ Man over this very haunting beat. There’s that crack of the whip. When she’s done singing the lyric, Coleman Hawkins comes in, playing this unbelievable solo. It’s amazing that Coleman Hawkins is here. Coleman Hawkins is from the older generation, from the ’30s. Here he is showing himself aligned with the younger generation of musicians, doing a piece that talks about freedom.
The second movement is Freedom Day and “Whisper, listen, whisper, listen – can it really be?” You’ve got Abbey Lincoln with her utter haunting voice going on and these wonderful voicings between the trumpet and trombone. “Whisper, listen, whisper, listen, whisper –”. “Can it really be?” After Abbey Lincoln presents the lyric, then there is this amazing trumpet solo by Booker Little that just kills me every time I hear it. It takes off, takes you to another place, a very open, motile kind of thing.
Then you have the piece of the Freedom Now suite that’s called Triptych. It’s divided into Prayer, Protest and Peace. Prayer is this utter haunting thing. It’s like the spiritual moment. If both Driva’ Man and Freedom Day are drawing from the blues form, you’ve got Prayer drawing from the spiritual and the moan. It’s a wordless lyric. Max Roach has tuned the drums so they can actually provide a tonal accompaniment for Abbey Lincoln as she sings this incredibly haunting, beautiful, spiritual melody. It’s just drums and Abbey Lincoln. Then comes Protest. This is the moment in which Abbey Lincoln does a stylized screaming to drum accompaniment by Max Roach, that’s supposed to represent getting deep down in the struggle for freedom. Abbey Lincoln was ambivalent about singing this. Max Roach had to talk her into doing it. But it’s a very, very powerful effect. It goes on for quite a long time. Yet it’s also very musical and follows a musical kind of phrase. When that ends, the final work is Peace. Max Roach goes back into 5/4 here, which suggests: “You’re tired. You have struggled for your freedom. You have had some success and you are exhausted from doing it.” So that’s Triptych.
S.R: Did the piece Prayer, Protest, Peace elicit any reaction from critics at the time?
I.M: It did. In fact, practically all the contemporary, critical commentary about it at the time was about the screaming in the middle and whether this was appropriate or not or whatever scared people. It seemed to be cast as, “This music is angry music” in some quarters. I talk about this in my chapter with Abbey Lincoln. When I went to interview her I really thought I was going to be taking down this story of the revolutionary heroine, the only woman who really had quite a prominent role in this music within the jazz world at the time. In many ways she wanted to distance herself from that. She was trying to do stuff to please Max Roach. She didn’t really want to do the screaming but she was persuaded to do it and those were very difficult arrangements for her to sing. Now I don’t think she was just a dupe of Max Roach however. The power of her voice really comes through. It’s the most exposed element, the most exposed voice in the Freedom Now suite. What’s interesting to me is she doesn’t really get taken to task though until she puts an album out on her own called Straight Ahead, a year or so later, in which Ira Gitler takes her to task for the album being too political, like propaganda.
S.R: How does Ira Gitler criticize her?
I.M: With African Lady, telling her she’s naïve, that she shouldn’t be interested in African nationalism, that in fact Africans didn’t care about African-Americans – very patronizing. I make the point in the book that it’s the same voice that was in Freedom Now suite, but they felt more entitled to take the gloves off in attacking Abbey Lincoln when it was her own album, rather than an album that Max Roach was leading. This attitude followed her throughout the ’60s, where she was cast as being difficult and political. It was very difficult for her to record on her own for at least another 10 to 12 years.
S.R: Can we move on to All Africa?
I.M: All Africa. So that’s interesting. Now Oscar Brown had done research on African history as best he could in the Chicago Public Library, as he told me. They tried to amass all the names of the different ethnic groups – Bantu, Ashanti, Yoruba – and they do a kind of voice that calls out the names of African ethnic groups. Singing with her is Babatunji Olatunji, who of course is Nigerian. They are trying to do a celebration of the full range of all the peoples on the African continent. Babatunji Olatunji is playing African percussion. They also have Cuban percussion going on. They go into a Cuban groove after the vocal part is happening. That then becomes the framework under which the solo improvisation takes. So it’s looking out to the African continent.
