I’m sure, like us, you’ve been glued to your screens this week as the 2020 US General Election unfolds in front of the world. The album ‘We Insist!’ (Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) contains 5 movements of revolutionary, avant-garde jazz pulled together by drummer Max Roach and lyricist Oscar Brown.
Released in December 1960, Roach and Brown had begun developing the ideas around this release back in 1959, with a view to performing the finished product 4 years later (1963) for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation (a presidential proclamation and executive order issued made by Abraham Lincoln that changed the legal status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states from enslaved to free).
Despite their original plan to perform at the centennial of the landmark US event, the pair decided it was more important that the album was brought forward in support of the Civil Rights Movement of the time; particularly the student lunch counter sit-ins that began in Greensboro (North Carolina) on the 1st Feb 1960, which also served as the inspiration for the albums artwork (above). Each musical entry was created to uniquely document African American history; moving from slavery; to emancipation; to the contemporary civil-rights struggle and the recognition of African independence.
“A revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. It is unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools—wherever the dignity and potential of men are denied. Youth and idealism are unfurling. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now!”A. Philip Randolph in the albums liner-notes
‘We Insist!’ also addresses Pan-African concerns (read this story for a little context) including the growing African independence movements of the 1950s, when the world witnessed a wave of struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories. With the increasing press coverage of the emerging, newly independent African nations that followed, black students in the south had been particularly aware of the impetus to their own campaigns for freedom given by the African examples, and jazz artists were too becoming increasingly more conscious and prideful of the wave of African emancipation.
Roach and the vocalist Abbey Lincoln perform on all five tracks exclusively, except for a guest appearance by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on ‘Driva Man’. As was the growing trend in the 60s jazz music, it also incorporates avant-garde themes such as removing the piano from the mix completely; jarring, vocal screams (‘Protest’); and moments of razor-sharp collective improvisation (‘Tears for Johannesburg’).
Brown had absolutely no idea about the Freedom Now Suite until he received a postcard from the historian, novelist and music critic, Nat Hentoff, requesting biographical material to be included in the liner notes of the album. Brown was disappointed that the music from their collaboration had been rearranged without his knowledge to serve Roach’s vision. Brown, like a lot of critics and fans at the time, found the screaming included in ‘Triptych’ not to his liking.
‘We Insist!’ was not a commercial success and received mixed reviews from critics. Many praised the album’s ambitious concept, but some found it to be a little too confrontational for their brand of jazz. Nonetheless, Roach vowed after its release that he would never again play music that was not socially relevant.
1960 was the year of the lunch counter sit-ins, the protest against pass laws in South Africa and the admission of 16 African nations to the U.N., it was also the year when the debate over Ornette Coleman and free jazz rippled through the jazz community.
“We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”Roach speaking to Down Beat Magazine
The opportunity to understand the musical qualities of jazz are too often resigned to structurally analysing its musical construction: keys, harmonies, rhythmic patterns, melodic styles, textures, timbres, genres and forms. The Freedom Now Suite’s importance lies in its bullishness to force listeners of the time, and now, to think about how these musical dimensions also simultaneously have symbolic associations that contain a deeper expressive power.
With this album, Roach announced himself as one of the first jazz artists to use the album as a vehicle for addressing racial and political issues. Rejuvenated by this new approach to his work, Roach sought to broaden his scope as a composer by collaborating with choreographers, filmmakers, and Off-Broadway playwrights on a variety of projects, including a stage version of the recording’s.
Now, after more than 40 years after the release of Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, the album sounds fresh, immediate and intensely modern. Its unapologetic desire to combine the social, the political and the musical still reminds us that jazz tradition has always been a conversation with the social and cultural movements going on around it, and is often at its most unique when actively engaged with the themes of its time.