There is a scene in the 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood” in which the lead character, Tre, shows up at his girlfriend’s house after being randomly harassed by a police officer in the street. He proceeds to slide into an almost comic flail of tears, reiterating over and over that he’s “tired” of the numbing rut of disenfranchisement his life has become. Despite the fact that the scene elicits laughter from many viewers, looking past the theater of the moment reveals one of the truest depictions of black rage ever captured on screen. It is a moment of complete and utter despair, an overwhelming impotence against a systemic disabling of self-worth, and because of the crime’s random nature, an allegory for every black person’s declining self-worth. It is a rage that wants to fight back against despotic injustice but realizes that it does not have the means, a rage casting about its frustration in the winds of despondency, voiceless and burning with the heat that only self-hating embarrassment can inflame. And while this is a scene from a movie, black rage is real, though its triggers come in more varieties than generally credited, triggers found increasingly at the end of actual armaments held by police officers all over the country every day.
This reality was not the dream any of us were told was to come on the heels of civil rights gains. This does not feed the fire of hope that we were told burned in the breast of the American people at large, and black people particularly.
Black people have a profound relationship with America, arguably more profound than even the most patriotic white person in this day and age. It is an ironic and dichotic relationship to its core, constantly deconstructing itself downward, the rewards for such analysis typically paying off only in blood and more frustration, which is saying a lot considering where the relationship started. America is a kingdom built on oppression and murder from day one, and those blueprints masquerading as social contracts remain largely in play. The true irony is that at a time in America’s existence when even the impossible has seemingly come to bear – we elected a black president twice – things are even more distressing for black people than ever before. Even the election of a black president seems more like the ushering out of black relevance than the foundation building of an era of hope. Hope, as it turns out, is a commodity with a sliding scale and the market futures of justice seem close behind. Ask Ferguson. Ask Staten Island. Ask Cleveland. Ask, ask, ask. You will run out of lungs before you run out of places to ask.
Such is the time a project like #BlackLivesMatter finds itself in. Rather, such are the times that create a project like #BlackLivesMatter.
This is a jazz record sans the platter, a digital manifestation of the revolutionary and seemingly prophetic tradition led by artists such as Max Roach (“We Insist! Freedom Now Suite”), Charles Mingus (“Fables of Faubus”) and Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”). As such it bears pointing out that #BlackLivesMatter is not a collection of songs as much as an assemblage of meditations, opportunities provided by two masterful musicians attempting to bridge the distance between knowing and being to step into the heat of a moment, to investigate what lies beyond the headlines and the political talking heads. It is a space that jazz has proven time and time again is best filled with its sophic and sagacious methods. The relationship between the artist and the story the music seeks to convey are inseparable. In short, if it is rote, it is not jazz. Jazz gets a not-wholly invalid bad rap for being beholden to its traditions, when in fact its tradition is change, to always be refracting what is there with what might be. Jazz is an art form ideally realized by passionate and furious people. And when you apply an engine that artistically powerful to the times that we live in - with the right intelligence, heart and skill…well, there can be no lyrics for a session like this, save side hollers and the guttural moans of recognizable fury.
Black rage is real, and in these three pieces - so fully realized and imbued with conversant emotion ranging from fury to hope and beyond - you can feel every angle of the investigations present in not only the music, but the inspirations. #BlackLivesMatter is a not a swing era recapitulation. Lomax and Bayard are not old dudes. They are both hip-hop generation babies, weaned in part on rap music for entertainment and able to witness its unique flavor of social criticism, and as powerfully intellectual musicians are able to dissect what about the form powers its emotive engines. You will hear those lessons, and more: the snatches of historical speeches extracted and displayed, bookending each piece in a tip of the hat to the academic aspect of struggle that must always be present for it to not only instruct, but survive.
In “Part 1: Amerikkka”, there is a bubbling of drums, a symbolic rising of the collective temperature from the litany of troubles known to us all. Six minutes later, “America, the Beautiful” comes in, but it is not the anthem as we know it. This duet gives it the Hendrix treatment: “Sure,” they offer, “we could celebrate, but how could you possibly play this song with a straight face now?” In it is the awakened and ramping fury, as well as the attempt to navigate the cognitive dissonance that is so natural to the American experience it should be mailed with tax refunds. It is music that could not sleep at night if it had to say what makes us comfortable to exist. An anthem should be tradition, but not static. When the times are different, the recital of its anthems should prism through our collective experiences and in turn reflect those changes. Anthems are not just songs; they are avatars of our paradigms. Webster lists among its various definitions of an anthem the following: “a usually rousing popular song that typifies or is identified with a particular subculture, movement, or point of view.” It further associates the word with other terms like “responsively” and “patriotic.” You will do battle with all of these while listening to this piece.
“Part 2: ‘Stop Singin' and Start Swingin’” is a title sampled from the Malcolm X speech that co-leads the song and sounds just like what it is: a cultural exorcism. It is a whupppin’ of a song, all swing and cuts. It is an experiment in sonic brutalism, and you have been warned.
In “Part 3: Black, Beautiful and Powerful’,” Bayard’s saxophone slithers through the words of the most powerful symbol of black rebellion in the world, Martin Luther King, Jr. Their choice of sample here is key: this is not one of the King speeches wherein we all get along. This is King from the gut, the King not so far removed from those black leaders America does not celebrate, the King that knows when and where he is in time, when the word “black” is infused with such hate and negative connotation that it was better to be “colored,” to be unoriginal, to be sub-white. Similarly, the music here is sly, winding and subversive: tongue reed pops, scale wavers, warping squeaks…all of the things you aren’t supposed to do to a saxophone (and a couple you supposedly can’t, but appear here anyway, such is Bayard’s intrepid facility). Yet, in the context of the meditation, handled with the purpose of the times and armed with intention, it digs into the listener, questioning, pleading, cajoling. Shortly after the ten minute mark, Bayard makes his horn wail so convincingly the listener will think a person is crying because, in that moment, someone is.
If audacity has a god this project is an offering to his precepts. From its delirious energy to its free-flowing form to its sampled speeches to its codification as a multimedia experience to the fact that it’s free for any and all who wish to partake, it is the always-heavy lifting of revolutionary work manifest artistically, unapologetic in its mission and uncompromising in its vision. It is what jazz is supposed to do at times like this: wail, call, then answer.
Columbus, Ohio 2015