Alright, this summer has our attention. All this social turbulence—a kind our nation hasn’t witnessed in generations—has a long tradition behind it. Revisiting some of our nation’s most treasured protest songs can help remind us that this fight isn’t new.
This list is a soundtrack of freedom expressed through jazz—Afro-America’s great art form to the United States. They are protest songs. But their forms of protest range from the social to the uniquely personal.
With jazz, we encounter a peculiar and unique American story. The story is sort of a riddle, and it goes like this: how did a formerly enslaved, systematically persecuted group of people maintain their dignity in the face of such degradation and sorrow?
These artists responded to that question with their own grammar of defiance, decency, and even joy.
Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue” (1929)
Armstrong didn’t write “Black and Blue,” but his version is its most iconic. The song’s power rests in its brilliant usages of racial double-entendres:
I’m white inside but, that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face…
This type of wink and nod towards the racial politics of its day fell out of favor a generation later, when a more militant Black generation demanded a franker treatment of racial trauma; calling into question Armstrong’s commitments to the struggle. Ralph Ellison disagreed, using the very same song to spawn one of the most powerful and moving novels about race and selfhood in American history, in “Invisible Man.”
Armstrong’s song begins like an incantation, even before narration alerts us to what’s happening. But ultimately, “Black and Blue” is a song that raises more questions than it attempts to answer:
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin.
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Mahalia Jackson/Duke Ellington, “Come Sunday” (1958)
Recorded for Duke Ellington’s reworking of his groundbreaking and majestic suite “Black, Brown and Beige,” Mahalia’s performance is in many ways the crowning achievement of the entire affair. The fact that this song is now a jazz standard doesn’t take away from the audacity of its dignity and majesty.
“Come Sunday” is two parts a cry for freedom and three parts a study in human defiance in the face of adversity. Channeling freedom in the tradition of the most enduring of Negro spirituals, Mahalia reworks both the gospel and operatic tradition into something both subversive and sublime; delivering the performance of her career—which is saying a lot, given her status as “The Queen of Gospel.”
Abbey Lincoln, “Let Up” (1959)
Abbey Lincoln is the militant voice of jazz. Along with Nina, her entire brilliant catalog is undeniably political. But if Nina’s power was in weaponizing vulnerability, Lincoln’s was in the whip and lash of jazz’s anger, defiance, and ultimately, its great beauty.
“Let Up” is a Lincoln original. On the surface, it reads like a woman fed up with heartache and sorrow. But how Lincoln sings it, the lyrics are transformed into a meditation on American injustices. Are these the yelps of microaggressions? Are these old wounds or variations on new ones? Listen closely, and you’ll hear Lincoln perform one final act of alchemy: of making the personal, political.
Max Roach, “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” (1960)
Max Roach was already a revered, dazzling drummer by 1959, but when he began creating explicitly political music that following year, his work became legendary. In “Triptych,” Roach chose to partner with Abbey Lincoln in delivering one of the most fiery avant-garde performances to express the rage and trauma of racial oppression ever recorded in jazz.
Thematically, the song links the plights of Blacks from the United States’ slavery, with that of South Africa’s apartheid. By the time the suite moves from prayer to protest, Roach’s drumming has whipped Lincoln’s scatting virtuoso into a frenzy—and that’s where the song takes off. In three movements, Lincoln’s emotive scatting attacks, throttle and ultimately overtake Roach’s operatic tom-tom time signatures; letting both artists exorcise ancestral anguish—as well as cementing Lincoln’s status as one of the most haunting voices in the jazz pantheon. Simply stunning.
Nina Simone, “Backlash Blues” (1964)
No grammar of Black freedom is complete without Nina Simone’s voice, though it hasn’t always enjoyed the universal acclaim it does now. When her music became more explicitly political, catapulting her to the militant wing of the Civil Rights Movement, her career suffered; never quite reaching the household status as that of her other Black female contemporaries.
Thankfully, her legacy has endured. “Backlash Blues” is from Simone’s most explicit homage to the Blues. It’s also a protest song of the highest order. Come hell or high water, she demands what her white peers take for granted:
When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige, and brown…
The song is not merely about racism in the abstract sense. This is someone living it, firsthand; snatching dignity in the face of adversity. This is the great talkback to white supremacy, at its boldest, at its bluesiest.
Charles Mingus, “Freedom” (1964)
To encounter the music of Charles Mingus is in many ways to encounter the full range of jazz. All of the great idioms of jazz—from Dixieland to swing to bebop to the avant-garde—are present in Mingus’ compositions, which are noted for their colors, wild, restless experimentations and even, at times, for their strident militancy.
