Max Roach’s Freedom Now! Suite: An Early Soundtrack to Black Lives Matter

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The scene is now iconic; four young Black men, students at the Historically Black North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a local Woolworth’s department store. In the aftermath, their actions – in ways that we wouldn’t fully understand for decades – went “viral”, inspiring a generation of young Americans, Black and White, to challenge the racial status quo of the American South. Among those who were paying attention was a North Carolina native son, raised in Brooklyn, named Max Roach.

Months after the so-called Greensboro Sit-In, a staged version appears on the cover of Max Roach’s now classic We Insist – Max Roach’s Freedom Now! Suite. The album stands as an early musical testament to the burgeoning rage, anger and passion that would take the Civil Rights Movement from its early victory in Montgomery in 1955 into a future that would dramatically alter race relations in the United States. And as perhaps fitting, the impetus for Roach’s artist statement came in the aftermath of tragedy.

Roach was barely out of his teens when he began playing with many of the stalwarts of Be-Bop in the mid-1940s, but he came to prominence in a quintet that he fronted with trumpeter Clifford Brown. When Brown was killed in an automobile accident is 1956 at age 24, Roach went into an understandable funk. As Roach told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, "I got really strung out on booze.” Roach’s recovery came via a community of Black artists and activists who embraced him in the city of Chicago, including Maya Angelou, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and most importantly vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who would later become his collaborator and wife. Also, in that community was a young singer-songwriter named Oscar Brown, Jr., who in 1959 begins to collaborate with Roach on what was to be a performance piece that marked the centennial of the signing of Emancipation Proclamation in 1962.

Then February 1, 1960 happened, and events of that day and subsequent others, changed the direction of Roach and Brown’s project, injecting it with a sense of urgency. Speaking with the Boston Globe in 1992, Roach admitted, “We could never finish the piece because we felt the Emancipation Proclamation was all rhetoric.” We Insist! reflects the contradictions that Roach, Brown and others felt at the languid pace of social and political change – anticipating Nina Simone’s chastising on her classic “Mississippi Goddamn” of those naysayers who say “go slow”.

In many ways Roach, Brown and others including Abbey Lincoln, who provides vocals throughout, the legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Booker Little, and Chicago native, trombonist Julian Priester, had little choice but to speak truth to power musically at that time. For example, the Motown label had just incorporated two months after the Greensboro Sit-In, and it would be another four or five years before they had the cultural gravitas to move the needle, and in any event the label founder Berry Gordy was not inclined to do so. The Stax label was still a regional mom-and-pop outfit when recording began on We Insist! in late August of 1960. Even vocalists like Sam Cooke and the aforementioned Simone, who are remembered as “voices” of the movement, were a few years away from the recordings like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “Young, Gifted and Black” which many associate with the Black protest movement of the era. Max Roach el al seemed to be out on a limb.

Yet as noted Jazz critic and writer Nat Hentoff attest in the album’s linear notes “Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and several others declared public support for the sit-ins... Jazzmen too had been becoming conscious and prideful of the African wave of independence.” If the opening tracks “Driva-Man” and “Freedom Day” captured the spirit of Roach and Brown’s original vision, the closing tracks “All Africa” and “Tears for Johannesburg”, written after the Sharpsville Massacre of 1960 brought international attention to South African Apartheid, capture the increasing Global vision of African American artists and activists.

The literal centerpiece of the Freedom Now! Suite was the song "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace" in which Lincoln’s vocals and now iconic screeching was prominently featured. The song, originally intended as a ballet, sonically reproduced both the trauma and possibilities of Black life in an era overridingly defined by protest and threats of violence. As Roach would reflect decades later in the Boston Globe, on the occasion of the beating of motorist Rodney King, “I have pictures of black men hanging from trees, tarred and feathered, barbecued…This kind of thing, I'm afraid, is part of the fabric of this country, and I'm not sure when it's going to stop.”

By the end of the 1960s, the sense of urgency that We Insist – The Freedom Now! Suite emboldened, could be heard throughout American culture in the work of musicians, playwrights, novelist, poets and visual artists alike. Almost 60 years after its recording the vision of resistance that We Insist! conjured is as relevant and needed today as it was then.

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.