The final movement is Tears for Johannesburg, specifically commemorating the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. That was a protest against the pass laws in South Africa. It was a very violent suppression. 1960 was also the year of all these student lunch counter sit-ins in the United States. There was this ramping up of the civil rights movement. Clearly Max Roach felt an affinity between what was going on in Africa and what was going on in the United States in terms of the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial justice. So once again, they establish a 5/4 groove. It’s organized in a very interesting way, in the sense that the piece starts out with the solos. You don’t really hear the full arrangement of the melody of it until about eight or nine minutes into it. The improvisation comes first. Then the piece finishes by explaining itself, putting it all together for you as it were. I think it’s a very innovative piece of music as well as being a musical commentary. I think that kind of combination of trying to have a message to your music and doing it with a creative relationship to the musical forms of the day is something that a lot of people aspired to in this time. They wanted their art to move ahead. Part of what inspired them to make their art move ahead were all the struggles for social justice going on around them.
S.R: Max Roach then, later in life when you interviewed him, admitted to you that he still doesn’t understand what freedom really means.
I.M: This was an interesting moment. I was in the awkward position of saying, “Mr. Roach, I talked to Oscar Brown and he told me a different story about how the Freedom Now suite came to be.” I was telling him, “Oscar Brown said that you had a different sense of what the piece should be about and a different political view at that time.” That’s when he said, “You know, we still don’t know what it is to be free.” I thought that was a very poignant moment. I can’t say that I could pin down exactly what I think he thought about that. But I think it’s something around the idea that freedom is an open-ended thing. It is not something you can ever take fully for granted. You always have to keep remaking it in the new generation of which you are a part. You will always have ethical dilemmas and choices that you need to be making as an artist about being true to yourself and to your art versus things that come along that might be easier for you to do.
SR: You mentioned that George Lewis makes you think about these things in a deep way. In many ways, he makes the case that since jazz is within frames institutionally and historically, it uses language in a way that has been defined essentially by people. Jazz musicians to this day are still fighting to be free in many respects. Jazz still has one stereotype. A jazz musician can’t just do classical music and throw in one jazz tune because even though almost all his other repertoire might be a classical music, he’ll still be known as a jazz musician.
I.M: That’s right. I think it’s the power of a certain kind of racial stereotyping in sound that happens to people, that creates a dilemma for African-American musicians. I think this is one of the powerful things to me about what George has written, and I think he’s absolutely right about it; he tries to place the history of so-called avant-garde or free jazz within the context of an American experimental music. He tries to view what the AACM was doing, and what Cecil Taylor was doing, as a kind of composition with a very experimental palate. I think George is right when he points out that John Cage did everything he could to distance himself from the idea of ‘jazz’, never using the word improvisation or the word jazz. Let’s call it indeterminacy instead. Anything but to have it lumped into the category of jazz.
A lot of what American experimentalist composers were doing in terms of playing around with sound parameters are things that people in the jazz world then take up. I do think that there was an incredible color line, especially in the 1960s, between jazz and classical music. There are certain ironies to this. Look at Ron Carter. Look at Richard Davis. Very highly classically trained musicians. Richard Davis told me these stories about how he studied with the principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who loved him, and tried over and over and over again to get him into auditions for major symphony orchestras and couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. The unspoken color line… Then by the time things were offered to him, he didn’t want it anymore.
This was the difficulty African-American musicians had making it into studio work, which was the lucrative stuff. It was controlled by white contractors and the unions, making it very impermeable. So the classical world often would not acknowledge the level of classical music skills that many, many jazz musicians had – John Lewis, for example, of Modern Jazz Quartet. So for George, I think the idea of creating a space in the avant-garde free jazz movement in which you can have the kind of creative community you want was very empowering. A space where you would not be subject to what the club owners want you to do, to what the mainstream commercial music scene wants you to do; a community that doesn’t presume that the place for jazz is in a bar with booze.
S.R: All of these essentialistic ways of talking about music continue to exist, which in a way does the music and African-Americans a disservice at the same time. So how do you navigate this effectively and appropriately?
