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Night Lights Classic Jazz

We Shall Overcome: Civil-Rights Jazz

There was a strong relationship between jazz and civil rights in 20th-century America, and artists sometimes addressed the cause explicitly in their music.

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Freedom Now

Photo: Album cover art

Stepping up the battle for equality: Max Roach's FREEDOM NOW SUITE, recorded in late 1960, the same year that students began sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the American South.

There was a strong relationship between jazz and civil rights in 20th-century America; musicians and many critics as well were advocates for equal rights for African-Americans, and jazz provided a cultural bridge between blacks and whites that helped to work as a force for integration. In the post-World War II era black musicians began to speak up, directly and indirectly, against racial injustice, and they also began to record works with titles or lyrics that referred explicitly to the struggle for equality.

This program includes music from Nina Simone (her take on the legendary anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”), Sonny Rollins (his instrumental version of “The House I Live In,” first sung by Frank Sinatra in 1945, and co-written by Abel Meeropol, who also wrote “Strange Fruit”), John Coltrane (a live and complete performance of “Alabama” taken from Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual TV show), and Max Roach’s powerful “Prayer/Protest/Peace” from the 1960 album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.

Watch Roach and Abbey Lincoln perform part of the Suite:

Watch John Coltrane’s performance of “Alabama” on Jazz Casual:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8j_TDoOPnIA

UPDATE: Nat Hentoff recently weighed in on the relationship between jazz and civil-rights. Also check out the box-set Let Freedom Ring, a new three-CD overview of civil-rights music.

Music Heard On This Episode

Malcolm, Malcolm--Semper Malcolm
Archie Shepp — Fire Music (Impulse, 1965)
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Malcolm, Malcolm--Semper Malcolm
Archie Shepp — Fire Music (Impulse, 1965)
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Strange Fruit
Nina Simone — Pastel Blues (Philips, 1965)
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The House I Live In
Sonny Rollins — Sonny Boy (Prestige, 1956)

Notes: Co-written by Abel Meeropol (author of

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Original Faubus Fables
Charles Mingus — Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960)

Notes: Vocal version of piece originally recorded as an instrumental for Columbia Records. With Eric Dolphy on alto sax.

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Exodus
Slide Hampton — Exodus (Universal France, 1962)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace
Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln — We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960)
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Alabama
John Coltrane — Jazz Casual (VHS) (Rhino, 1963)

Notes: Live broadcast from Ralph Gleason's Dec. 7, 1963

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We Shall Overcome
Charlie Haden/Hank Jones — Steal Away (Verve, 1995)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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