The unfathomable reality of President Trump has exploded citizen activism, collecting unity and outrage across the globe. Resistance against the new administration has also manifested musically. Dave Eggers’ “30 Songs, 30 Days” project, kicked off with indie artists Death Cab for Cutie and Aimee Mann, provided a slew of 30 protest ballads against Trump months even before his first day of term. With song titles like “With Love from Russia” and “Demagogue”, it was easy to see why the Washington Post cheekily touted the site as “a playlist of songs that Donald Trump will hate.” The project quickly ballooned to promise a thousand songs in as many days.
For over a century, artists have used protest to channel collective rage and rally support for civil rights, worker’s rights, environmentalism and more. Indeed, protest music is both an empathizing art form and an empowering oppositional force. One need only utter the words “Get up, stand up”, “I ain’t no fortunate one”, or “Won’t get fooled again”, or perhaps “Fight the power”, “And now you do what they told you”, or “Born in the U.S.A.”, to become stirred by their political messages.
Though protest music is used by artists of all creeds, its core in America is rooted in slavery and its legacy. Dr. Will Boone, a professor of African American music at North Carolina State University who earned a PhD in ethnographic research on contemporary black gospel music and spirit-filled worship, spoke about the topic in his lecture, “Possibility and Protest in African American Roots Music”, at this year’s Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina. He cited spiritual songs used by slaves to send coded messages and coordinate movement on the Underground Railroad as early examples of protest. “If you heard songs with lyrics like ‘follow the drinking gourd’”, he explains, “you knew there would be something happening that night. These kinds of coded messages were actually sent in a very explicit way, giving music a resistive or political dimension.” Protest is intimately tied to the development of music itself; black protest spirituals like “No More Auction Block” set the stage for the development of blues long before music was even recorded.
Jazz artists spread dissent as the genre rose in prominence. In 1929, pianist Fats Waller penned “Black and Blue”, a lamenting tune bemoaning his skin color. Its lyrics, “I’m white inside / Cause I can’t hide, what is on my face” and “My only sin / Is in my skin / What did I do to be so black and blue?” would reach an even larger audience when it was covered by the king of jazz, Louis Armstrong. Several years later, legendary pianist Duke Ellington composed the suite “Black, Brown, and Beige”, calling the ambitious work a “tonal parallel to the history of the American Negro.” Its 1958 recording featured vocalist Mahalia Jackson, who sang to Martin Luther King, Jr. and urged him to tell people about his dream, which he turned into one of the most famous speeches ever given. And no one can forget Billie Holiday’s famous and stirring lynching song “Strange Fruit”.
The tumultuous Civil Rights era is the most familiar period for protest music. The era produced a slew of protest songs: Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and the Beatles’ “Revolution” are just a few of many. The era’s most prominent protest jazz selections come from Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. Roach’s We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite is largely a narrative of the African slave experience that begins with the harrowing slave driver narrative “Driva’ Man”, proceeds through Emancipation with “Freedom Day”, and toward the chaotic catharsis of “Prayer/ Protest/ Peace”. Mingus’ Mingus Ah-Um contains “Fables of Faubus”, an indictment of governor Orval Faubus’ heinous decision to use the National Guard to resist the Supreme Court’s decision to racially integrate public schools. Coltrane’s “Alabama” is a mournful outpouring in the aftermath of the Klan bombing that killed four black girls and injured 22 others at a Birmingham church, just a month after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech.
Jazz protest continues today. In 2014, jazz wunderkind Vijay Iyer released the three-part “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More)” on his album Wiring. New York City’s 2017 Winter Jazzfest featured over 100 acts and centered on social justice, drawing a crowd of over 8,500. And tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has taken his own stand, releasing his sixth album Meditations on Freedom on Inauguration Day.
At just 30 years old, Preminger is a prolific jazz force with eight leader releases and six more as a sideman. His first album Dry Bridge Road earned Debut of the Year in the 2008 Village Voice Critics’ Poll and was named one of the top ten albums of the year in JazzTimes, Stereophile and The Nation. He’s been selected for the Downbeat Critics Poll several times, earning second place last year behind Kamasi Washington, whose three-hour album The Epic earned critical nods even outside the jazz world. In other words, he had stiff competition.
Meditations is Preminger’s third collaboration with Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on double bass and Ian Froman on drums. Preminger got the idea for writing a protest record by talking to photographer Jimmy Katz, who has snapped images of many of jazz’s icons. Preminger says, “I’m a songwriter and a storyteller, and playing saxophone is one way to tell stories. I decided to release it on Inauguration Day to bring attention to various topics that I feel are important as a human being caring for others. I set myself a two-week deadline in what I felt was an insane urgency.”
Meditations on Freedom contains five original compositions about freedoms the saxophonist felt were vanishing: Native American freedom, women’s rights, racial injustice, income inequality, and the planet’s health. The dreamy “Women’s March” begins with swirling saxophone and trumpet, emphasizing the global unity of millions marching together, before bursting into exuberant solos pointing toward a brighter future. “The 99 Percent” has a more lamenting, dizzying quality. The record’s shortest cut, the lead instruments coalesce during its initial passage, holding long notes to create a lagging feeling of inertia. Preminger’s sax then breaks free with the only solo, an uplifting major-key articulation beginning with assured staccato bursts, giving the song a caffeine boost as if illustrating a lone speaker giving voice to the hopeful crowd. The theme briefly returns to close out the song, this time with a renewed sense of energy and optimism.
“Mother Earth” begins as a languid funeral procession, but a groove develops, the song illusorily picking up speed as instruments fill the space. “We Have a Dream” gives Cass a workout while the solo runs flirt around the scales with breezy effortlessness.
Meditations on Freedom also includes several interpretations of classic protest songs, suggesting the ongoing fight for social justice is never over—it merely switches personnel. Among the selections are Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way It Is”, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and George Harrison’s “Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth”. Preminger transforms the melody of “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, about the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, into a syrupy, calming mixture. The tempo never really escalates to the point to which your pulse quickens, and even without the lyrics, Preminger manages to articulate a sense of desolation many felt when the election results were announced. The main riff of “Just the Way it Is” is the only element that ties it to the original, a recognizable point of reference that appears amid the band’s freeform playing.
Though Meditations on Freedom stakes a political claim, the originals and the covers are more relaxed, featuring little of Max Roach’s bombastic kit, none of the excited shouts of Charles Mingus, and just a smidgen of John Coltrane’s free jazz bluster. Instead, Preminger’s strategy on Meditations on Freedom is in enticing listeners through familiar issues that galvanize and divide us.
Trump’s daily disregard for facts is especially abhorrent for artists who strive to elucidate life’s truth in their work. Preminger advises everyone to talk about the issues and engage in protest. “Going to rallies really makes a difference. Call your elected officials and tell them what you want, what you believe is right, and what you’d like for them to change. If you’re an artist, keep sending messages out there.” On a recent tour across Ohio and West Virginia—places that aren’t as blue as his home of New York City—Preminger was struck by the level of civility in conversations with people he met. “People really respond well to good art and positive messages. Talking to people on stage can go a long way, and they can spread the word. If you’re positive, change is going to come.”
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