There was a time when the wailing and gnashing of teeth over social matters was widely
believed to fall entirely within the purview of the young. That is to say, the unformed
personalities who wandered the often bleak corridors of the world hadn't enough experience
as songwriters or, more importantly, the wisdom that living brings to us frail humans to
articulate what was bothering them.
In those days, parents were apt to prefer Lawrence Welk to Count Basie, the Lennon Sisters
to Billie Holiday and the lighter side of Al Hirt to the dark brooding of Miles Davis.
The popular view was that distress among the young made for neither good music nor for
entertainment of any stripe, because the young sounded off without a foundation upon which
to build. Besides, thought the elders, politics and psychology wedded to music have a
taste reminiscent of a toothpaste-and-grapefruit cooler.
Bob Dylan did a lot to change that notion. But he was drawing on the much older tradition
of the topical song as exemplified by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Peter Paul
and Mary, and Odetta. And those forerunners of Dylan went clear back to the mountain
hollers of Appalachia, the southern Delta region, even to the sanctified churches in the
hard-scrabble areas where cotton was king but the gospel choirs rocked the house during
What we have here is beginning to look like a common ancestry with jazz.
Though it has grown into something more sophisticated than a
verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus creature, jazz remains a musical vehicle for
Billie Holiday has, perhaps, the most famous example of jazz topicality in her
standard, "Strange Fruit," a pungent reminder that all was not well in the
social fabric of the southern United States where race relations were concerned. The black
bodies hanging like fruit from southern trees is an image difficult to ignore.
Similarly, that raucous genius of the larger ensemble, Charles Mingus, gave us
"Fables of Faubus," an instrumental dedicated to Orval Faubus, governor of
Arkansas in 1957, who called the National Guard to Little Rock to prevent black students
from entering Central High School, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its
historic desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier.
And Les McCann in 1969 teamed up with Eddie Harris for "Compared To What," an
extended piece that tackles everything from the Vietnam War to unwed mothers to greed to
cowardice. The catalogue of concern in this live recording is so fraught with frustration
that McCann's lyric descends into a nearly inarticulate "godammit" aimed not at
his Swiss audience at Montreux, but at the folks back home
The jazz of anger is not confined to titles and lyrics. The very form accommodates
One of the best examples is the music of John Coltrane, who wrestled the music in every
conceivable way and, like poet Walt Whitman, sounded his "barbaric yawp" above
the rooftops of Manhattan and called into being a new form that exchanged prim delicacy
for blunt directness. Though it took some getting used to, Coltrane's music has become a
standard behind which adventurous musicians march.
Archie Shepp chose Trane as a mentor, followed his lead on tenor and soprano saxophones,
and recorded with him. Shepp carried the musical pennant farther into the unknown
territories of Black Nationalism and worked within ever more revolutionary frameworks --
especially with the short-lived New York Contemporary 5 during the early 1960s -- before
settling into his current status as a kind of survivor of the culture wars. His earlier,
angrier recordings are peppered with spoken soliloquies and asides, in case the listener
fails to get the point.
Listen again to the likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, a pair of iconoclasts who
are worth hearing. Both are capable of delicacy, but each assaults the senses in ways that
force new considerations of the music. It is often about as pleasant as an amputation
without benefit of anesthesia, but it is worth hearing with ears and minds wide open.
There are more examples of this type of experimentation that loosed the arrow of outrage
into the jazz phalanx. Find them yourself and discover the richness of this music of ours.
And let us know here at SkyJazz what you find.