Black Liberation Music


November 22, 2020

This episode features black liberation music and is mainly focused on the '60s and '70s; a myriad of definitive musicians are not here. Jazz is black American music par excelence, it has freedom at the core and its musicians have always been activists, not only through their music.

Peace, as Max Roach explained to Abbey Lincoln before the take of the 1960's album We Insist! "is the feeling of relaxed exhaustion after you've done everything you can to assert yourself. You can rest now because you've worked to be free. It's a realistic feeling of peacefulness. You know what you've been through."

Michael Stewart Foley writes about it on the 9th of October 2020 in the Guardian. Fifty years ago this week, all hell broke loose on Dick Cavett’s US talkshow. The host was interviewing the British actor Trevor Howard before a live studio audience in New York, and began by asking him what he missed about New York. When the actor replied: “There’s no more jazz”, the studio exploded in cacophonous sound: a planned protest from the Jazz and People’s Movement. Dozens of men and women, led by Atlantic Records recording star Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whipped out small instruments and police whistles and began to wail so loudly that Cavett ran from the stage, his hands over his ears. For the next hour, the insurgents crowded the stage with protest signs: “Honor American jazz music”, “Hire more black artists on TV”, “Stop the whitewash now”. Five decades later, the problems raised by the activists still haven’t been solved. The Jazz and People’s Movement (JPM) demanded visibility and respect – fair play and fair pay – for black artists on the small screen. Kirk, the movement’s primary founder, drew inspiration from Rev Jesse Jackson’s civil rights action Operation Breadbasket, which aimed “to bring about a fair participation in this country’s economic system by the black community”. For Kirk, a multi-instrumentalist and one of jazz’s foremost historians, the Jazz and People’s Movement marked the culmination of many years of preaching the importance of what he called “black classical music”. Television also angered Kirk because it erased black creatives from national memory by deciding which artists, such as the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, were beamed into American living rooms. Further successful disruptions were made to the Merv Griffin Show and the Tonight Show – when security stopped activists from entering the latter’s studio, Kirk, saxophone in hand, shouted: “Open that door or I’ll blow it down!”.

The Jazz and People’s Movement circulated a list of demands to other network television shows, threatening similar disruptions and boycotts. Following Operation Breadbasket’s model, the activists called for the establishment of a “board of jazz musicians” that would “coordinate production of at least three to four jazz specials per season, designed to educate the public to jazz, R&B, gospel, etc”. Moreover, the movement demanded the regular appearance of black musicians on weekly television talk shows, variety shows and other programmes – not only playing music but, like white artists, as featured interviewees. (...) It seemed like it might work. The protest against the Dick Cavett Show ended only when the producers promised to invite some of the musicians on to the show the following week to talk about their cause. When Freddie Hubbard, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Cyrille and others appeared, the famously cerebral Cavett himself acknowledged his “guilt” for not knowing more about the full range of jazz represented by his guests. (...) The movement hit its high-water mark when the Ed Sullivan Show invited Kirk to bring on an all-star band. Kirk recruited jazz giants Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes, but instead of playing a three-minute version of Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, as promised, Kirk led the band in a six-minute medley of three compositions, the centrepiece of which was Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song. “There has been some progress, but not nearly enough,” says Archie Shepp, the 83-year-old saxophonist, composer and playwright who participated in a number of Jazz and People’s Movement actions. Although some individual black hip-hop artists have obviously been very successful, “comparatively few” jazz artists have received appropriate recognition or reward, he says.

As Alan McGee puts it, Joe McPhees Nation Time was his second release and captured an exact moment when black artists were politically charged with the need for change. Recorded at a 1971 live show at the Vassar college urban centre for black studies (where McPhee was teaching a music course called Revolution in Sound), it demonstrated how much a wild, improvised trip McPhee's head was in at the time: funky, loose and ultimately free. The cover sees McPhee dressed in the black-power uniform of black clothes and shades. Yet instead of posing with a gun, he holds his instrument as a weapon. 38 years later together with Roy Campbell, William Parker and warren Smith, McPhee is still positive in his live Tribute to Albert Ayler, with an Obama Victory Shout Out.

“Culturally, jazz has always existed as what musicologist Scott DeVeaux has previously described as an ‘oppositional discourse’ on at least two levels: as music of an ethnic minority, and as music traditionally resisting commercialism4. The latter is a complicated statement to make; there certainly are many commercial forms of jazz, and jazz has largely thrived and gained popularity within systems of mass market distribution (though in which terms it may have thrived otherwise we cannot know). Despite this, there seems to be an overarching sentiment throughout much of jazz – and particularly free jazz – discourse, that artistic integrity and commercialism are in binary opposition, and that much of a music’s value is attributed to its loyalty towards the former. In addition to this, jazz has long grappled for a sense of identity; its continuous history of assimilation, from its early stages of development to its more modern manifestations, has made it so that it resists classification in a way that few other musical styles do, and has contributed to the widely spread platitude that jazz is a music in which ‘change’ is ‘the only constant’.” Read the whole piece “Improvised Music – an Act of Racial Liberation? by Marithé Van der Aa.

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*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.


  • Mtume Umoja Ensemble

    Invocation (Strata-East) (1972)

  • Mtume Umoja Ensemble

    Sifa (The Prayer) (Strata-East) (1972)

  • Max Roach

    Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace (Candid) (1961)

  • Charles Mingus

    Haitian Fight Song (Prestige) (1972)

  • Roland Kirk

    Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic) (1969)

  • Archie Shepp

    The Cry Of My People (Impulse!) (1973)

  • Archie Shepp Meets Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio

    Big Fred (1999)

  • Philip Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble

    El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Zulu Records) (1968)

  • Sun Ra Quartet Feat. John Gilmore

    When There Is No Sun (1978)

  • Horace Tapscott & The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra

    Lift Every Voice (1979)

  • Sonny Sharrock

    Black Woman (Vortex Records) (1969)

  • Sarah Webster Fabio

    Sweet Songs (Folkways Records) (1976)

  • The Sounds Of Liberation

    Happy Tuesday (Dogtown Records) (1972)

  • Joe McPhee

    Nation Time (CjRecord Productions) (1971)

  • Joe McPhee Roy Campbell William Parker Warren Smith

    Obama Victory Shoutout & Truth Is Marching In (Marge) (2009)

  • Matana Roberts

    Libation For Mr. Brown: Bid Em In... (Constellation) (2011)

Contributed By

Dragoș Rusu & Victor Stutz

Dragoș Rusu is co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

Victor Stutz is a sound adventurer and music selector from Bucharest – currently based in Barcelona - with a background in anthropology.

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