“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Preface to the 1st Berliner Jazztage, 1964

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the foreword of the first annual Berliner Jazztage program book in 1964, he planted seeds of awareness of jazz’s power to address multiple social injustices, particularly those affecting black Americans. Dr. King’s lyrical invocation encouraged festivalgoers, relishing the performances of Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, George Russell and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to acknowledge their humanity and to see their value beyond entertainment.

The United States grappled, oftentimes with violent resistance, to do such aforementioned things regarding black Americans in the mid-1960s. King’s preface arrived a year after his messianic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington political rally, which advocated for economic and civic rights, and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also preceded the “Selma to Montgomery” marches in Alabama, which – despite such horrific episodes as Bloody Sunday – led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

March on Washington, 28. August 1963 mit Martin Luther King, Jr. © Wikimedia Commons

Jazz musicians like Max Roach, Nina Simone, Billy Taylor, Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins recognized the socio-political power of their voices and then contributed to the soundtrack of the mid-1950s’ and 1960s’ civil rights movement with such soul-stirring songs like “Mississippi Goddam”, “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”.

Five decades later, the struggle of black America continues. And while other genres such as hip-hop, rock and R&B have surpassed jazz’s popularity in the U.S. and abroad, undaunted jazz artists such as pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Matana Roberts, and trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott and Terence Blanchard refuse to suppress their frustrations and perspectives on race issues and other social ills. These musicians and others are contributing to the evolving soundtrack of a new early 21st century movement – #BlackLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter: Proteste im November 2014 in New York © CC-BY SA 2.0 – Foto: The All-Nite Images

The #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Alicia Garza, a special projects director for the New York City-based National Domestic Workers Alliance, Patrisse Cullors, director of Los Angeles-based Dignity and Power Now, and Opal Tometi, executive director of the Oakland, California-based Black Alliance for Just Immigration, ignited this movement first as a social media hashtag, after the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a vigilante, charged with the second-degree murder by shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American in Sanford, Florida. But #BlackLivesMatter didn’t gain worldwide attention until August 2014, when the town of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in massive protest and civic disorder after Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white policeman, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, who had stolen a pack of cigarillos. Several months later in November 2014, a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict Wilson on murder charges.

Similar incidents involving the police and unarmed black people such as John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, and Sandra Bland occurred with merciless frequency. Conversely , the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum while formalizing its fight against the aggressive criminalization of blacks, demands for police and prison reform and accountability of police officers who are needlessly killing citizens. The movement also calls for the U.S. federal government to discontinue supplying military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement and for the decrease of funding for police law enforcement bodies in favor of reinvesting that money in impoverished communities to improve housing, jobs and schools.

#BlackLivesMatter positions itself as a grassroots, nonpartisan, decentralized movement with 26 chapters and affiliate organizations worldwide. Through strategic acts of political intervention, first at local community level but more recently on national stages, where some members have disrupted campaign speeches of early electoral hopefuls competing for the Democratic Party nomination in the United States 2016 presidential race, such as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Robert O’Malley , the movement seeks to ensure that its socio-political concerns become unavoidable platform issues.
The long-simmering exasperation and urgency fueling #BlackLivesMatter are deftly conveyed in the movement’s rallying cry. Unlike previous epigrams such as “I Have a Dream” or “The Audacity of Hope”, “Black Lives Matter” is unapologetically terse; it means exactly what it says. It’s as unflinching as the title of Max Roach’s 1960 classic LP, “We Insist!”

#BlackLivesMatter: Proteste am 2. Januar 2015 in New York © CC-BY SA 2.0 – Foto: The All-Nite Images

Reflections in Jazz

The same fire that energizes the #BlackLivesMatter movement seethes through recent jazz compositions such as Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Rollcall for Those Absent”. The former appears on his 2011 disc, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening”; it’s a jazz spoken-word excursion, powered by drummer Justin Brown’s lacerating polyrhythms that evoke gunfire and physical battery. Instead of playing trumpet, Akinmusire intones phrases such as “I am you,” “Don’t shoot,” and “We are the same” – all of which echo the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant II, a 22-year-old unarmed black man, shot by Johannes Mehserle of the Bay Area Rapid Transport police in Oakland, California, after being detained with a group of friends at a subway stop. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but not of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

“Rollcall for Those Absent” appears on Akinmusire’s most recent 2014 disc, “the imagined savior is far easier to paint”. Equally sobering, the composition is another spoken-word piece, this time featuring Muna Blake, a young girl, reciting the names of fallen individuals who died at the hands of the police, while Akinmusire and Sam Harris underscore her innocent-sounding voice with sustained, melancholy keyboard chords.

Compositions like the two aforementioned and others such as “M.I.S.T.A.G. (My Inappropriate Soundtrack to a Genocide)” and “Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child (Cyntoia Brown)” lace Akinmusire’s potent discography. As an artist, he sees it as his duty to create works that speak to socio-political upheaval. “I wish that I had the luxury or the willpower that it takes to be a complete humanitarian on some post-racial type thing. But unfortunately, the things that I experience everyday don’t allow that type of luxury,” Akinmusire, who grew up in Oakland, explains. “So I’m forced to create from the perspective of a young, African-American man, who lives in major cities in America. That’s a very specific and particular thing.”

„The most vital contemporary music searches for ways to articulate new responses to the dramas of social change. Technological shifts and upheavals in how to make, how to show, how to hear with clarity, how to remember, how to move around, how to maintain poise in a world gone crazy with commercial and informational delirium.”
David Toop in „Haunted Weather – Music, Silence and Memory“

Coincidentally, pianist Robert Glasper’s newest disc, “Covered”, contains a song, “I’m Dying of Thirst” that mirrors Akinmusire’s “Rollcall for Those Absent”. A jazz reworking of a Kendrick Lamar hip-hop song, it sounds less severe than the original or Akinmusire’s track. Glasper underscores the music with a lulling melody and a lithe samba rhythm. Still, he contrasts that by having his 6-year-old son, Riley, and a group of friends enumerate the litany of black Americans killed by the police – many of whom were mentioned in “Rollcall for Those Absent”.

