Black power jazz and the cultural shifts of the 70s

A review of ‘Freedom Rhythm & Sound – Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82’, 2 CDs on Soul Jazz Records.

“No America, no jazz”, said jazz legend Art Blakey, “I’ve seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Africa.” His statement would not have raised an eyebrow in 1950s America. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie played the odd benefit gig for the emerging civil rights movement, but by and large race was not an issue in culturally liberal jazz circles.” />

Long dismissed as vulgar, low class entertainment and associated with vaudeville shows, speakeasies and the brothels of the American South, jazz had been successfully purged of its threatening connotations with hypersexuality and ‘blackness’ during the swing age. What had once been the stuff of media-driven moral panics and denounced as “a sensual teasing of the strings of passion” by the likes of Dr Henry Van Dyke[1] had undergone a transformation into the good, clean mainstream dance sound of the 1930s. The beast had been tamed and was no longer perceived as an affront to family values.

In the 1940s -50s, however, John Coltrane and others developed more complex, tonally loose, and self-consciously artistic strands of jazz. The notion of musical ‘genius’ appealed to the bohemian individualism of hipster and beatnik subcultures, but the new bebop and free jazz styles also found an audience with American leftists, who at the time widely regarded rock ’n’ roll as the ultimate in crass commercialism. Art Blakey himself laid some of the groundwork for the sounds of the coming decade when integrating African and other ‘world music’ styles into jazz. It may have seemed to Blakey like open-minded experimentation rather than an ideological statement, but his highly influential album The African beat (1962) was taken as a musical rallying call by angry black Americans.

As the assimilationist civil rights movement faded out, black separatist organisations such as the Nation of Islam gained influence. Towards the end of the decade, black dance music shifted from Motown’s family-friendly sound of young America to more aggressively rhythmic, self-consciously ‘black’ sounding funk. Likewise, many jazz musicians were affected by the emerging ‘black power’ movement and infused their music with notions of ‘Afrocentrism’, cultural revolt and defiant ethnic pride.

Freedom rhythm & sound – revolutionary jazz and the civil rights movement 1963-82 offers a glimpse at those jazz artists whose creativity was, to a considerable extent, driven by the ideas of ‘black power’. Taking Coltrane and Blakey as a starting point, they focussed on those qualities in jazz that, in their perception, made it intrinsically ‘black’ and ‘revolutionary’. African influences were now utilised to agitate for ethnic nationalism, urging American blacks to seek their ‘true roots’ in Africa, the continent that had seen the transportation of millions of slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas. Coltrane and co may have used extreme improvisation and dissonance as expressions of their individualistic freedom, but the new generation appreciated their deconstructive potential. They created an often groundbreaking, often disrespectfully genre-bending, and sometimes alarmingly menacing soundtrack for black power, race riots, and the like – revolution, man.

What Freedom rhythm & sound presents under the ‘revolutionary jazz’ umbrella is an eclectic affair. This is unavoidable partly because it covers an extended time span beginning in 1963 and ending in 1982, when ‘black power’ had long exhausted itself and most jazz radicals had headed for the New York City loft jazz scene. But part of the reason is surely found in the eclecticism of the ‘black power’ movement itself, which included everything from religious black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam, black Marxist organisations focussing on industrial action, such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) through to semi-Maoist adventurists such as the Black Panther Party.

Consequently, spiritually charged gospel chants such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Old time religion rub shoulders with Afro-centric journeys into an idealised past, eg, The Artistic Heritage Ensemble’s The African look. Sometimes the song titles don’t do the musical vision justice: Africa by Oliver Lake/NTU kicks off – predictably enough – with tribal poly-rhythms, but the chaos unleashed by the brass section a few minutes in spells red alert in capital letters. And it would be hard to find a more threatening sounding, ear drum grinding piece of avant-jazz than Gatto Barbieri & Dollar Brand’s mundanely entitled 81st street.

The Stanton Davis Ghetto’s Afrobeat thumper Space-A Nova leans towards Fela Kuti style Nigerian funk rather than anything to do with jazz. Likewise, Archie Shepp’s excellent Attica Blues is a soul number; it was included here because it was originally recorded in response to the 1971 Attica prison riots, sparked off by the killing of Black Panther and Marxist author George Jackson by prison guards in San Quentin jail. Yes, the album contains some real nuggets, including Attica Blues. But rather than documenting the linear evolution of a genre powered by the artists’ revolutionary sentiments, it dips into a cross-style cocktail that is part avant-garde (3/4’s of 4/4 by Amina Claudine Meyers) and part pedestrian (Sun Ra’s 1982 off-peak snoozer Nuclear War with its particularly daft lyrics: “nuclear war, it’s a motherfucker”). In cases such as Ralph Thomas’s Big spliff or Errol Parker’s Street ends, it’s difficult to tell the difference from arguably ‘groovy’, but not exactly revolutionary European soft porn soundtracks of the early 70s.

In his liner notes, Soul Jazz Records’ Stuart Baker appears particularly enthralled by the black radicals’ economic initiative and DIY spirit. Afro-futurist free jazz prodigy Sun Ra is lauded for setting up his own independent label El Saturn Records as early as 1955 – that’s 21 years before the Buzzcocks’ self-released Spiral scratch single. Fascinated by the movement’s courage to work “outside of the music industry mainstream”, Baker points to the countless independent jazz labels improvised during the 60s and 70s.

Add to that the informal distribution networks that dominated the scene – ie selling your own records at gigs – and we inevitably feel invited to draw parallels with the wonderful world of punk. A mainstay in the British media ever since its inception and subject to periodical revivals, punk was a useful training ground for future movers and shakers in the music, media, graphic design and fashion industries. In spite of their radical posturing, the original punks were ultimately capitalist innovators, united only in their contempt of ‘rules’ and ‘herd mentality’.