I.M: There are a lot of debates about this. I take a particular kind of perspective in my book. I do that in the third chapter. I wrestled. That was the hardest chapter for me to write, in which I kept trying to think and rethink this. I think one of the crucial questions to ask is, is there such a thing as an African American musical aesthetic. My answer to the question is that yes, there is. There has always been something distinctive in African-American musical aesthetics. You can go all the way back to the 17th century when various white observers were saying that there is something especially musical about the newer African-American arrivals, the ones who were singing in church, and that there was something very distinctive about that. At the same time, this aesthetic is not the same as being African-American. There is an African-American aesthetic, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that all African-Americans are going to embrace this aesthetic as their home base. Many do. There are many who don’t. So I try to draw a distinction between the aesthetics and the social category in which people are categorized.
Look at somebody like Ron Carter. Ron Carter is busy in 1963, just swinging up a storm, playing with Miles Davis and doing the most inventive, swinging, creative, in-and-out-of-blues, in-and-out-of-popular-tune style on the bass. He can also go and play a classical orchestra concert, no problem. Completely beautiful reader, play in the style of a libretto and everything. He’s got that range of his aesthetics. I look at jazz as drawing on a number of different aesthetics – African-American popular music from the blues and gospel and spirituals to Afro-Cuban stuff, to the aesthetics of American musical theater, to classical music, to world musics. The jazz musicians are like bricoleurs, drawing on all these kinds of streams and coming to their own personal synthesis of the musics that they’re going to play. So I describe that as being a process of a kind of aesthetic agency, that people are out there making choices that satisfy themselves as artists. White musicians are doing the same thing. They are drawing from a wide number of ways. What I say is it’s much easier to have this harmonious integration aesthetically and people moving around in aesthetic worlds. That’s much easier to do than having social mobility, based on the category you are in. When I say you have this moment of freedom on the stage, you walk off the stage and the possibilities available to the white musicians and the black musicians diverge when they are offstage.
The story of Roy Eldridge touched me. Roy Eldridge was this fabulous trumpet player, and becomes one of the players most sought after by white bands. He’s playing with Artie Shaw. Artie Shaw and people in the band love his playing. Roy Eldridge’s music is selling tickets to Artie Shaw gigs. He’s on the marquee. Yet he is in a situation where the people in the band don’t know what is like to live with Jim Crow. They don’t know that the reason that there’s never a hotel reservation for him, that always something happens to his reservation, has to do with racial prejudice. There are still so many hotels that he can’t even stay in with the rest of the band, even though he’s the star of the show. He tells this story where he arrives at a hall, I believe in California. His name is on the marquee. The guy at the door won’t let him in because he is black. It becomes this very upsetting moment to him, that is later rectified in certain ways. But it makes him a nervous wreck. He breaks down in tears. He has trouble holding back tears while he’s trying to perform that night. He felt very isolated in that kind of situation. He goes off after that and he says, “Well, you know, I may be getting paid more, but it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it. Let me go back. I’m going to play with African-Americans, my brothers, who make me feel more at home.” This is a dilemma for people. The unions integrate at this point. But there are some people who feel that something was lost because at least the separate union halls gave a sort of independent place, where African-Americans could be themselves at home and not worry about trying to behave like other people wanted them to behave.
S.R: Because of all this background to the music, there is truth to the fact that white men can’t play jazz, don’t you think?
I.M: No, I wouldn’t. I try to do a two-step around this because that’s just as much a racial stereotype, a sound stereotype about white musicians as various things are about black musicians. What I tried to say is that white musicians can draw on all these aesthetics too. So I talk about an example, where Stan Getz is playing the blues in a really convincing way and he doesn’t sound a lot different than a lot of African-American saxophonists playing at the same time. You’ve got to give him that. But what the big difference is, is not so much whether they can or can’t swing, but that when they leave the stage, they are subject to a different set of social communities and rules and that Stan Getz had more access to networks of being successful in music than African-American musicians did. There were segregated communities here. But I know you don’t believe that, you just wanted me on record saying that. But I agree that it’s an important point to say, that that’s a part of an aesthetic agency too and that white musicians have learned, and I think over the last 40 years have learned to play with black aesthetics very convincingly. It’s not so much about that. It’s more that the larger society puts you in these other larger racial categories, whether you like it or not. It gives you certain privileges and disadvantages accordingly.