Perhaps this year’s jazz statement most potently encapsulating all the rage and restive energy of the #BlackLivesMatter movement came Trojan-horsed in the form of a hip-hop album: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Both Akinmusire and Glasper contributed to the album as well as other jazz or jazz-schooled notables, including the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the singer Bilal, and producers Terrace Martin and Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison). The jazz sensibility of “To Pimp a Butterfly” comes to the fore most audaciously on “For Free? (Interlude)”, a scathing indictment of America’s historic and continuing oppression of blacks, captured in Lamar’s rapid-fire rhymes, which evoke sexual objectification, economic disfranchisement, and pimp culture atop a scything post-hard bop arrangement.

“I think what Kendrick and his camp are doing is exactly what other black artists need to be doing, especially when they have the spotlight on them,” says Akinmusire. “He put his first record out in 2011 then everybody started looking at him. And what does he do? He talks about what’s happening in the black community. That’s right on point.”

Kamasi Washington’s well received three-disc debut, “The Epic”, somehow acts as the perfect Sunday morning church service B-side to “To Pimp a Butterfly”’s Saturday night broil, mostly because of the way Washington’s backdrop orchestrations of vocals and strings, blended with other rousing modal grooves and cathartic tenor saxophone improvisations, remind listeners of the intricate beauty and musical ingenuity of black America. On “The Epic”, Washington deftly reconciles the aspirational music of icons such as Pharaoh Sanders, Horace Tapscott, Mary Lou Williams, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield into a cohesive statement that cries Black Lives Matter without explicitly having to do so.

Other recent jazz compositions containing #BlackLivesMatter sentiments include Blanchard’s soaring “Breathless”, featuring JRei Oliver, the trumpeter’s son, waxing about the aspirations of freedom amidst an oppressive environment, and bassist Marcus Miller’s “I Can’t Breathe,” an entrancing, Afro-jazz electronica funk workout, showcasing Public Enemy’s front man, Chuck D. espousing similar thoughts. Both songs invoke the words uttered by Eric Garner before dying in a chokehold inflicted by the Staten Island policeman Daniel Pantaleo, who was among a phalanx of officers.

On the day of December 3, 2014, when the Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo on murder charges, Matana Roberts channeled her rage in a haunting hour-long, multi-media work piece, “Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter”, at Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium. Leading a quartet composed of guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer Ches Smith, and bassist Kevin Tkacz, Roberts unraveled lamenting and languid alto saxophone improvisations while also creating cinematic soundscapes using clarinet, loop pedal, tape player and a wind-up timer. Soon after that piece she took part in creating another striking and somber work, “My Death Must Mean Something More: Justice for Eric Garner and Michael Brown”, organized by the bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and featuring the poet Staceyann Chin, and the DJ Jahi Sundance Lake.

The gruesome April 2015 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered spinal-cord injuries while in the custody of Baltimore, Maryland, police, informs the Glasper-produced makeover of the Randy Newman song “Baltimore”, featuring R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan, on the album “Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone”. For the same set, Glasper also produced a stunning modern jazz take on “Young, Gifted & Black” that showcases Lalah Hathaway’s smoldering vocal and the rapper Common citing the deadly confrontations in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore.

Very similar in emotional tone and theme to Washington’s “The Epic”, “Liberation Over Gangsterism”, an instrumental piece on trumpeter Christian Scott’s 2015 disc, “Stretch Music”, doesn’t directly reference #BlackLivesMatter, but conveys an awareness of troubling urban environments. Scott doesn’t want the title to imply that he’s delivering a message from the mountaintop. “I’m not the sort of person who draws on these linear conclusions that say that part of the reason you see certain bad things in a culture is because it’s a byproduct of things we see on television or at movie theaters or that we hear in songs. But at the end of the day, we do need to be clear about the fact that a lot of the cultural information disseminated to the younger generation worldwide has a very low nutritional value.”

“I grew up in New Orleans in the Ninth Ward, where most people who have been there could argue that it’s basically a third-world country,” Scott continues. “Because of that, I’ve seen how, based upon circumstance and misallocation of resources, and being ineligible for certain resources, a lot of people are forced into a way of life that they wouldn’t necessarily choose if they knew that they had options. It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Maximizing artistic platforms has become a recurring theme among the jazz artists who are dealing with the challenges and motivations of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Some see no other choice, even with the possible threat of being disenfranchised by the mainstream media and music industry. Those concerns aren’t without context, given that icons such as Roach, Simone, Rollins, Abby Lincoln and Billie Holiday were sometimes forced to pay a heavy price for some of their outspokenness. And it would be foolish to ignore the uncertain state of the current music industry, particularly in the jazz sector. “A lot of artists are in survival mode,” Ambrose Akinmusire observes: “That mode doesn’t always produce what I consider to be the best high-level art. I don’t know if it’s specific to the jazz community. But I do think artists in general, especially black artists, need to do less talking about themselves and more talking about what’s going on the world. All the artists that I respected did that. But they all paid the price for it. We have to be willing to do that.”

Deutsche Übersetzung in der taz-Beilage vom 17. Oktober 2015 auf unserer Website.

The article has been published in German translation in a supplement to taz. Die Tageszeitung on 17 October 2015. The full publication is available on our website.

The Jazzfest Berlin 2015 takes place from 5 to 8 November 2015. On 8 November 2015, 19:00 Ambrose Akinmusire will perform at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.