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Monday, February 20, 2017
- Inside a dimly lit restaurant in New York City’s historic Harlem neighbourhood, on an unusually warm night in the middle of February, an audience of 120 people sits spellbound while a forgotten gem is dusted off, polished and presented to the crowd.
One by one, each member of the 15-piece big band arranged at the far end of the room lays down their instruments and begins chanting along with the conductor of their orchestra: “Hey God-damn-it,” their voices reverberate against the walls, literally embodying the urgency of the song, “Things have got to change.”
This piece is the second movement of the nine-part ‘Black Liberation Movement Suite’, an ode to the 1960s Black struggle for emancipation and decolonisation, written by the legendary Cal Massey, an African- American trumpeter and composer who died in 1972 in virtual obscurity despite his massive influence on some of the greatest jazz musicians of the contemporary era, including John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Charlie Parker.
The Suite has travelled a long and brutal road to reach the Red Rooster in Harlem in time for this year’s Black History Month, encountering along the road to recognition every obstacle imaginable thrown up by the largely white jazz industry of the 1940s-1960s.
The latter’s wilful blacklisting and exclusion of Massey’s work from the halls of jazz fame rendered the entire piece unknown to all but “highly knowledgeable jazz scholars and a small coterie of illustrious musicians”, according to the album’s producer Fred Ho, a revolutionary Asian-American composer and baritone saxophone player who conducted the orchestra on Feb. 22 and 26.
In fact, though the Suite was commissioned at the Pan-African Arts Festival in Algiers back in 1969 – when Eldridge Cleaver, an exiled Black Panther, asked Massey to produce the work as a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party’s defence fund for political prisoners – the music has never hitherto been recorded.
“(Jazz) music and the business that surrounds it is not a meritocracy,” the renowned Harlem-based musician and scholar Salim Washington told IPS.
“Most jazz musicians are absolutely anonymous, even those who are amazingly accomplished and creative. There is a star system that allows only a portion of the great players to come through,” he said.
“Of those that are allowed to become financially successful (the mere fraction that they represent), the spoils are given to those who make good copy and who do not offend.
“Cal Massey did not cater to the comfort of white liberals. Add to this a Black Nationalist stance, and you have virtually eliminated any possibility of having a good career in jazz,” Washington said.
It was not until last year, when a small Harlem-based group known as Scientific Soul Sessions (SSS) gathered funds for the album, that Massey’s musical opus was finally archived.
“As a group of radical, revolutionary activists and cultural producers who embrace ecosocialism, matriarchy and self-sufficiency, we (SSS) believe Massey’s work is necessary to rebuilding a 21st century ‘left’ that challenges not only Western capitalist imperialism but also proposes a new way forward by re-appropriating skills and arts alienated from us by a consumer culture,” Ben Barson, a baritone saxophonist in the band and one of the concert’s co-producers, told IPS.
Indeed, the music industry’s cold shoulder forced Massey himself into self-sufficiency; he produced most of his own work and ended up subverting the musical establishment altogether, playing not to packed concert halls filled with bourgeois jazz aficionados but in the Black churches and community centres of Brooklyn, mostly in the Crown Heights neighborhood of his childhood.
Barson told IPS that SSS first encountered Massey’s work through Ho, whose book “Wicked Theory, Naked Practice” contains the most extensive biography ever written about the musician’s life; and then again through Washington, also a member of SSS, who directed the Brooklyn Big Band’s performances of the Suite in April and May of 2010.
The SSS-Massey collaboration, though occurring posthumously for the latter, is of incredible significance, since SSS, like Massey, believe that art is not only a mirror of the political world, but a hammer with which to shape it.
“Massey, like many of the revolutionary artists of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, believed that systemic change necessitated and required a corresponding cultural change, for which artists of all disciplines were essential to creating and implanting,” Ho, a Guggenheim-award winning composer and tireless revolutionary organiser, told IPS.
“As emblematised in (the Suite’s second movement), for African Americans, a revolutionary ‘return to the source’ (Cabral) adoption of a revolutionary neo-pan-Africanist aesthetic was crucial to divesting the shackles of colonialism, especially as it colonises self-identity.
“So the music has a neo-African rhythmic base in 6/8 meter, with an anthemic melody, and an orchestration that employs all aspects of antiphonal characteristics, including soloist-shout chorus (both vocal and instrumental), complex counterpoint as both multiple rhythmic and melodic layering, and an approach to harmonisation that is poly-tonal. Hence both music and its message are insistently revolutionary,” Ho told IPS.
Bhinda Keidel, the only female musician in the band, told IPS, “Though jazz is a male-dominated art form, Fred (Ho) really gave me the opportunity to shine. This is a brilliant piece and it gave me the chance to really get out there and blow,” she said, referring to her soulful solo on tenor saxophone that brought the crowd to its feet.
Though the recording of the album has allowed Massey’s masterpiece to take its place boldly on the shelves beside its brothers and sister, the Suite remains the sole work to feature tributes to some of the most influential – and least celebrated – political figures of the 20th century, including “The Black Saint” for Malcolm X, “The Damned Don’t Cry” for the founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton and “The Peaceful Warrior” for Martin Luther King, Jr.
“This music is other-worldly,” Art Hirahara, the band’s pianist, told IPS. “It contains elements of nearly every other 20th century jazz master, yet it’s a sound I’ve never heard before. Even while being a reduction of the great sounds and composers of the era, it falls on the ear like something completely new.”
“Unlike a lot of would-be revolutionary music that is so self consciously ‘different’ and ‘innovative’ as to sound overly strident, or even worse, contrived or pretentious, Massey’s music is beautiful,” Washington said.
“His music shows us that the artist can honour her duty to portray the beauty of the world and the possibility of humanity while still pointing to the need for revolution and change in all arenas. It is quite a perfect instance of black music with all of its attendant social valences,” he added.
The entire performance appeared to be an experiment in creative adventure and excellence. From the performers’ self-selected costumes to Ho’s irrepressible conducting style, the audience could, for a brief hour, taste the soundscape of a musical era that has been paved over and shackled by corporate labels.