© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Songs of Freedom and Liberation: A Juneteenth Jazz Playlist

 Cover of Max Roach's album 'We Insist'
Cover of Max Roach's album 'We Insist'

The day of June 19, shortened to Juneteenth, marks an important holiday in our country. Widely considered the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth has its origins in the announcement on June 19, 1865, by Union Major General Gordon Granger that the enslaved people in Texas were then freed. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared that all enslaved people would be free, its enforcement depended on the military success of the Union Army during and even after the Civil War. Texas was the last state of the Confederacy to have people in slavery.

Appropriately, in 1980 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday and 48 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, followed suit. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed legislation making it a national holiday, the first holiday to be added to the list of federal holidays since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.

Communities all over the country host festivals and special events celebrating this unique holiday. In recognition of this day celebrating freedom and liberation, we’ve created a jazz playlist of songs with that theme. Trying to stick to that specific theme, we didn't include other iconic songs of protest and suffering, like John Coltrane's "Alabama," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus." In addition, even before the '50s and '60s, jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller were composing music that addressed issues of race and discrimination. That music will be the subject of another playlist.

The selections are listed in chronological order.


Sonny Rollins - The Freedom Suite (Official Audio)

Sonny Rollins
“The Freedom Suite” from Freedom Suite (1958)
The saxophonist was very proud of this particular song, which he still considers the first record in the modern jazz era that reflected the Civil Rights period. Recorded in 1958 with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach, the track took up half the Freedom Suite album and caused some controversy and backlash for Rollins and his producer Orrin Keepnews. “Orrin took a lot of heat for that record,” Rollins explained in a piece for JazzTimes in 2017. “I made a statement [about civil rights on the back cover of] that record, and he even had to say at one time that he wrote the statement, which is ridiculous. But he wanted to record me on his Riverside label, and that was the piece that he had, and he accepted it.”

Rollins took heat too. “I was playing a concert in Virginia, something at a school down there, and I remember being confronted—not in a hostile or violent way, just verbally—about why I made this record, and so on and so forth,” Rollins said. “There were a lot of those [incidences]. It wasn’t a big deal for me, because…I was born into a family that was always very cognizant of those things. And it was also one of these situations where some people talked with me about it and some people didn’t, but it was always there, hanging over everything. Especially at that time; 1958 was pretty early on in the consciousness of the Civil Rights movement. So it wasn’t like something that nobody knew about; it was a controversial record.” Now, we only see the freedom in “The Freedom Suite.”

Max Roach - Freedom Day (Official Audio)

Max Roach
“Freedom Day” from We Insist! (1961)
Rollins’ longtime friend and colleague followed up The Freedom Suite with a concept record of his own even more steeped into issues of race and discrimination. Featuring the iconic photo of sit-in protesters at the Greensboro lunch counter, the We Insist album, subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, featured five sections composed by Roach and singer/lyricist Oscar Brown with guest vocals by Abbey Lincoln. There had been plans to debut the work on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, but it was the recorded work that would have the greatest impact as a musical manifestation of the Civil Rights movement. This track was supposed to live up to its title, but Roach himself told the scholar Ingrid Monson that, “We don’t really understand what it really is to be free. The last sound we did, ‘Freedom Day,’ ended with a question mark.”

Hymn To Freedom

Oscar Peterson
“Hymn to Freedom” from Night Train (1962)
On December 16, 1962, Oscar Peterson was in a studio in Los Angeles recording the Night Train album for Verve, along with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. The trio needed one more song to finish the album and producer Norman Granz suggested they play a blues tune. “Oscar decided that in order to fulfill Norman's wish for something really going back to the roots of the blues, he should write something,” Kelly Peterson, Oscar’s widow, explained to WBGO’s Gary Walker. “He told Ray and Ed, ‘I'll take the first chorus and then I'll let you know when to come in and join me,’ which is what he did. The tape was rolling. Oscar played the first chorus and then he nodded, and Ray and Ed joined him.” Peterson called the composition “Hymn to Freedom” in honor of the work that Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing in the Civil Rights movement. A year later Harriette Hamilton wrote lyrics for the song and it became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Billy Taylor Trio - I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

The Billy Taylor Trio
“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” from I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free (1968)
Although Taylor would be best known for his work as a radio and TV broadcaster, he was a prolific composer and accomplished pianist who was a big part of the development of bebop. He wrote this song for his daughter Kim in 1952 as an instrumental composition. Dick Dallas would later add lyrics and it was Nina Simone’s 1968 cover version that led to the song becoming one of the official anthems of the Civil Rights movement. Although he accomplished so much in his professional life, Taylor was deservedly proud of the song and its impact. Jason Moran, who succeeded Taylor as the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, said that Taylor could express ideas and issues through his music. “He helped always tell the story of Black music in America,” Moran explained. “And he told it from the piano and somehow he was able to distill the language that was always appropriate for expressing the construction and the emotion of the music.” With its gospel feel and uplifting vibe, this song will always be inspirational.