For instance, there was this horrible debate that happened in DownBeat in 1962 – Racial Prejudice and Jazz. It was all out there, unlike today, where everybody denies that there are these tensions. Everybody was actively debating them at this time. So Ira Gitler says Abbey Lincoln is behaving like a professional Negro if she talks about anything related to her heritage in her music. I show Max Roach a picture from the debate that took place there. Abbey Lincoln is just glaring at Ira Gitler. Max Roach looks at this and starts laughing, “Oh boy, Abbey sure was mad at Ira, wasn’t she?” and starts giggling. He said, “But you know we are still friends.” He was being very nostalgic I think about that moment in time. But I think Max was also being nostalgic about his marriage to Abbey Lincoln. It was like, “She was really something. She was just amazing.” So he seemed to be very nostalgic about their time together. Whereas she did not seem to be very nostalgic at all.
S.R: What are some of the other ways in the late 1960s that African-American musicians influenced and made their own traditions?
I.M: I think Babatunji Olatunji was a very important figure in this way of having recordings and things and exposing many people in the jazz world to the sounds of African music, particularly Yorùbá stuff from Nigeria. Another influence were these folkloric ballets that came and performed sometimes in New York, exposing people to sounds from Senegal and Mali: the kora, the griot tradition. You have to remember that in 1960, all these African nations became independent and suddenly 16 nations were admitted to the UN. There became 16 new ambassadors and staffs coming to New York. In fact, many people in the jazz world got to know some of these people involved, who were part of these delegations and became interested in the music. You have John Coltrane. I think the relationship between Olatunji and John Coltrane was very, very important to Coltrane in exposing him to kinds of music of which he had been unaware.
I talk about John Coltrane in the last chapter of my book. Here, I look at the relationship between spiritual ideas of universality and African nationalism – a kind of ethnically grounded identity of being part of the African Diaspora – and I question whether these things are compatible. Some people would say that these are not compatible things. What’s interesting about Coltrane is you don’t see him appearing in as many benefit concerts per se as some of the other musicians. But he’s very interested in the idea of self-determination. He becomes friends with Olatunji, and the few things that he does appear at, appear to be very much mindful of both black nationalism and African nationalism. In 1964, he plays at an event for Freedom Ways which is a Marxist oriented African-American journal. So I discuss how one can combine a sense of universality, having blackness as the quality of universality; a quality that is open and embracing, but is not denying that connection. So I do transcribe some of his piece Wise One and I think his A Love Supreme is very interesting from that point of view, that it can be read as much as a kind of spiritual intonation towards the power of the African Diaspora as well as it can be read as completely racially neutral, since it’s a prayer that doesn’t mention race in any sort of way. I really view Coltrane as being this amazing figure.
If Coltrane’s music was an attack against white anything, I think it was an attack against the club owners who said that you had to do a 40 minute set and take a break for 20 minutes, because he defied that regularly. But I think for him it was not coming out of a straight up racial critique as it was coming out of a spiritual place, that was very much cognizant of other African-Americans and about a kind of human dignity. Now it’s interesting, very early on, when Coltrane starts playing, he’s actually completely trashed in “Muhammed Speaks” in about 1963. They say “Oh, they are just plain out for the white man.” There was this trope of avant-garde jazz being something that the white critics were raving about and fomenting. Then this transformation takes place with A Love Supreme. All the avant-garde things that Coltrane did channel him as the ultimate example of black excellence in many ways, that then has a spiritual power. So much so that after Coltrane dies, Muhammed Speaks writes a very laudatory piece about the importance of John Coltrane.
