Good Morning, Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to the Emancipation Proclamation, 151 years old today. Back in ’63, when the document intended to free all slaves was just a spry 100-year-old memory, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, was conceived as a performance piece to celebrate that centennial. Freedom Now, as it is more commonly known, is credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom, much the way Sonny Rollins and his Freedom Suite of 1958 was the first experiment in liberation sound.
Max Roach was born in rural North Carolina for the record on January 10, 1924 (though by his family’s recollection it was the January 8) and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate, and he spoke and performed frequently for the cause. Roach’s epic recorded suite, with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.
The cover art, rendered in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphically and imagery-wise: Its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, is of course a reference to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen.
Making a link between the oppression of negroes in the US to blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land. Fifty-four years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.
The following clip depicts black power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band (Clifford Jordan, tenor sax; Coleridge Perkinson, piano; Eddie Khan, bass) performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.