• Instruments Of Change: Music Of The Freedom Riders, 50 Years Later

    May 4, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sees off a group of Freedom Riders as they board a bus for Jackson, Miss., on May 24, 1961. (Image Credit: Paul Schutzer/Life)

    Exactly 50 years ago today, 13 "Freedom Riders" — seven black and six white — rode public buses into the Deep South. Their mission: to test a brand-new federal law prohibiting segregation in public bus terminals.

    When the riders reached Alabama, the center for racial havoc and injustice during the modern civil rights era, all hell broke loose. One bus was destroyed by a mob and bomb, almost killing the passengers. The riders in the second bus were beaten by another mob in Birmingham.

    Drummer Art Blakey and many other jazz musicians were acutely aware of what was happening, and their dream of social justice resulted in one of the most creative periods in jazz history. Here, we honor a few of the musicians who wielded their instruments in the pursuit of social harmony and change.

    Music Of The Freedom Riders: 50 Years Later

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      Tears For Johannesburg
      Artist: Max Roach
      Album: We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite
      Song: Tears for Johannesburg

      In August 1960, drummer Max Roach released the Freedom Now Suite, a revolutionary statement in the form of original music. With protest as its main theme, the album tapped into the greater "Pan-African" Black Power moment, when the struggle for blacks at home mirrored the battle for blacks abroad. (Sixteen African nations declared their independence from European rule in 1960.) The suite ends with "Tears for Johannesburg," a tribute to the 69 South Africans murdered during their protest of Apartheid; the tragedy is remembered as the Sharpeville Massacre.

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      Freedom Rider
      Artist: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
      Album: Freedom Rider
      Song: Freedom Rider

      By the time Art Blakey recorded The Freedom Rider, segregation in public bus terminals was outlawed. But the battle had just begun. State and local governments in the South continued to enforce the laws of Jim Crow in spite of the historic Supreme Court ruling Boynton v. Virginia. Hundreds of Freedom Riders, who followed in the brave footsteps of the original 13, were often punished or incarcerated. Blakey's tribute is a solo drum performance of epic proportions.

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      Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm
      Artist: Archie Shepp
      Album: Fire Music
      Song: Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm

      Archie Shepp was a firebrand, on his horn and in his outspokenness. He represented the nationalistic faction of the free jazz movement, much of which was growing impatient with America's broken promises for social justice. Malcolm X's assassination uptown particularly unnerved and upset Shepp and other disillusioned African-Americans in New York. Following Malcolm X's death, Shepp and some of his most trusted, outspoken allies — like poet Amiri Baraka — created the Black Arts Movement, a Harlem-based revolutionary group of musicians, dancers, poets and painters who used art as a weapon for change.

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      Original Faubus Fables
      Artist: Charles Mingus
      Album: Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus
      Song: Original Faubus Fables

      The first version of "Fables of Faubus," from the brilliant Mingus Ah Um recording, is a fake. Although the instrumental performances are magnificent, Columbia Records censored the incendiary call-and-response lyric that makes this piece one of the all-time great protest songs. Luckily, the independent label Candid, run by Nat Hentoff, was able to release the "original" version. Charles Mingus wrote this mocking tribute to Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 prevented the entry of nine African-American teenagers to Little Rock Central High School after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools.

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      Artist: John Coltrane
      Album: Live at Birdland [Bonus Track]
      Song: Alabama

      On Sept. 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four young black girls as they attended Sunday school. John Coltrane's meditation on the murders may have influenced more jazz musicians than any other protest song. The artistic statement was remarkably powerful, especially when issued by a player so devoted to peace.

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