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Freedom and Music

February 18, 2021 pm28 12:31 pm

I’ve been thinking about politics and music. I recently saw One Night in Miami (more about that below) which involves Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Gonna Come.” More about that, below.

But I wanted to put a spotlight on an amazing composition by Max Roach – a five part concept piece, from slavery, emancipation, protest, pan-Africanism, and on to apartheid. It’s called “We Insist!” and is subtitled “Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.”

Maybe it’s when I grew up, but avant-garde jazz FEELS liberating. The themes and the themes mesh, work together.

Max Roach, jazz drummer, African-American, born in North Carolina, raised in Brooklyn, innovator, began planning, in 1959, a major piece for 1963, for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But events added urgency, and he rushed it to release in 1960.

Ironic, sad, over 60 years, and how much that needed to happen still needs to happen. They move on from the US to South Africa, as if South Africa was next. But that’s not quite right.

Ronald Reagan obnoxiously called for patience with the apartheid regime, pointing out that just decades earlier the US practiced legal segregation. The comparison was wrong, and his goal was to shield apartheid from sanctions, but almost 40 years later… Which country has made more progress? It’s a close call.

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In One Night in Miami, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke spend the evening in Mohammad Ali’s motel room, the night after his victory over Sonny Liston. (Mohammad Ali had not yet adopted his name, and was still known as Cassius Clay). During the evening the conversation gets sharp. At one point Malcolm X ridicules the music that Sam Cooke makes. Cooke counters that protest music isn’t commercially viable.

One of the ideas in the movie is that each character changes in some way after the conversations. Cassius Clay adopts the name Mohammad Ali. Jim Brown leaves football. Malcolm X breaks with the Nation of Islam. And Sam Cooke sings “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the Ed Sullivan show.

Now, the conversation, even the meeting, is fictional. But the events referred to are real, even if the chronology is a bit off. Sam Cooke sang A Change is Gonna Come on February 7, 1964. The Liston fight was February 25, 1964. That day Ali announced he would be known as Cassius X, rejecting his slave name. (I am having trouble pinning down when he changed from Cassius X to Mohammad Ali). On March 8 Malcolm X broke publicly with the Nation of Islam.

Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about One Night in Miami (though it’s worth seeing. And worth thinking about how hard it would have been to predict the trajectories of these men’s lives after 1964.) I wanted to talk about Sam Cooke deciding to sing a political song.

And while reading about this, I stumbled on We Insist! – thus this post.



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