Never one to shy away from social concerns, “Freedom” finds Mingus flexing not only his social justice voice but also his chops in the 12-bar blues. It opens and closes with lyrics that espouse the trickster irony with lyrical disgust. Mingus even chooses to give the climax of the song to Booker Ervin on the tenor saxophone, who gives the grittiest, dirtiest, most down-home bucket-of-blues solo of his career; pointedly prosecuting the case against the United States for justice too long delayed.
John Coltrane, “Alabama” (1964)
There isn’t a song quite like “Alabama” in the catalog of John Coltrane. It was one of Coltrane’s rare attempts at addressing, explicitly, the social turmoil affecting his generation.
Beyond words is the great theme “Alabama” would riff on in its execution. A song of great anguish, and incredible beauty and power, “Alabama” is ultimately a lamentation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 that left four adolescent children dead. And the way that Coltrane attacks this act of cowardice by the Ku Klux Klan, judging by the intensity of the track, is arresting. There is even a musical refrain repeated throughout the song—listen carefully and you can make out a hush sense of chatter in the distant background. By the time you catch it, it is erased by the fatigue of the painful melody. Astonishing in its execution.
Nina Simone, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” (1968)
Nina Simone recorded “Why?” three days after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. That Simone and her band chose to perform the song on such short notice—in fact, they learned it that very same evening—lends the track an emotional rawness and intensity that is felt and sincere.
Part eulogy, part jeremiad and always eloquent, eloquent rage, Simone channels the entire grief of a community into a performance that is as disturbing as it is moving. She offers no answers. She extends no olive branch. What the song manages to do is indict a morally perverse nation that would work to tear down its great champion of nonviolence with these final, troubling words:
Folks you’d better stop and think
Everybody knows we’re on the brink
What will happen, now that the King of Love is dead?
Marvin Gaye, “Right On” (1971)
Yes, Marvin Gaye was a soul singer. And his albums were in the tradition of rhythm and blues. But the musicians he used to record his most celebrated masterpiece, “What’s Going On,” were definitely jazz musicians.
What makes a song like “Right On” noteworthy is its insistence on Black dignity within such social strife. It many ways it is the perfect accompaniment to online movements like #BlackExcellence, #BlackBoyJoy, and #BlackGirlMagic that have sought to reclaim joy and self-affirmation as a vehicle against anything that would reduce Black lives down to merely protests and racial struggle. Black love is resilience, too.
Gil Scott-Heron, I’ll Think I’ll Call It Morning (1971)
Scott-Heron’s status in American popular imagination is as large as it is iconic. So is his influence upon Black music. It’s just a pity that his legacy is often reduced to his most recognizable song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a blustering piece of machismo that truthfully has not worn as well as his other brilliant (and diverse) material, later on.
On “I’ll Think I’ll Call It Morning,” Scott-Heron came into his own as a troubled, visionary street-poet. It revealed just how emotionally vulnerable Scott-Heron could be, even during his searing commentary on urban life for Black Americans. Built around a hypnotic melody, the author wills himself a cautious truce of optimism in the midst of such American degradation and sorrow:
Why should I survive on sadness
And tell myself I got to be alone
Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness
Knowing that I’ve got to live on
Yeah I think I’ll call it morning
A beautiful melody that is both moving in its delicacy as it is fraught with the gathering storm outside the window.
Charles Earland, “Leaving This Planet” (1974)
A genuine jazz funk burner, “Leaving This Planet” is Charles Earland’s homage to the tradition of Afro- pessimism: the outrage of social and racial unrest that has plagued the listener so much, that they’ll settle for an outright exodus from the nation, if not planet, itself. Rudy Copeland’s anguished voice loops around Earland’s bright synths and keys; producing an irony that is both seductive and catchy, admitting, “I’m gonna leave this planet/And all of its troubles behind.”
Terry Callier, “Caravan of Love” (2002)
There isn’t a figure quite like Terry Callier in jazz. It’s true, much like Nina Simone (and to a lesser extent, Gil Scott-Heron), Callier defied easy musical categories, preferring to syncretize his musical vision, instead. However, with “Caravan of Love,” taken from his later masterpiece, “Speak Your Peace,” Callier chose to channel his prodigious, prophetic talents into the Isley-Jasper-Isley single; managing to transform it into a social justice-rallying cry. The pervasive sense of ecstatic spirituality and demanding humanism, originally championed by Coltrane’s music, abounds on this very moving, soulful recording, as well. And that same music worldview is present in all of Callier’s music; styling himself as one of Coltrane’s disciples. I can hardly find it fitting to end a freedom set playlist with one of the great healers of jazz.