Tag Archive for Brown v. Board of Education

Fables of Little Rock

Fables+of+FaubusIn 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, things weren’t going so well on the school desegregation front in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower was eventually compelled to call in the Army to cross the racist line in the sand in defense of segregated schools that was drawn by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. The struggle that would be immortalized in the history of the civil rights movement as the Little Rock Nine was humming with jazz connections, most specifically Louis Armstrong’s, whose reputation for global goodwill had already earned him the nickname Ambassador Satch, even before the launch of the State Department’s jazz diplomacy program. But when Armstrong, on tour in North Dakota two weeks into the Little Rock standoff, broke completely out of his “happy” character and bared his angry soul to Larry Lubenow, a cub reporter at a Grand Forks newspaper, all goodwill hell broke loose. From a 2007 David Margolick op-ed in The New York Times, marking the 50th anniversary of Little Rock:

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.

Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

Armstrong in fact didn’t make that Soviet tour; his first Jazz Ambassadorial jaunt was in Africa in 1960. Also in 1960, the complete version of the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus” found its way on record on the progressive Candid label, after Columbia rejected the lyrics for 1959’s Mingus Ah Um, on which “Fables of Faubus” appeared only as an instrumental. The Candid candid version, called “Original Faubus Fables,” can be heard here, powerfully supported by documentary footage of the era. Presented in a sort of call-and-response with his drummer, Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ lyrics, as transcribed in Ingrid Monson’s Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa:

Oh, Lord, don’t let them shoot us,
Oh, Lord, don’t let them stab us.
Oh, Lord, don’t let them tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie:
“Governor Faubus!”
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
“He won’t permit us in his integrated schools”
Then he’s a fool.

Boo, Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo, Ku Klux Klan, with your Jim Crow plan

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
“. . . [undecipherable] Thomas, Faubus, Russell, Rockefeller,
Byrd, Eisenhower”

Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eightthey brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-OHello. (p. 183)

“Liberal” Republican oligarch Nelson Rockefeller, incidentally, who had been elected governor of New York in 1958, would turn up again in a Mingus composition in 1975, no lyrics required: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” In much the same way that it might seem sick and ridiculous today that Columbia couldn’t abide an aggressively anti-racist sentiment on a jazz record in 1959, Armstrong’s outburst two years earlier, as Margolick relates, resulted in

calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.

Ten years later, in 1967—a year of rampant rioting in America, most notably in Detroit and Newark—Armstrong, in his more familiar super-optimist’s persona, would record the pie-in-the-sky treacle of “What a Wonderful World.”

 

Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite

Freedom Suite Rollins cover alternateSonny Rollins wouldn’t find himself in the State Department’s jazz diplomacy picture until the comparatively mellow 1970s. In 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education, in the early years of America’s jazz war on the Soviets, a record like Freedom Suite was not the stuff of Jazz Ambassadorship. As A.B. Spellman, who is quoted extensively in Ka-ching regarding U.S. jazz policy, says in an NPR interview, part of a series about building a basic jazz library, Rollins here, in a tenor sax-bass-drums trio, is “trying to make a statement about the freedom of his people and about his own musical freedom as well.” Spellman adds, “It’s one of the very first extended compositions for the tenor saxophone. . . . It is the kind of piece that is so well-composed in its improvisation that you cannot tell where the writing starts and the playing ends.”

Unfortunately, the incongruous reverse side of the record, with interpretations of standards like “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, vitiates the disc’s overall revolutionary import. As Bill Shoemaker notes in The Wire, Freedom Suite

is a protest jazz masterpiece, albeit one relegated to a back seat behind works by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and even John Coltrane by some critics. There are several reasons for this. Despite being inspired by Rollins’ first-hand experience of housing discrimination in New York, it was . . . released before the Civil Rights Movement reached critical mass nationally. Shortly after its release, Rollins famously dropped out, causing the jazz press to scurry around attempting to discover which bridge he practiced on at night. And, most importantly, the sidelong trio performance . . . did not have the militant edge of pieces created just a few years later. Being coupled with a side of politically incorrect waltzes and show tunes arguably dissipated its impact.

Indeed, Rollins’ emphasis on the status quo of jazz standards was brought home, as I note in Ka-ching, when Ornette Coleman made a surprise guest appearance at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, the first time the two had ever shared a stage. This astounding clash of cultures—even though they’re playing a blues, it’s like two worlds colliding—can be heard here.

Yet another world collides with Rollins in David S. Ware‘s version of Freedom Suite, recorded in 2002 and unencumbered by the distractions of other material, even though the CD runs only 40 minutes. Scott Hreha in One Final Note:

Upon realizing that this envisioning of Freedom Suite is twice as long as the original, some potential listeners may assume that the extra padding comes as a result of extensive blowing between the piece’s melodic parameters. However, the opposite couldn’t be truer—Ware has endowed the suite with a beauty of epic proportions that, while it does inject a great degree of musical freedom into Rollins’ conceptual liberation, never relies on aimless meandering to achieve that goal. In fact, the suite’s four movements, added piano and classic sense of interconnectedness recall A Love Supreme as much as Rollins’ original . . .

Shoemaker adds:

Just as Rollins had to rein in his good humor and his propensity to quote corny standards to make a compelling statement, Ware had to be slightly less withering than usual to convey the earthiness of Rollins’ themes. His trademark exultancy prevails, but without turning the materials into scorched earth. Subsequently, he stays true to both Rollins and himself, which is the measure of a healthy sense of tradition.

Though Rollins and Ware are not generally considered overtly “political” artists, protest and exultancy, I contend, are all part of the same healthy—and, one hopes, dangerous—tradition.