The Pulse of Jazz Grounded in Freedom Movements

John Coltrane at the Half Note in New York, 1965Adam Ritchie/Redferns via Getty

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When it’s said that you can hear the history of freedom movements in John Coltrane’s 1963 “Alabama,” it’s more than metaphor: Coltrane patterned his horn lines after Martin Luther King Jr.’s vocal inflections. He reworked the cadences of King’s speech after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four Black girls, into the song. King’s tone is remade in Coltrane’s rising saxophone solo, Elvin Jones’ crashing cymbals and percussive shots, McCoy Tyner’s rolling block chords, and Jimmy Garrison’s low-register groundswell. This is music that’s rooted in purpose, principle, and memory.

And it’s especially relevant now. Coltrane’s “Alabama” of 1963 is an America of 2020:

It’s far from the only entry in a necessary realm of politically engaged expression. I’ve been returning to a few recordings that, beyond their musical greatness, address this country’s open wounds and long history of racism directly. There are many songs for moments like this—it is never not a moment like this—when you don’t want to read between lines; you want to, or need to, or should hear chants grow and voices rise.

There is “Dred Scott,” the riveting first track on 10 Freedom Summers, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s 2013 recording. The “summers” he chose are those between 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education and 1964’s Civil Rights Act, and each track points to a civil rights theme or event. The music is elegiac, mournful, and mountainous, summiting the heights in sound that this country hasn’t in society. Which might sound like an overly tight frame for the entire jazz canon, but this music hits multiple registers. Smith grew up less than 30 miles away from where Emmett Till was murdered, in Mississippi, in 1955, and sees the signposts. Give it a listen.

Next: Smith again, here with the phenomenally talented, historically informed, and mesmerizing Vijay Iyer. The pianist—a MacArthur grant winner—has Amiri Baraka’s consciousness in his mind and music, and Cecil Taylor’s stature and clout to his name, but Iyer is a force unto himself. Smith and Iyer are joined by bassist Reggie Workman, tabla player Nitin Mitta, and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan:

As a bonus, catch the heavier, sharper thunder of Iyer with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, a recording I’ve been spinning, and spinning, and spinning, as the days blur:

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Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

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Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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