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Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83

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Kevan Harris finds that you can judge an era by its album covers, thanks to this new book by Soul Jazz Records.

Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83

Freedom Rhythm and Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83
Compiled by Giles Peterson and Stuart Baker
Soul Jazz Records Publishing, 179 pp.

In the early days of African political independence, Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and then President of Ghana, used to tell a story to the crowds in Accra who gathered to catch a glimpse of him. In the 1930s, Nkrumah had received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia. He arrived in D.C. and traveled by bus to Philly to begin his studies. The bus stopped halfway between, in Baltimore, for a break. Nkrumah got out, headed into a diner, and asked for a glass of water. The waiter behind the counter pointed at the spittoon and said he could get his drink from there. Nkrumah went on to teach classes in Greek and African philosophy at Lincoln University, before he headed to the U.K. and began his career as a political activist championing de-colonization and Pan-African unity.

The year that Nkrumah became Prime Minister, in 1957, the US government organized a trip for Louis Armstrong to play a concert in Moscow. This was on the heels of several successful jazz tours of Africa the U.S. had sponsored for artists such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie (along with racially integrated jazz orchestras). After President Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce integration in schools in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education, Armstrong cancelled the trip. Long adored in the public realm for his gentle and unthreatening persona, Armstrong is quoted to have said, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”

The year after Nkrumah became Prime Minster, securing Ghanaian independence, Ornette Coleman released his first album, Something Else!!!!

While jazz is often celebrated as the only sui generis American art form, especially in the hidebound version that ends up in a Ken Burns documentary, we tend to forget that it had quite an internationalist bent. And unlike rock n’ roll, which mostly flowed in one direction from First World countries to the Second and Third, jazz depended much more on ideas and identities from extra-American sources. Why?

After the Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans, the media liked to remind us that jazz has creole origins – a descent and mixture of African and European ancestry. What could be more American than that? But “creole” comes from the Spanish “criollo” and the Portuguese “crioulo,” meaning a black person born in the New World, and pushing the etymology back further one reaches “criar” – “to produce” or “to breed.” Creole culture in pockets of the U.S. South, though it might have been a bit more permissive in its social codes, was by no means egalitarian. How could it have been, when many of the French creoles that populated New Orleans came there having fled the Haitian Revolution as slave-owners themselves? Not to mention that when the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, extended the vote to all white males under his “populist” presidency, the vote was taken away from property-holding blacks. During the most brutal periods of Jim Crow rule in the late 19th and 20th centuries, white southerners were legally allowed to commit acts against blacks that few European colonial powers would have sanctioned in their own African colonies. When a South African pro-segregationist visited the U.S. South in the early 20th century, he described the treatment he saw of African Americans “appalling.”

Understandably, many Americans have been led to believe that what I have just written has little to do with jazz. If they spend a few minutes glancing through Freedom Rhythm and Sound, a compilation of jazz album artwork from the late 1960s and 1970s, they might change their mind. Soul Jazz Records’ first foray into print, Freedom is a pictographic overview of an artistic world that is long overdue.

As George Lewis points out in his social history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), A Power Stronger than Itself (2008), writing and criticism on jazz is “dominated by autobiography … [and tends] to avoid addressing issues of intellectual development, social context, racial conditions or the subjects’ view of culture, history, and philosophy.” Who played the alto solo on “Stolen Moments” in the second set at Birdland in 1961 is the kind of information that jazz writers and collectors seem to fetishize, putting individual players on pedestals, then, later on, often ghost-writing their memoirs. Jazz and improvisational music is supposed to be a collective endeavor, but a corporate and celebrity driven culture will have none of that. We need stars, dammit! This is why, for the last 20 years or so, it has been very difficult to tell the difference between the cover of a bestselling jazz album and bestselling country album – both feature a sexually alluring and clean cut individual who is always smiling.

It used to be different; indeed, it was so different that self-appointed keepers of “official” jazz history worked hard to efface any trace of most of the music seen in Freedom. The AACM members – Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, George Lewis himself – took a harsh view of the standard improvisational approach of “cutting,” where each soloist tries to top the previous one. In fact, what probably seemed the most disconcerting to the jazz nomenklatura of the 1960s – many of whom didn’t mind the “new thing” as long as it was loud and alpha-male – was the powerful use of silence and constraint on many of the records displayed in this collection. Silence requires confidence, and this art exudes confidence in both aesthetic and political forms.

Much of this music was embedded in local black working-class communities, eschewing traditional jazz clubs and creating new autonomous venues, record labels, and allies. The AACM in South Side Chicago, the Black Artists Guild (BAG – Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie) in St. Louis, Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS – Leroi Jones/Amira Baraka) in Harlem, Tribe (Wendell Harrison, Phil Ranelin) in Detroit, and Horace Tapscott’s Underground Musicians Association in Watts are a few of the collectives discussed in sidebars in this collection. (Tapscott’s building in L.A. was shared by the Black Panthers, “with weapons and meetings upstairs, musicians in the basement.”)

