Politically, the United States seems to have entered terra incognita, with a spiraling movement seeking to unravel the nation’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy, a sea change powered by the unprecedented wave of marches, protests, and rallies under the Black Lives Matter banner.
But musically this unsettled, protean moment is set to an enduring refrain. African-American musicians have been steadily building a swelling symphony of songs and compositions devoted to the struggle for social justice and human rights for more than a century, and many of the Bay Area’s leading black jazz artists have long put that movement at the center of their music. Even (or especially) when wrapped in a felicitous groove, celebration of ancestral accomplishments in the face of grinding inhumanity are often the text and subtext of Bay Area jazz, and musical responses to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd are part of an unbroken continuum of defiance, sorrow and lovingly tended bliss.
Oakland saxophonist, drummer and soon-to-be-unveiled songwriter Howard Wiley earned a significant spot on the national jazz map with two extraordinary albums based on his deep dive into the mid-century work songs and spirituals documented in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Prison. On 2010’s 12 Gates to the City (Porto Franco) and 2007’s The Angola Project (H.N.I.C. Music) he painted an expansive canvas of spiritual resistance with sacred and secular sounds, an incandescent portrait of resistance to a vicious carceral system.
In the months before the pandemic, Wiley was in the midst of building the new band Black London with fellow East Bay musical activists Kev Choice and Mike Blankenship (pianist/keyboardists who both put in significant stints with Lauryn Hill). Launched with a sold-out January show at Yoshi’s, the project was created to reclaim Oakland’s gentrification-endangered legacy as a creative cauldron for black music. Black London plans to release a single in the coming weeks, but working on his own Wiley is taking a different tack.
Rather than revisiting his Angola Prison music, he’s looking to put the libido back into the liberation movement. “I started writing some songs,” he says. “All these dudes are not playing songs. They’re playing vamps, endless vamps. That’s what you all want? They’re ruining my date night. So I’m doing my first ‘me’ project where I’m playing all the instruments and doing all the singing. I just went in the studio and cut some demos and sent them to L.A. I’m getting my Stevie Wonder and black Billy Joel on.”
When Wiley talks about his music, he always gets back to his formative experiences playing in church. African-American music, which is to say American music, was born out of a fundamental human imperative, the need to commune with the divine. Before ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop, African-American spirituals announced that the young nation was the birthplace of a world-shaking new sound. But the fluid duality of Saturday-night revelry and Sunday-morning ecstasy, of gospel music refrains reemerging as soul music, was present almost from the beginning. Before gospel music patriarch Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey penned the anguished hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” he cowrote and recorded the 1928 smutty hokum hit “It’s Tight Like That” with Tampa Red.
Berkeley vocalist Tiffany Austin, the most acclaimed jazz singer to emerge on the Bay Area scene in the past decade, draws on a huge swath of this seamless continuum. Her second album, 2018’s Unbroken (Con Alma Music), is an extended, stylistically encompassing meditation on the extraordinary resilience of African-American culture. A soul-steeped affirmation that embraces blues and swing, spirituals and R&B, bebop, post-bop, and Austin’s Louisiana Creole heritage, the project feels like a response to the career-confining pressures that vocalist Gregory Porter sings about in his 2013 song “Musical Genocide.” In a pointed connection to unraveling phantasmagoria of the presidency, one of the album’s standout tracks is Austin’s searing song “Greenwood,” which connects Watts and Ferguson to the 1921 pogrom that wiped out Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous “Negro Wall Street” neighborhood.
She was already buckled down and writing new music while sheltering in place when George Floyd’s death rejuvenated the movement for racial justice. She’s also working on arranging vintage songs, nurturing her connections to musical ancestors. “This is not a new issue,” Austin says, noting that she’s been reading Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus’s tender, ribald, and sometimes apocryphal memoir. “Racism is the foundation of the country, and you can find people speaking to this through the whole arc of black music.”
She’s working with San Francisco-reared, Los Angeles-based drummer Jaz Sawyer on a version of Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s civil rights masterpiece We Insist! Freedom Now Suite that Stanford Live plans to present in November with Howard Wiley on tenor sax, Geechi Taylor on trumpet and backing vocals, bassist Marcus Shelby, pianist Tammy Hall, and multi-instrumentalist Ajayi Jackson. Released on Candid, an indie label overseen by founding Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, the 1960 album featured vocals by Abbey Lincoln (the Newport Jazz Festival just posted this performance from 1964), with whom Sawyer toured widely before her death in 2010. She spent her last two decades as a beloved mentor and groundbreaking songwriter, but she paid a steep price for speaking out and championing the civil rights movement.
“As far as my career was concerned, it didn’t do my career any good,” Lincoln told me in a 1993 interview. “I wasn’t offered another recording date here, and I haven’t been offered one here since I did the Freedom Now Suite. I’ve been recording outside the country and my producers today are French. They come here to record me.”
Austin is also featured on Transitions, the latest album by bassist, composer, and bandleader Marcus Shelby. While it includes his suite Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues, the CD is something of a departure after a series of powerful projects illuminating different aspects of black life and history. His transformation from hard-swinging bandleader into deep-diving griot started with 2006’s Port Chicago (Noir Records), a major work for his jazz orchestra inspired by the World War II miscarriage of justice that saw 50 young black seamen convicted in the largest mutiny trial in U.S. naval history after an explosion at the East Bay base. Since then he’s focused his creative energy on a series of programmatic works exploring key historical events and personalities, like 2011’s Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Porto Franco).
But some of his most important work has been ripped from the headlines, serving as a musical foil for playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith throughout the interview-driven creation of Smith's one-woman show about the school-to-prison pipeline, Notes From the Field. He created his own musical response to the experience with 2015’s Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratorio, an extended work inspired by the ongoing collaboration with Smith.
In the coming weeks Living Jazz presents Shelby’s three-part Zoom series exploring the role of black music during freedom movements in the United States. Starting on Thursday, June 25 with “Harriet Tubman and the Blues: Field Shouts, Work Songs, Spirituals, Early Blues,” the classes include discussion, recordings, video clips, and live performance. On July 2 he presents “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Blues: Freedom Songs, Folk Songs, Blues and Swing, R&B.” The class concludes on July 9 with “Beyond the Blues: Ending the Prison Industrial Complex.” At a moment when ideas that once seemed utopian are suddenly up for national debate, Shelby offers a musical roadmap for the path that has brought us to this crossroads.