So in some ways, I spend a lot of the book trying to document exactly how people make connections to the political from music, and how it is refracted through its spiritual quality. The Civil Rights Movement and Black Movement were moral and ethical movements. They were really trying to challenge American society to live up to its own ideals. So there was very much a very strong moral purpose here. It’s no accident that churches and church music are very central to the entire ethos of how it came about. One of the reasons I have in my subtitle Freedom Now – Civil Rights Call-out to Jazz, rather than jazz calls out to civil rights, is that I would place the social movement at the front here. I think that in a sense the larger African-American struggle, particularly beginning in the ’50s, is something that rivets the entire African-American community and people active in the movement are not shy about holding African-American musicians accountable to that. There are stories of people being shamed in African-American newspapers when this new standard emerges in the ’50s. It was claimed that you’re not being loyal to African-Americans if you continue to accept gigs in theaters that segregate their audiences. From time immemorial through the ’40s, everybody was playing in segregated theaters. But, beginning with Robeson and Norman Granz, there starts to be this new ethical standard emerging in the ’50s. A number of African-American musicians are shamed for this. Nat King Cole is shamed for this, for playing a segregated theater in Birmingham in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People are not nice. In fact, African-American musicians were more likely to be shamed for this than white musicians, for whom there was a lower expectation that they would get on board with that. So I don’t think that jazz caused the Civil Rights Movement. I think that it was deeply involved in dialogue with it and that there was an enormous amount of inspiration that many musicians channeled into the music, that helped make this one of the most incredibly creative periods of the music there has ever been.
S.R: On a related note, many musicians were careful to reflect their African heritage at this time. Some Muslim or African musicians changed their names, others changed the way they dressed, or adopted specific ideas in musical training from Africa…
I.M: >Right. I think that’s a very important cultural phenomenon. It’s not just the names. There are people who have tracked everybody’s adoption of Muslim names and whether they were part of the Amadea movement or Sunni. I think all of that stuff is extremely important as a sign of having a different kind of identity and an embrace of a sense of an African connection.
There are also a lot of other signs in terms of the changing styles of the way people dress and hair. Abbey Lincoln was a true pioneer when she had her hair go natural, very early, around 1960 or so, and Nina Simone also. They were teased and criticized by many people within the African-American community itself that hadn’t accepted a more natural look with the hair. Abbey Lincoln cuts her hair very short, very close cropped and doesn’t straighten it. Here was this woman, who was really glamorous and was in Marilyn Monroe’s dress on the cover of Ebony in 1956. And she’s cutting her hair all off. Somebody wrote into DownBeat thinking that she was just trying to make herself ugly. This was a critique that particularly accompanied women trying to change their looks at that time. With this in mind, it’s interesting that in the early 1960s, one of the ways the African influence comes in is you see people having fashion shows of African clothing. So you get people wearing African print stuff, dashikis, beginning to wear clothing that they feel identifies their self-identity and their pride in being African American. To a certain extent, wearing African style Islamic skullcaps becomes a sign and a marker. So compared to the ’50s when you’ve got Miles Davis and his fancy suits, all dressed up, you then start to get a more casual look. People are presenting themselves on stage in a way that makes use of clothing and things. With the AACM you have people using and making use of African instruments and incorporating them into the musical texture in a way that marks the sense that “We know we are part of this larger pan-African world and we are proud of it.”
There becomes a fascination with Africa at a time in which there’s not a lot of great information about Africa, its culture and its music available to people. People study what’s there. For instance, Sun Ra was very interested in Egyptology. So there is interest in ancient Egypt and this African past. You’ve got Art Ensemble with their album where they talk about Bamako and the Promenade. And there were certain publications – Muntu – starting to talk about the phenomenon of the griot, these heriditary musicians. Actually in that region of Africa they are called jelis – griot is the French word for the social community that represents. Griots are male and female, and in fact it was the women that specialized in the singing. Men tended to specialize in instruments or in oratory of the community. So the idea that this was some kind of male brotherhood was not true. I think sometimes you see African-American representations of this tradition as if the archetypal Griot was male. Of course, we all project fantasies and romances onto things with which we identify. You see some discourses wanting to think of all African societies as being very egalitarian and democratic; a version of African socialism taking place in which everybody had the freedom to which people aspired to have here. But in fact there are many, many African societies that are very hierarchical and have different hereditary paths within the groups and things. This wasn’t always emphasized in terms of jazz musicians’ representations of that African influence. Africa became an idea of trying to create a better kind of community than the ones that people were operating in right now. I think the AACM is an amazing organization in that way, in that it was dedicated to creative music. It really tried to create a whole holistic community. It wasn’t just about being a band.