The DIY aesthetic went along with the very local politics of creating experimental music, with Sun Ra’s El Saturn Records and 1950s black-owned R&B labels providing the model. Sun Ra kept his politics utopian, the Marcus Garvey of avant-garde jazz. Garvey did organize a Back to Africa cruise line, Black Star, but it failed. Sun Ra had a spaceship built for the movie Space is the Place, which successfully launched, albeit onscreen. Others opted for a more down to earth perspective, and identified with (and participated in) Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements of the day. We must remember that by the late 1960s, the liberal Cold War U.S. consensus (under which Ornette Coleman and a Jackson Pollack cover could come together on Atlantic Records with Free Jazz and the CIA probably thought it worked as anti-Soviet propaganda) had come undone. The assimilationist ethos of the 1950s civil rights movement had been largely replaced by projects to create new black subjectivities outside of the mainstream, which required new identities, myths, histories and art. This meant reclaiming the past and, by doing so, forcing others to confront it. These albums are often militant, but not bitter; optimistic, but not nostalgic; reflexive, but not narcissistic.

It also meant taking control of the means of musical and symbolic production. This was not simply a hodgepodge appropriation of pyramids, ankhs and dashikis, though if you’re in the market, this book has plenty of that too. At its most innovative, thoughtful, and, therefore, threatening to the jazz bought and relaxed to by mainstream America, black experimental music in this period could act like an unwanted détournement – a derailing of the expected modes of behavior that equaled any Fluxus performance. Here is how George Lewis describes a 1968 performance of Joseph Jarman’s Bridge Piece at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall:

    A woman hung aluminum wrapping paper on audience members while a Top 40 station blared on a portable radio. The first night consisted of a live band and a tape of that band, playing simultaneously the same composition. The variation came in the mistakes . . . the musicians made playing the composition. After the notated parts, those spaces where improvisation occurred were different. It sounded like two of the same person playing a solo . . . The audience was given a sack that they would have to put over their heads. They were directed into areas where they would have to sit down or stand up. There were two people walking through the audience with portable radios. There was a juggler . . . and a tumbler who had to tumble over people. The place was super-packed, crowded with strobe lights, smoke, all kinds of stuff happening . . . The following night was complete formal attire. The band was in complete tuxes and you could not get in if you were not formally dressed . . . a lot of people were turned away. That turning away was as much a part of the performance as attendance. The demand for formal conformity . . . turned a lot of people off.

Marginalized, many of these musicians ended up in France, Germany, or North Africa by the early 1970s, while Psychedelic Miles and Herbie’s Headhunters sold millions on Columbia (not that this was a bad thing – after all, ABC-Impulse started putting out Sun Ra records in the early 1970s). Working in college radio in Chicago in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had a chance to meet a few AACM members in person over the years, and none of them were bitter or angry. They were still performing revelatory music to a generally young audience, and unlike most musicians, they probably knew what they were getting into when they started. To its credit, there is a lot of music in Freedom I had no idea existed, much of it leading well into the 1980s, and it deserves wider attention. Hopefully this book – issued by a British record label – will form one part of a small new reclamation of American history, sitting by someone’s stereo (or laptop) instead of on one’s coffee table.

Writing this piece from the periphery of the United States’ world reach[1], I cannot help but read this collection as a book that is anti-Obama, though this is assuredly not the editors’ intention. After all, given what has occurred in the U.S. between January and now, it seems we are experiencing the fastest unraveling of a liberal consensus since the Weimar Republic. In 2008, the Obama campaign was astonishingly able to get 18-24 year olds from around the country to knock on doors in poor neighborhoods, engage strangers in debate, go sleepless nights occupied with political action that many had told them was futile and impossibly naïve (I know, because they constantly were skipping my classes to go to places like Iowa and South Carolina). These individuals have the rare experience of being involved in a social movement that actually wins what it sets out to accomplish.

Did it, though? It was recently reported that Obama’s staff had to get the President “fired up” to take on his critics before his recent address to Congress on health care. The passage from New York Review of Books is telling: “Obama, whose high self-esteem is well known among close observers, had previously assumed that a ‘following,’ a ‘movement,’ would be there without his having to do much to stimulate it.” Frankly, the movement is already gone, so someone should let him down easy. But it was Obama and his technocratic centrism that demobilized it, and the guy’s just too damn charismatic for anyone to admit it.

What if we lived in a world where all that youth energy, filled with utopian visions, knowing that history was on our side, foregoing the established routes of behavior, was directed into something other than the amnesia-inducing process known as an American presidential election? Something more locally and globally minded than simply a re-branded nationalism? Maybe, it would have produced something comparable to the arts, movements and lasting social resonance that underlie this book.

[1.] This review was written from Tehran, Iran, and unfortunately without a copy of George Lewis’ book. Thanks to Kevin Bell at SUNY-Albany for my use of his review of Lewis for quote fodder.

By Kevan Harris

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