Freedom Is In the Trying

Wynton Marsalis
“Freedom Is in the Trying” from Blood on the Fields (1997)
In this powerful oratorio composed by Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, we hear the story of two Africans, Jesse and Leona, (voiced by Miles Griffith and Cassandra Wilson) who are brought to the U.S. and sold as slaves. The piece captures the brutality of their life on the plantation and significantly their arduous and transformative journey to freedom. Jon Hendricks provides the vocals of a wise man character who counsels Jesse regarding his treatment of women and sense of self-respect. The story is brought to life by the vocals as well as the JALCO which at that time included James Carter, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed, Herlin Riley and other musicians who would go on to successful careers as bandleaders and educators. The recognition of Marsalis’ work broke very important ground. In 1997 the trumpeter and composer became the first jazz musician to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music. A remarkable fact given that composers such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus had not been recognized before that. All but Mingus would later be awarded posthumously with the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Progress, slow and late.

Monty Alexander - Stir It Up

Monty Alexander
“Redemption Song” from Stir It Up (1999)
Bob Marley’s famous composition, which recounts the slave experience and how his people strove to overcome the brutality and bondage, has been covered by many artists over the years. As a native Jamaican, Alexander had plenty of first-hand knowledge of his home country’s trials and tribulations. Raised in Kingston, the pianist was immersed in the reggae music of that city and its environs. This track came from an album featuring the songs of Marley, done in Alexander’s inimitable style enriched by the rhythms of reggae, while also incorporating jazz improvisation.

Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite: V. Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing/Star-Spangled Banner

Rene Marie
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” from Voice of My Beautiful Country (2011)
What’s unique about Marie’s rendition of what is commonly called the Black National Anthem is that the gifted singer songwriter sings the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to the music of the Star Spangled Banner. She first performed it publicly at the mayor’s state of the city event in Denver in 2008 and the resulting controversy led to intense and often personal criticism over her creative choice. She even received death threats. However, Marie didn’t back down from her stance and later put the version as part of a 20-minute that also linked "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful" on her 2011 album Voice of My Beautiful Country.

“The song 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' was created specifically to lift Black people up during Jim Crow,” Marie told me in 2011. “Times were bad for Black folk and singing the National Anthem just didn't do it. You'd be singing it and you'd know it didn't apply to you. I just know that when I sing it that way, everything falls into place. This is from someone who loves singing it and who gets a-flutter. I don't have anything against it [the original song] or its great sentiments, but for the majority of Black people growing up at my age, the 'land of the free' didn't apply to us. But it's just one American's viewpoint."

Liberation over Gangsterism

Chief aTunde Adjuah
“Liberation Over Gangsterism” from Stretch Music (2015)
This cut also featuring flutist Elena Pinderhughes has a beautiful melody that feels like the liberation in its title. in addition, the trumpeter’s name itself is a direct reflection of his disavowal of his born name, which he sees as a slave name. For him, casting off “Christian Scott” and recognizing his African heritage was an important part of his own journey towards liberation.

Christian McBride - Overture / The Movement Revisited (Official Audio)

Christian McBride
“Apotheosis: November 4, 1998” from The Movement Revisited (2020)
Originally created in 1998, McBride’s large musical work looked at the Civil Rights movement through the words of four icons in African-American culture: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. With the help of gospel legend J.D. Steele, McBride composed and arranged music for a big band and gospel choir to accompany the words of these four very different shape-shifters. As compelling and powerful as the subjects themselves, the album offered a vision of hope and redemption, perhaps no better demonstrated than in this composition inspired by a more modern iconic figure. The final composition added the voice of Barack Obama. “What I wound up doing was adding this fifth movement, more like a 4A, like a carry-over from the King movement,” McBride explained. “I thought that that moment—the night of his election—was bigger than him. It seemed to me that his election was an apotheosis of what happened in the 60s and 70s. The title for that is ‘Apotheosis: November 4, 1998.’ It consists of the four voices—Parks, King, X and Ali—reading Obama’s victory speech that night. And that’s how the piece has stood since 1998.”

Jon Batiste - FREEDOM

Jon Batiste
“Freedom” from We Are (2021)
Perhaps it’s fitting that we end this playlist with a song that is relentlessly uplifting and positive. Batiste recorded much of this album during the pandemic and it also reflects his public involvement and leadership with the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City. This track from the multi-Grammy award-winning album We Are was also the subject of an award-winning video. Although the song is about a more personal form of freedom, that of identity and self-expression, the message of liberation remains true.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”