Can the ‘revolutionary’ jazz movement’s embrace of petty production and ownership also be reduced to maverick entrepreneurial spirit? In truth, it was a question of necessity. While keen to market Woodstock era rock music with counter-cultural slogans of revolution and sticking it to the man, major labels were fairly conservative when it came to jazz. An avant-garde artist who openly embraced ‘black power’ had slim chances of getting snapped up by Warner or EMI like some punk groups were a decade later. While the majors stuck to the two or three already established styles of jazz, independent labels represented much more authentically what black academic Marxist Cedric Robinson once defined as popular culture (“stories about the world and human experience”) as opposed to mass culture (“stories about the world and human experience which are manufactured for the masses by the elites”).[2] However, black separatist ideas were often sufficient motivation to turn one’s back on the corporate music biz and go it alone.

Of all the local scenes and collectives documented on Freedom rhythm & sound, the radical Los Angeles jazz community represented here by Horace Tapscott & the Pan African Peoples Arkestra might be of the greatest interest. That is because its arts umbrella, the Union of Gods Musicians and Artists Ascension, rubbed shoulders with the most arresting element of the black power melting pot, the Black Panther Party. While the UGMAA was a religious, black nationalist collective, the Black Panthers viewed themselves as a Marxist-Leninist party and an alternative to ethnocentric, petty capitalist aspirations.[3]

Nonetheless, both organisations shared the same building: “It was guns upstairs, musicians in the basement”, as Tapscott recalls. Relations were friendly enough for Tapscott to produce Black Panther spokeswoman Elaine Brown’s awesome agit-soul album Seize the time at the UGMAA studio.

His track alongside the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, Peyote song No. III is among the strangest selections on Freedom Rhythm & Sound: an unnerving, dissonant instrumental piece that comes across like a surreal 1970s cop thriller soundtrack – or alternatively, a funkier version of Komeda’s music for Rosemary’s baby as if enjoyed when coming down from LSD.

The recordings contained on Freedom rhythm & sound sold modestly upon their original release. But the aspiration to economic self-determination was inherent to the artists’ vision, unconsciously anticipating something that Angela Davis later cited as an inevitable by-product of black power: the rise of a ‘black bourgeoisie’ and petty-bourgeoisie. [4] Davis’s mentor Herbert Marcuse predicted it as early as 1958. By the early 70s, magazines such as Black enterprise[5] were common fare in the US, and James Brown had no problem capturing the zeitgeist with Say it loud (I’m black and I’m proud) while campaigning for Richard Nixon’s presidency. In the absence of a pronounced class perspective, the focus on ethnic identity ensured that the broadest sections of the black power movement adopted the capitalist model of self-empowerment as their own.

Soul Jazz Records were excited enough about the creativity of the original record sleeves as to dedicate a coffee table book, also entitled Freedom, rhythm & sound, to the cover artwork. The pharaonic imagery found in many of the images further underlines that to many black power advocates, this was a movement against white tyranny only.

The limitations of cultural nationalism also meant that ‘black power’ politics could easily be sucked up, chewed up and spat back out in the shape of left-liberal identity politics. Today, ex-Panthers confine their culture wars to the realms of academia and single-issue campaigns. The US president is black, and multiculturalism – essentially a more ethnically divisive update of the American ‘melting pot’ myth – is celebrated by broad sections of the political and cultural establishments. But despite the existence of a black middle-class, the economic situation of American working class blacks today is far more severe than it was in the 1960s-70s.

The institutionalisation of identity politics into the liberal canon and academia is mirrored in the way jazz, including its radical strands, has been co-opted anew. In 1987, the genre was “designated as a rare and valuable national treasure”, through a bill passed by the US house of representatives. And Stuart Baker of Soul Jazz Records rejoices: “Today, jazz and education often go hand in hand”. Citing government funding and grants for jazz musicians in the US, he concludes that “music in American colleges is widely taught in a way that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago”.

The more avant-garde strands of jazz, meanwhile, have been rebranded as ‘high culture’ and provide food for small talk at snooty soirees, where to namedrop John Coltrane is to demonstrate that one has mastered high-class social interaction. Not for nothing did prodigious avant-garde jazzer John Zorn once greet a festival audience with the words “jazz snobs eat shit”.

There is no doubt, however, that the radical jazz movement produced some wildly innovative and credible music. Its initiative allowed voices to be heard that would have otherwise been given a cold shoulder by the media industries. With its huge collectives, fundraisers and performances in community centres, it breathed a sense of solidarity and rootedness into the communities that was a far cry from punk’s bohemian individualism. Freedom rhythm & sound is at times a hugely enjoyable document of an era when jazz music was powered by a desire to revolt, overthrow and rebuild. It makes one wonder what music, what art, and what culture a future society will give birth to – a society where not just racism, but all oppression is but an ugly memory of the past.


  1. See excerpt from ‘Jazz: a history of America’s music’ here
  2. See 1999 interview with Cedric Robinson here
  3. Often portrayed as a plain black nationalist outfit with Marxist pretensions, the early Black Panther Party viewed itself as being at war with a power structure that happened to be white while rejecting outright racialism. In his programmatic book Seize the time, party co-founder Bobby Seale stated, “In our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small, minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colours must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. So let me emphasize again – we believe our fight is a class struggle and not a race struggle.” However, due to the inevitable overlap with other black power organisations and a rudimentary 10-point programme that failed to extend its immediate demands (full employment, etc) to non-black workers, the Black Panthers subsequently attracted black radicals and nationalists of various ideological shades.
  4. See 1997 interview with Angela Davis here
  5. Founded in 1970, Black enterprise is published monthly until the present day. Its official website can be found here

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